Colorado’s Capitals

by Sarah Meisch

Colorado City as the capital of Colorado, or Golden? Residents may be surprised to learn that Denver has not always been the capital city of Colorado. In fact, these three cities have each been chosen as the capital throughout Colorado’s state and territorial history—all within the course of seven years.

In 1861, the first Territorial Legislative Assembly (Assembly) of the newly established Colorado Territory was tasked with determining the location of the Colorado territorial capital. Before 1861, Colorado was included in the Kansas Territory, with the territorial capital located in eastern Kansas. The new territorial capital of Colorado was determined that fall during an Assembly meeting on G and Larimer Streets in Denver. The Assembly chose Colorado City, which is today part of Colorado Springs after its voluntary annexation in 1917.

Colorado City was a small settlement, briefly known as El Dorado, created in 1859. It was the first lasting town within the Pikes Peak area. Colorado City was more centrally located than Denver in the Colorado Territory and, at the time, was the main line to Ute Pass, making it an easy supply stop for miners and settlers coming from the central Plains, such as Kansas or Missouri. Alternatively, northern settlers coming from Wyoming and Nebraska traveled through Denver and those coming from the southern states mostly came up through Pueblo. Many investors were interested in the location of Colorado City, which also may have influenced the decision to put the territorial capital there.

The second meeting of the Assembly in Colorado City, in July 1862, would be the first and last legislative session with the town as the capital. The lack of accommodations and facilities made the town a challenging, uncomfortable place for legislators to convene.[1] With no Capitol building or accommodations to create a home base, legislators would ride on horseback to the area and sleep on the ground when they reached Colorado City before meetings with other members of the Assembly. There wasn’t “even paper or pen” for notetaking.[2]

Today, there is a false front log cabin in Colorado Springs that supposedly represents the building where the Assembly convened, but according to historical sources, this site was only a place where legislators informally conversed. Their true meeting locations were the Francisco House for the Senate and Lucy Maggard’s boarding house for the House of Representatives. The working environment, which was sparse and ill-equipped, sparked frustration, and only four days after meeting, the members chose to reconvene in Denver instead. 

The Assembly quickly decided that the next capital should be Golden. Founded in 1859, the City of Golden was the official capital of the Colorado Territory between 1862 and 1867. However, the Assembly met in both Golden and Denver, then known as Denver City, during this time. Denver City, founded in 1858 (named after the Kansas Territorial Governor James Denver), was a more bustling town than Colorado City, while Golden was a manufacturing hub with nearby access to booming mining towns and camps. Golden’s thriving miner-friendly location made it a more comfortable town to convene in than Colorado City had been. 

William Loveland, an influential legislator and local businessman in Golden, offered his store up to the Assembly as a place to meet. He encouraged members “to come to the store to accept new suits of clothes, the ones they were wearing being in bad shape from so much traveling.”[3] The Assembly met in the Loveland Building many times during Golden’s time as capital. However, working without a permanent Capitol building meant that whenever the members wanted to convene, archives and furniture were carted across the Front Range and foothills by wagon to the meeting location. Many in the public and press saw this as a shabby affair, beneath the dignity of an official legislature, and ultimately the Assembly only met in Golden five times, often adjourning to Denver.

For a week in December 1867, while meeting in Golden, the Assembly sparred over where the capital should be, debating between Denver and Golden. The mountain faction, representing miners and anti-Denver sentiment, steadfastly defended Golden as the proper seat of government. In the end, the Denver faction won by a single vote, and the mountain faction suspected bribery, potentially over the railroad interests at stake. Opposition to the capital move to Denver sparked a spirited article war in local newspapers, The Colorado Transcript (Golden) and The Rocky Mountain News (Denver), with The Colorado Transcript hinting that votes for Denver were based on corruption. 

On December 9, 1867, the Assembly officially passed the act making Denver the capital city of the Colorado Territory, with the condition that Denver donate the land where the Capitol building would be built. Three territorial commissioners were appointed to select a site for the Capitol within 60 days of their appointment. The land needed to contain at least ten acres and be given to the Colorado Territory at no cost. Land fitting this description was donated in 1868 by carpenter and ambitious businessman, Henry Cordes Brown, who had originally bought the land for $12.50. However, by 1875, the Capitol had not yet been built and members were still meeting in “rented rooms and warehouses.” When Colorado became a state in 1876, there was no guarantee Denver would remain the capital, and tensions were mounting across the state. It made little sense to build an expensive Capitol building in downtown Denver if the state capital would be located somewhere else. The lack of construction on the land in Capitol Hill made Brown increasingly unsettled, and in 1879 he filed a deed of revocation to reclaim the land. Brown’s legal battle lasted seven years, making its way to the United States Supreme Court in both 1882 and 1886. The Supreme Court ruled for Colorado, and Brown’s bitterness toward the situation led him to later boycott attending the dedication of the building on July 4, 1890. 

It was not until 1881 that Denver, no longer Denver City, was made the official state capital by a statewide referendum. Cities like Colorado Springs, Pueblo, and Canon City were considered, but after over 45,000 votes were counted, Denver received an easy majority of the vote. Construction on the current Capitol building began in 1886, and the Colorado state legislature did not meet in the Capitol until 1895.

So it is that Denver is the last of the territorial capitals in Colorado and the only state capital we have known. Denver grew into a major city, and the Colorado State Capitol has become a symbol of permanency and elegance for Colorado’s legislators and civilians alike.

See also

[1] If the legislators had met in August 1862 instead of July, there would have been adequate lodging for the legislators, according to the Old Colorado Historical Society.

[2] Coel, The Pride of Our People, page 3.

[3] Ibid.