April In Colorado History

"Estes Park and Longs Peak" by Albert Bierstadt
"Estes Park and Longs Peak" by Albert Bierstadt (circa 1876) | Denver Public Library

Colorado historical headlines from the month of April include devastating fires at Cripple Creek and the Marble Mill, a deadly explosion at the Hastings coal mine, the birth of Colorado’s first newspaper, and the adoption of two state symbols.

April 25 - April 29, 1896: Cripple Creek mining town burns

Aftermath of Cripple Creek fire in 1896
Destruction from Cripple Creek fire (1896) | Denver Public Library

Fire broke out at the Central Dance Hall in the red-light district of Cripple Creek on April 25, 1896. It was triggered when a paid dancer and her beau got into a fight and knocked over a kerosene heater. Ferocious flames engulfed the wooden dance hall and spread to the gambling dens and parlor houses around it.

 

With the odds stacked against them, firefighters struggled for hours to extinguish the blaze. Within the first hour, their water supply from fire hydrants ran dry due to low water pressure and small water mains. They tapped into a creek-fed reservoir, but it too ran dry. Unable to douse the raging fire, they turned to demolishing other nearby buildings with explosives to stop the flames from spreading.

 

To their horror, the opposite happened. Due to unknown piles of dynamite and black powder stashed inside the buildings, several unintended explosions were set off.

 

When the fire was finally extinguished several grueling hours later, a quarter of the central business district was turned to cinders, 300 buildings were destroyed, and two lives were lost.

Blowing up the Denver house during Cripple Creek fire of 1896 | Denver Public Library

Disaster struck again three days later, when a hotel cook spilled a bucket of grease on a hot stove. Flames flared up, ignited the grease-soaked wallboards, and spread rapidly through the kitchen until the entire hotel was engulfed. Strong winds carried the flames to nearby buildings, including a grocery store, furniture store, and lumber yard. As the fire chewed through the buildings, it ignited a 700-pound stash of dynamite.

 

Just like the fire that preceded it, firefighters struggled to fight the flames with limited water supply. Residents loaded wagons with their possessions and fled to the outskirts of town. Many set up makeshift tents and watched the fire devour Cripple Creek from the hills above it. Hundreds of buildings in the business district were destroyed, along with 1,000 homes. At least six people perished in the fire and countless others were injured.

 

In the days that followed, trains loaded with food, provisions, and building supplies arrived in Cripple Creek. Residents began rebuilding with bricks instead of wood. Roads were paved and the water supply issues were fixed. Some said the fire was a blessing in disguise, as it wiped out the saloons and brothels that had always fostered crime.

April 24, 1921: Colorado woman sets out to conquer fourteeners

"Estes Park and Longs Peak" by Albert Bierstadt
"Estes Park and Longs Peak" by Albert Bierstadt (circa 1876) | Denver Public Library

Mary Cronin, the first woman to summit all of Colorado’s fourteeners, attended her first recorded hiking trip on April 24, 1921. Her hiking companions were from the Colorado Mountain Club (CMC), a wilderness conservation group in which she had become heavily involved.

 

A spring blizzard caught Cronin and the CMC hikers off guard as they trekked up Clear Creek Canyon toward the Beaver Brook trail. Conditions were treacherous, visibility was near zero, but spirits remained high. Cronin was undeterred in her desire to explore the mountains, and continued hiking with the CMC. Six months later, she summited her first fourteener, Longs Peak.

 

Over the next 13 years Cronin continued climbing fourteeners. The mountains of Colorado kept calling to her, and she aspired to climb them all. At the same time, she expanded her role in the CMC, leading group hikes and serving on the Board of Directors and Membership Committee.

 

In 1934, nearly 15 years after her first hike with the CMC, Cronin tackled the remaining two peaks on her list, Mount Oxford and Mount Belford. Through those accomplishments she earned the official title of the first woman to summit all of Colorado’s fourteeners.

April 23, 1859: Colorado's first newspaper is born

Original Rocky Mountain News building in Colorado (1800s)
Rocky Mountain News (1859) | Denver Public Library

William N. Byers printed Colorado’s first newspaper, the Rocky Mountain News, on April 23, 1859. A rival publication, the Cherry Creek Pioneer, missed being first by just 20 minutes.

