History of Pueblo
Native American groups once settled at the confluence of the Arkansas River and Fountain Creek due to the warm winter climate of the area and its strategic location as a portal to the plains. The Arkansas River was for a long time the northern-most extension of Spain and then Mexico, and was visited by French fur trappers in the 1700s, and a Mormon mission in the 1840s. In 1854, a small settlement on the Northern flank of the river called El Pueblo, settled by a mix of Northern New Mexican and Anglos, was attacked by Ute Indians on Christmas Day. 54 people were massacred and settlement abated for a short time. However, the prime location on two rivers continued to draw settlers, and in 1870 Pueblo became a town under the Colorado Territory. While Pueblo awaited the arrival of the railroad, General Lewis Palmer decided to create and plat a new town on the south side of the Arkansas River. He named the town South Pueblo, and planned placement of his railroad depot there, circumventing local taxes and fees in Pueblo.
Palmer, one of the railroad expansion developers of the western movement, dreamt of a North-South rail access from the U.S. to Mexico. His Town of South Pueblo used names of small Mexican towns to emphasize a Mexican-American connection. Palmer also realized that the west could not be settled without rail. By 1881, Palmer had constructed the first Bessemer furnace south of the Arkansas River. The town of Bessemer was platted in 1886 to house the steel mill workers and businesses, giving Pueblo now four distinct cities. Known for its steel mill, Pueblo also capitalized on its location to function as a regional smelting hub. The Philadelphia Smelter was constructed on what is today called Goat Hill. The Smelter’s position on a small bluff created an imposing industrial visage shadowed only by the steel mill.
Pueblo capitalized on a number of other industries. Budding railroad companies made Pueblo a hub, creating an immense rail yard still located below the bluff along the Arkansas River. North Pueblo was soon home to throngs of railroad workers, while steel mill workers continued to settle Bessemer to the south. East of Fountain Creek was platted as East Pueblo, where a quiet workers’ retreat of modest Victorian cottages was developed for the thousands of smelter workers . A brewery was developed in the 1880s in East Pueblo. Pueblo was seen as a great improvement to East Coast industrial towns, as workers in Pueblo could afford a small cottage and enjoy some breathing room as well as many parks.
By the 1890s, Pueblo was becoming the largest city in Colorado, and upper-class citizens began to look for ways to show their wealth and create items that they believed proper cities should have. Pueblo became “A Prosperous City with a Lasting Legacy,” a moniker that would stick with the city until the 1930s. It became known as the “Pittsburgh of the West” in the late 19th century. Parks were quickly in demand, and in an effort to imitate the Exposition Movement so prominent displayed at the Paris World’s Fair of 1889, North Pueblo constructed Mineral Palace to lure visitors to Pueblo and their North Side housing developments. The Mineral Palace eerily mirrored the extravagant buildings of the Chicago World’s Fair buildings built in 1893. The Palace lacked heat and began to deteriorate within a year. When the silver market crashed, depression affected many Puebloans, and by 1896, Mineral Palace was converted into a city park with winding paths, elaborate plantings and exotic trees. The City Beautiful movement was instrumental in park development across Pueblo and the community now made serious efforts to create a community full of white marble, blonde brick, and evocative Greek and Roman buildings. The “new” (current) Pueblo County Courthouse is the epitome of the Pueblo Beautiful Movement, and still stands at 215 W. 10th Street.
The Victorian building boom of the 1880s and 1890s created neighborhoods of small cottages and many mansion homes across the jurisdiction. The Thatchers, a North Pueblo upper-class family, erected Hillcrest and Rosemount mansions. Rosemount Mansion is now a popular Pueblo museum. South Pueblo erected many other palaces, including the Orman-Adams mansion, hewn from decorative orange sandstone. Nearby, the Stickney house, the Galligan House, the Black House and many other mansions are now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Pueblo constructed many modest cottages next to stately mansions - a reminder of its humble working class heritage.
By the early 1900s, parks were in every neighborhood and workers enjoyed utilizing them for recreation. Created alongside a manmade lake to supply water to the steel mill, Minnequa Park developed as a small scale recreation club and amusement park on steel mill property. A nascent trolley system connected the park with other parts of Pueblo.
The Colorado Fuel and Iron company (C.F. & I.), the largest of Pueblo’s steel mills, was purchased by the Rockefeller family and Jay Gould in 1903. The new owners started a massive program to modernize the plant and improve conditions in the smelter and numerous coal mining town across southern Colorado. C.F. &I. built schools and hospitals throughout the region. However, their progressive modernization had its price, and the company was hemorrhaging money. Italian and Southern Europeans immigrated in waves around 1900, dotting the community with hundreds of benevolent associations and neighborhood grocery stores. Neighborhoods with names like Goat Hill, Peppersauce Bottoms, The Grove, Bojon Town and Eilers forged identities. Race relations were not always ideal, but access to jobs, affordable housing and recreation kept ethnic tensions lower than in other industrialized cities.
Pueblo was the jewel of Colorado until the summer of 1921. In June of that year, heavy rains began to overwhelm mountain reservoirs and swell the Arkansas River. A flood levee had recently been improved and citizens believed themselves safe from all floods. A massive storm unleashed its fury on the area, and the reservoirs along the Arkansas river gave way. Flood alarms went out and people moved to high ground. However, the community’s poorest populations lived on low ground near the railroad, and were decimated as the levees crumbled. Union Avenue, the main businesses district in Pueblo, was under 10 feet of water. Railcars and bloated horses floated past once prosperous storefronts. Exact numbers were not kept, but it is speculated that hundreds were killed. Pueblo’s entire commercial district was wiped out.
