HISTORICAL PHOTOS PROVIDED BY THE CARNEGIE LIBRARY FOR LOCAL HISTORY, DENVER PUBLIC LIBRARY SPECIAL COLLECTIONS, GREELEY HISTORY MUSEUM, LONGMONT MUSEUM, AND USGS HISTORICAL MINING PHOTOGRAPHS.
The year 1864 was full of monumental events and circumstances in American history. Most commonly we understand 1864 as the culminating year of the American Civil War. It was the year when Union forces finally broke the back of the Confederacy. It was the year of General Grant’s wilderness campaign in Virginia and General Sherman’s march on Atlanta. It was also the year of President Lincoln’s reelection less than six months before he would become the first American president to be assassinated.
The new Colorado Territory in 1864 must have seemed well removed from these great societal upheavals far to the east. But in nature as well as in history everything is connected. The distraction of the Civil War left the infant territory, crazed with gold fever and inundated with new pioneering settlers, with insufficient direction and leadership. Men like barely literate Colonel John Chivington, who had no business holding positions of influence and leadership, nevertheless rose to prominence within the power vacuum and lawlessness that was Colorado’s frontier.
Gold was discovered in Colorado in 1858, and then the Homestead Act of 1862 gave hordes of primarily white settlers visions of riches and freedoms to be found in the empty West. Except the West was not actually empty when their convoys of horse-covered wagons thundered over the prairies. Various societies of Native Americans had been living and traveling through Colorado’s high plains and mountains for thousands of years.
The Plains Indians relied on the enormous herds of bison for all aspects of their livelihoods: food, shelter, tools, clothing. A single bison herd could be so large that one could not see from one end to another, a heaving sea of undulating fur and thumping hooves on dirt from horizon to horizon.
Native American leaders like Chief Niwot (Left Hand) of the Southern Arapaho understood the tragic mathematics of the situation. His people had already undergone a population collapse. The westward-moving frontier brought an invisible shockwave in the form of infectious diseases that devastated Native populations even before most whites arrived on the scene. With the territory thinned by diseases, the pioneer horde followed, never exhausting, always growing. Masses of gold seekers and homesteaders moved into the area, treaties were broken, land was taken, and the bison the Native Americans depended on were annihilated by the millions — all in a few short years.
By 1864 the Native leaders were losing control of their warriors as the prospect of starvation brought increasing anger and desperation. That year escalating attacks and reprisals erupted between pioneers and Native Americans in what is known today as the Colorado War. This culminated in the Sand Creek Massacre southeast of Denver. There, in late November of 1864, just weeks after the reelection of President Lincoln far to the east, around 200 Arapaho and Cheyenne peoples, mostly children, women, and elderly men, were senselessly slaughtered and mutilated by the ignoramus Chivington and his men. The massacre was carried out with the full support and direction of Colorado’s territorial Governor John Evans who viewed the Native Americans as little more than obstacles in his way to amassing the great fortune that was his life’s goal.
Most of the white settlers who arrived in this ancient land were not part of a powerful elite but were instead opportunists with meager means willing to throw their life’s lot into a new and exciting land. It would be unfair and inaccurate, however, to paint all white settlers with the same brush, either positive or negative. Each settler who came west in search of a better life was an individual human being who brought their own values, dreams, and aspirations with them. As in all societies a full spectrum of behaviors could be observed among the settlers, from the violent and lawless to the altruistic and compassionate. But many of them simply found themselves caught up in the whirlwind of greater forces they had little control over.
The McKissick brothers (Thomas, John, and William) were early settlers in what we now call Colorado’s Carbon Valley. In that fateful year of 1864, the brothers joined the ranks of a militia called the St. Vrain Valley Home Guard. The militia constructed a sod fort near present-day St. Vrain State Park called Fort Junction, so named because it was located near the confluence of Boulder Creek and the St. Vrain River. The purpose of the fort was to defend against real or imagined threats of attack from area Native Americans. In August of 1864 word of an impending attack spread throughout the land. and area settlers congregated in the new fort to await a conflict that never materialized.