 

Untrained in journalism and printing, Byers came to Colorado a year earlier, looking to establish a newspaper to capitalize on the gold rush. Within a week of his arrival, he secured two business partners and purchased a printing press from a struggling paper in Nebraska. It was delivered to Byers on a horse-drawn wagon.

 

Publishing weekly articles focused on gold mining in Colorado, the Rocky Mountain News, also known as “the Rocky,” was an immediate hit. Within its first year of circulation, the paper expanded its headquarters from the attic of Uncle Dick Wooten’s saloon in Denver to a log cabin on Market Street. Further moves occurred as the paper grew in popularity and converted to a daily publication.

 

Competition from other local papers put pressure on Byers to differentiate the Rocky. He realized printing national news, along with local news, would be the best path forward. He lobbied for the establishment of a post office in Denver, and served as postmaster to guarantee himself early access to incoming headlines.

View of the Rocky Mountain News offices new location (c. 1869-1879) | Denver Public Library

After a successful run, Byers sold the Rocky in 1878 to Colorado railroad magnate W.A.H. Loveland. Using new technology like typesetting machines, telephones, and wire services, Loveland modernized the process for collecting and printing news headlines. Just before the turn of the century, the paper printed its first photographic reproduction.

 

When Loveland sold the Rocky to Scripps Howard Company in 1926 the paper’s struggles began. Circulation shrank until editor Jack Foster made the pivotal decision in 1942 to change the Rocky’s format from a broadsheet to a tabloid.

Over the decades that followed, the Rocky Mountain News published hundreds of stories and won several Pulitzer prizes for reporting and photography.

 

But all good things must come to an end. Scripps sought to sell the Rocky in 2008, but was unable to find a buyer. When the final edition was printed in 2009, staffers and community supporters held a candlelight vigil to bid their beloved Rocky farewell.

April 22, 1925: Marble Mill near Carbondale burns

Marble Mill Historic Site in Colorado
Sign for Marble Mill Site (Carol M. Highsmith) | Library of Congress

A destructive fire ripped through the Marble mill in the remote town of Marble, about 25 miles south of Carbondale, on April 22, 1925. Half the structure was destroyed by the flames.

 

At the time, Colorado was the third largest producer of marble in the country. The finishing mill at Marble was the largest of its kind. More than 900 workers were employed at the mill, processing 40,000 cubic feet of marble each month. Its early contracts included cutting and supplying marble for the Lincoln Memorial, the Colorado State Capitol, and Union Station in Denver.

 

Despite the mill’s impressive output, bad luck seemed to plague its operations. In the years leading up to the fire, an avalanche severely damaged the complex. Floodwaters washed out the railroad tracks. Five hundred workers went on strike. A tramway accident killed the president of the Colorado Yule Marble Company. Droves of men departed to fight in World War I. Shipments were crippled and payments for taxes and loans went unpaid.

View of the Colorado Yule Marble Company Mill in Marble, Colorado (1910) | Denver Public Library

In the wake of the fire of 1925, the owners revealed the mill had been significantly underinsured. Lacking the financial solvency to rebuild the complex, they were forced to sell. Under new ownership, the mill was rebuilt and operations resumed. In 1930 the mill secured its most prestigious project: cutting and supplying 56 tons of marble for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery.


Additional contracts were secured throughout the 1930s, including supplying marble for several state and federal buildings in Denver.


As the late 1930s rolled around, demand for marble began to fall off. In 1941, just 15 years after the mill was rebuilt, the last block of marble came down from the quarry. A machinery company in Denver purchased the mill’s machinery for scrap metal. The train tracks were torn out. In the absence of a productive quarry to support the town, the Marble post office closed and most of the residents moved away.

April 28, 1982: Stegosaurus becomes Colorado state fossil

1940s postcard from featuring Stegosaurus
Stegosaurus Postcard Colorado (1946) | Newberry Library

Governor Richard Lamm adopted the stegosaurus as Colorado’s official state fossil on April 28, 1982.

