The original boundaries of South Denver went from Colorado Blvd to the east, the Platte River to the west, Yale Avenue to the south and Alameda Avenue to the north. Today that area includes some of the most sought-after real estate in the city including Cherry Creek, Country Club, Washington Park, Bonnie Brea, and University Park. But do you know the story behind South Denver?
South Denver formally existed for only eight years from 1886 to 1894, but played a crucial role in the growth and development of the University of Denver and the Denver metro area. DU was originally known as the Colorado Seminary and was founded in 1864 by John Evans. Yes the same namesake as the towering 14ner that looks over Denver. Evans had previously founded Northwestern University in Chicago and wanted to create a college in Denver so future generations would not have to travel back east for a higher education. Colorado Seminary occupied a single building at 14th and Arapahoe approximately where the Denver Center for the Performing Arts currently resides.
In 1880, the school added the name University of Denver as the degree granting institution it is today but soon it was unable to expand to accommodate the growing enrollment. Downtown was also becoming a home to a large number of saloons and brothels, just the type of environment the founders wanted to avoid. Hoping to create a “utopian” educational colony in a sea of vice, the founders sought out a “university park” far from the debauchery of downtown. After considering several offers of land to relocate, the founders decided to accept 150 acres 3 miles south of the Denver city limits. They moved the campus to Rufus “Potato” Clark’s farmland in what was then Arapaho County.
Part of the deal was that streets were to be laid out in a north-south, east-west grid and trees had to be planted along every street. Oh and by the way there was to be NO ALCOHOL in South Denver. Clark was a reformed alcoholic who had found religion and even today some mortgages include the clause that no alcoholic beverage may be consumed on the premises. In addition, South Denver placed a $3500 annual saloon license fee (approximately $75,000 in today’s dollars) to keep the saloons out.
It’s said that jackrabbits and coyotes outnumbered people in South Denver in those days, but in 1887 the Denver Circle Railroad extended a line from Downtown to University Park and the next year ground was broken on the iconic University Park for Chamberlin Observatory. Perhaps the very beginning of Colorado’s connection to space exploration. One advantage of having the Observatory in South Denver was there were no streetlights.
Things moved quickly after that. Although there were only a dozen families living in South Denver at the end of the 19th century they already had the services associated with a true city…water, electricity, municipal services, a trolley line etc. South Denver was still largely farmland growing alfalfa, corn, beets, apples and cherries. Although South Denver residents always wanted to maintain their independence from Denver, the panic of 1893 and plummeting real estate values caused a tax deficit and the eventual annexation by Denver. South Denver was not alone, within a year Denver had swallowed up its neighbors including Highlands, Barnum, Colfax, Globeville, Montclair and Valverde.
Today South Denver is a jewel on the Denver city map with increasing real estate values and a great lifestyle. University of Denver has become a world recognized institution for higher education. And although the liquor laws have relaxed post WWII, they are still the hardest to procure in all of Denver. Chamberlin’s 20” refractor telescope is still the largest of its type in the Rocky Mountain region over a 100 years later.
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