Two of the McKissick brothers, John and Thomas, would become early Weld County sheriffs (in 1865 and 1867). By that time, it was becoming known that the land they settled was blessed, not with the yellow metal that brought so many to the area, but with a black rock that would power much of the growing Front Range area for decades to come.
The McKissick coal mine opened in 1872, one of the earliest commercial coal mines in the state. The Carbon Valley brackets the eastern end of a vast coal seam that extends in an arc from the base of the Rockies near Superior, through the coal towns of Louisville, Lafayette, and Erie, and ending in what today we call the Tri-Town area of Frederick, Firestone, and Dacono.
Big growth, small towns
On a map the three towns are stacked one atop the other, Dacono at the bottom in the south, then Frederick in the middle, and Firestone, the largest of the three, capping the northern end. All three towns were officially founded in 1907 or 1908.
Firestone, in the north, is named after Ohioan Jacob H. Firestone who founded the Firestone Coal and Land Company but never resided in the town (or anywhere in Colorado for that matter). Frederick, in the middle, was platted by three sisters who named the town for their father, Frederick A. Clark, who owned the land that became the town. Dacono, in the south, was named by one of its founders, Charles Baum, who used the first two letters of the first names of three women: Daisy, Cora, and Nora (Da-Co-No). Daisy was Baum’s wife, but his relationship to the other two ladies is unconfirmed. It is speculated that they may have been Daisy’s sisters or friends.
Like the town of Louisville to the southwest, many Italian immigrants worked the coal mines of the Carbon Valley. Back then these were small towns built specifically to support the mines. There were five long-standing coal mines in Frederick alone, operating well into the 1940s.
Even in the early 20th century, these three towns were overshadowed by bigger and faster-growing neighbors. To the west and northeast were the colony towns of Longmont and Greeley, and to the south was the growing center of regional commerce, Denver.
There is little in this area to attract large-scale settlement other than resource extraction. Carbon Valley is not actually a valley. This is a flatland as nondescript as any other part of Colorado’s Great Plains. The town centers are near, but not on, the waterways of the St. Vrain River, Boulder Creek, and the South Platte River. While irrigated water could help turn the prairie into crop production, the soil is relatively poor and the climatic conditions somewhat harsh. Here is an open, windy, and stark environment where the lushness of the Rockies is visible to the west but just far enough away to remind of their distance. When the first settlers looked upon this land, few, if any, trees cast shade over the scorching prairie in the summer or provided shelter from wind-driven wintertime storms. These towns came into being for one reason and that reason was coal.
The coal mining history of the Tri-Towns follows a similar pattern to the other coal mining towns to their southwest. A day in the life of a Tri-Town coal miner was tough and dangerous. Miners often dropped down the shafts before sun-up and emerged after sun-down, six days a week, to toil in an unhealthy underworld of lung-damaging coal dust and creaking support timbers. Gruesome accidents like cave-ins, explosions, or runaway two-ton coal carts were a constant menace weighing on the mind of every miner who descended into the darkness with his pick and a lunch pail.
Labor laws, at least in the early days, were virtually non-existent, and worker strikes demanding better pay and conditions were often put down with brutal indifference by both the mining companies and state authorities. For more than a half-century throughout the Northern Colorado Coal Field, from the Marshall Mesa to Firestone, the coal miner and his family were in a constant struggle with a life where his wage was just enough to put food on the table but never enough to bring his family out of poverty and danger.
This was also seasonal work as the coal mines typically operated in winter. Coal miners who swung their picks at black rocks underground in winter often toiled under a hot prairie sun in sugar beet fields in the summer, the cash crop of the time.
The Northern Colorado Coal Field was typically mined within a few hundred feet of the surface, but far below the coal field in western Weld County, underneath thousands of feet of ancient bedrock, is a massive reserve of oil and natural gas. As the coal mining industry declined by the middle of the 20th century, oil and gas extraction accelerated.
In those days the towns of the Carbon Valley were still tiny, isolated communities. Interstate 25 had yet to be constructed, and no one needed to transit through the Tri-Towns to get anywhere else. Oil and gas exploration and extraction was relatively far removed from the views and homes of Front Range citizens who, at the time, typically resided much farther south or west.