 

It’s no surprise the honors went to the stegosaurs. The first stegosaurus fossil ever discovered in the world was unearthed at Dinosaur Ridge near Golden in 1877. A geologist named Arthur Lakes was credited with making the monumental discovery, which would fuel the flames of the Great Dinosaur Rush (also known as the Bone Wars).

 

During those years, competing fossil hunters combed the American West in pursuit of paleontological discoveries. Leading the charge were paleontologists Othniel Marsh and Edward Cope. They were ruthless in their pursuit of paleontological superiority, often resorting to underhanded methods to surpass one another. Both men faced financial ruin in the end, but were credited with contributing more than 136 new dinosaur specimens to the field of paleontology.

April 29, 1931: Lark Bunting becomes Colorado state bird

Lark Bunting, Colorado state bird
Lark Bunting | Nick Varvel

The Lark Bunting was adopted as Colorado’s official state bird on April 29, 1931. An intense legislative debate held at the state capitol considered the meadowlark and mountain bluebird as well.

 

In connection with the proceedings, representatives for each bird made their case by delivering speeches and whistling bars from the birds’ songs. Despite being the underdog, the lark bunting (which is neither a lark nor a bunting but instead a sparrow) won the day. The president of the Colorado Audubon Society, along with a pep club of 121 high school seniors from Fort Collins high school, gathered at the state capitol to make a case for the lark bunting. Singing its calls and speaking of its qualities, they lovingly described it as a gentle mannered “troubadour of the plains.”

 

Bird watchers today find the lark bunting an enjoyable bird to watch, hear, and photograph. In its natural habitat of the Colorado brush and prairie, it sports a distinctive black coat with white patches on the wings, and enjoys feasting on bugs and seeds of native grasses.

April 27, 1917: Hastings coal mine in Las Animas County explodes

Hastings Colorado Coal Mine
Camp Hastings, Colorado (c. 1900-1910) | Denver Public Library

The deadliest mining accident in Colorado history occurred when the Hastings coal mine in Las Animas County exploded on April 27, 1917. The blast was triggered when a mine inspector carelessly struck a match to relight his safety lamp, igniting the flammable gases inside the mine. The only means of exit from the mine caved in, trapping 121 miners inside.

 

Coal mining was one of Colorado’s most profitable industries at the time. Over 230 coal mines operated throughout the state, producing 12.5 million tons of coal in 1917 alone. Mining accidents were common, but none as devastating as the blast at Hastings.

 

Investigators were shocked to discover the blast had originated from the mine inspector—a man who was experienced and respected in the field. Safety protocols prohibited open flames inside the mine. Every miner was searched for matches before entering the mine, though the inspector was not searched due to his senior position. It was assumed he had no matches, though a pocketful of matches was discovered on his body.

 

In the aftermath of the explosion, hundreds of people gathered around the destruction site to mourn the tragic loss of life. The Colorado State Mine Inspector took action to prevent such accidents from happening again, banning match-lit safety lamps from underground coal mines.

April 26, 1962: Controversial activist speaks out

Dean Reed Antena TV magazine cover
Dean Reed (1965) | Olga Masa

Dean Reed, a singer-songwriter from Denver, penned a rousing letter to the people of Chile on April 26, 1962. In the letter he urged them to join him in demanding President John F. Kennedy cease atomic testing.

 

Reed had moved to Chile earlier that year, where he released music he claimed would save humanity from war and violence. It didn’t. Like many musicians at the time, Reed turned to political activism, though the views he espoused were controversial.

 

After relocating to the Soviet Union, Reed began recording music again, and enjoyed fame as one of the country’s biggest superstars during the Cold War. Reed returned to Colorado only once in his lifetime to attend the Denver International Film Festival, which featured a documentary about his life entitled American Rebel.

 

Later in life Reed move to Germany. From his East Berlin home, he participated in an episode of 60 Minutes in 1986. Six weeks later, he was found dead in a lake near his home. Opinions on his cause of death varied, though curiously, a Russian television channel aired a special about Reed nearly 20 years later, in which it was speculated Reed may have been a CIA, KGB, or Stasi agent.