The flood was so powerful that it changed the course of the Arkansas River to its present location, nearly a half mile to the south. A small force of Army soldiers came to help clear the debris, staying for 6 months. Pueblo merchants banded together to help recover from their losses. A low-lying steel smelter was washed away in an instant, never to be rebuilt. All the bridges connecting Pueblo’s neighborhoods were gone, too. Out of necessity, Pueblo moved its commerce north to Main Street, which became a neon-lit center of business. However, Union Avenue was largely untouched until the 1980s.
Never one to give up, Pueblo worked itself out of the flood with very little help. In the 1920s, another steel boom began. The entire city filled in with elegantly built craftsman homes for the thousands of steel mill workers. The automobile and trolley connected all neighborhoods. Soon thereafter, however, the Great Depression hit Pueblo hard. Labor and economic problems plagued C.F. & I. throughout the decade. Pueblo received a substantial portion of WPA/ PWA/CWA and other federal assistance funds from the Roosevelt administration. “Make Work” programs constructed a beautiful Day Nursery building and several parks improvements all across the city. Many hand crafted, locally quarried stone walls were constructed throughout the community. These buildings and structures still stand, accenting Pueblo’s streets and parks with a rustic 1930s architecture. The work can especially be seen in Mineral Palace Park and City Park. A photo team recorded every intersection in 1938, leaving Pueblo with an incredible snapshot of the city during the end of the depression.
Having a steel mill meant that when WWII began, Pueblo experienced another boom in the 1940s. This time, migrant New Mexican laborers and Mexican immigrants came to the city to work the mill and associated industries. While Hispanic immigrants had always been a part of Pueblo, they were marginalized and shoved to the fringe neighborhoods until the 1940s and 1950s. The influx of immigrants settled neighborhoods thinned by the depression, especially Pueblo’s east side. Pueblo geared up for war with an Army Air Base and numerous bomber training crews. C.F. & I. cranked out record numbers of munitions. Small minimalist cottages popped up around the city to house the massive influx of workers. The Pueblo Ordinance Depot was constructed east of town, an industry that would go on to employ 3000 people until the 1980s.
It was not until the 1950s that Pueblo hit its zenith. Schools swelled with the baby boom, and aging schools began to be torn down and replaced with “modern” buildings. Fires and careless demolition destroyed a number of the city’s Victorian and City Beautiful buildings downtown. Post War suburbs grew to both the north and south. Because nearly every family owned an automobile in Pueblo, people quickly moved beyond Pueblo’s historic neighborhoods. With this outward migration from the downtown area, the Urban Renewal Authority proposed demolishing all of Union Avenue and downtown due to their neglected state. The plan was closely defeated by the voters, and Main Street continued to thrive until the Pueblo Mall opened in the early 1980s. Taverns proliferated and Pueblo soon boasted more bars than any other city in Colorado. The taverns had numerous functions as social centers, banks, and post-steel mill reprieves. Taverns around town had reserved seats for regular customers, and drinks waiting for them on the bar after their shifts at the mill. One such establishment, Gus’ Place, is now nationally famous for keeping the character of a neighborhood bar since it was opened in 1934, and is now also a local landmark.
The 1960s and 1970s saw good working conditions for the people at the mill but globalization began to stress American steel manufacturers. Latent racial tension also boiled over into a prominent La Raza movement among Hispanic residents in the 1960s and 1970s, creating tensions that have only recently subsided.
The steel crash and recession of 1982 sparked an overnight depression in Pueblo. Unemployment reached 20% and some wondered if the city would become a massive ghost town. Again, refusing to give up, citizens and elected officials worked to reinvent the community and pull out of the economic downturn. Forming the Pueblo Economic Development Corporation, City leaders attracted new industry to town. Realizing that Pueblo had to grow beyond manufacturing and continual boom and bust cycles, Pueblo embarked upon a massive urban revitalization effort. Citizens approved creation of a new downtown district, the Historic Arkansas Riverwalk Project. With the development of the Riverwalk, Pueblo’s downtown started a rapid transformation. New residential and retail development efforts are beginning to pay off, and both Union Avenue and Downtown are quickly coming back to life. Realizing that Pueblo’s roots are in the manufacturing sector, Pueblo is home to several new industries and new technology development. Capitalizing on a New Energy Economy, Pueblo is undergoing a conscious effort to go green. Recent newcomers to Pueblo, Vestas, an internationally-known wind tower manufacturer, opened in 2010, producing 300-foot tall wind towers in the world’s largest facility of its kind. Pueblo’s steel mill, still in operation, is now Colorado’s biggest recycler, re-purposing scrap steel.
Celebrating our diverse cultural heritage, Pueblo now highlights our distinctively unique Mirasol green chiles and amazing Mexican food cuisine. The annual Chile and Frijoles festival is held each year held on the Riverwalk, bringing in over 100,000 visitors to Pueblo. Immediately east of Pueblo, the Saint Charles Mesa boasts some of the finest agricultural land in Colorado, and as such, Pueblo now boasts three farmers markets. At an economic renaissance, Pueblo is home to thriving small businesses. One business in particular, Solar Roast Coffee, has gained Pueblo international attention. With this re-birth of Pueblo’s economy, a flourishing creative arts community has developed in the communities and galleries now grace old grocery stores and mill worker cottages. Unlike Santa Fe and Denver, Pueblo has become an affordable place to live. Pueblo offers tremendous opportunity to recreate and residents enjoy the feel of a small town and the amenities of a large city. Tapping into our community’s can-do attitude, Pueblo has re-invented itself, and is a mecca of industry and arts, serving as the commercial center of Southern Colorado and a gateway to the Southwest.