The construction of Interstate 25 began to change that situation. In 1958 the first stretch of the new interstate, called the Valley Highway (still a favorite term used by old school traffic reporters), was constructed through Denver. It ran for 11 miles between Evans Avenue in the south and 48th Avenue in the north. More sections were added from there. Next came the stretch through Pueblo, then Colorado Springs. In 1961 the arrow-straight 14-mile section called the “Longmont Area” was completed between Highway 7 to the south and Highway 66 to the north.
This brought the new interstate highway within about two miles to the west of the Tri-Towns and set the stage for the future explosive growth to come. In the early 1960s these towns were still far removed from the encroachment of the Denver metropolitan area to the south or Longmont to the west. It would have been difficult for locals at the time to imagine that within 50 years their small towns would become bedroom communities of a city expanding like an amoeba to envelop them into its vast array of quiet suburbs.
One of the early business establishments that capitalized on the new interstate highway was a biker bar and beer garden opened in 1985 called Jerry D’s, named after its original owner Jerry Denovellis. Jerry D’s achieved local iconic status as a biker stop and local hangout before temporarily closing under new ownership. The restaurant is being revived, however, as new owner Brad Linkus, who also owns IMI Motorsports in Dacono, seeks to restore and re-launch it soon as Jerry D’s 2.0.
The growth boom finally hit the Tri-Towns at the turn of the century, now among the fastest growing communities in Colorado. In 1990 the three towns had a combined population of just over 4,500 residents. Today almost 44,000 people call these towns home with Firestone and Frederick each at over 18,000 and Dacono nearly 7,000. The growth will continue as new housing developments merge with other new developments in Erie to the south and Longmont to the west.
What was once an out-of-the-way location on the way to nowhere is now prime real estate for commuters in all directions. Downtown Denver is a reasonable 25 miles south, a straight shot down I-25, while Longmont is a 12-mile jaunt to the west, and Greeley is a 30-mile, lightly trafficked drive through the prairie to the northeast. While soaring real estate has priced many middle-class buyers out of locations to the south and west, the Tri-Towns has become a haven for those wanting the peace and quiet of the suburbs within an affordable price range.
The new housing developments have brought new controversy as well. Oil and natural gas wells that were once far removed from the backyard grills and trampolines of suburbanites far to the south and west are now located within and near residential areas. The wells did not move nor did the long-standing extraction ownership rights to them — the housing developments moved in around them. Simultaneous to the growth in housing, increased pressure to extract domestic fossil fuels and generally favorable economic conditions to do so created a clash between the interests of new residents and old industry as new fracking operations popped up just when real estate agents planned open houses for the new homes within eyesight and earshot of the fracking rigs. The controversy came to a head tragically in April 2017 when a residential home exploded, taking the lives of two residents. The explosion was caused by leakage from gas lines from a nearby well that were cut during home construction.
These opposing interests continue with relentless growth. Like Erie just to the southwest, the Frederick, Firestone, and Dacono now seek a renewed focus to maintain their small-town identities while managing explosive suburban housing growth. It all hinges on the small downtown districts of each of them. The town of Frederick, for example, recently rebranded its image, choosing the perhaps somewhat vague slogan, “Built on what matters.” And, in Firestone, residents celebrated the town’s centennial in 2009 with the unveiling of its Centennial Clock and time capsule, containing mementos that will be revealed in 2059.
Time marches on as they say, and by 2059 there will have been many more changes and events, some foreseen while others will be surprises. It is likely that, by that time, the entire area will have been swallowed up by the Denver-Boulder-Longmont-Greeley amoeba with suburban houses stretching far and wide, interspersed with the green spaces that will exist only by design. The overtaking of the once vast and windswept prairie by a relentlessly advancing human population will have been mostly complete by then, at least in this area. Perhaps by then the oil and gas extraction will have followed the decline of the coal industry a century before it as we continue a century-plus transition from dirty to clean energy.
But growth in this area is inevitable, and our look back at history can help us focus on how that growth can be managed well, with thoughtfulness and respect for those who came before us and who built these towns on what matters.