It may come as a surprise to people who call Boulder home that over a century ago, the city was blighted with squalor and destitution in a place called Jungle Town. Located along Boulder Creek at 11th and Water Street (today called Canyon Street), the slums of Jungle Town existed from the late 1800s to when they were demolished in 1920. Only vagrants and the impoverished called the area home.
Many unsavory characters found their way to Jungle Town during its heyday. Chief among them was the self-proclaimed Queen of the Jungle, Emma “Em Bugtown” Birge. Born in Iowa in 1858, Birge moved with her parents and two brothers to the small community of Valmont when she was 12. Known back then as “Bugtown,” Valmont offered her family very little in terms of steady work. Unable to chip out an adequate life, they moved on to nearby Boulder a short time later.
When the Birge family arrived in Boulder, Emma’s father, Charles “Bugtown” Birge, found work as a day laborer. Emma’s brothers, known as the “Bugtown boys,” took jobs as laborers too. Unable to read or write, Emma could only find work as a “domestic” in households around Boulder. Very little is known about her mother.
Tragedy struck in 1898, when the lives of Emma’s parents came to an end. Less than 10 years later, her brothers joined them, neither having lived to see their 45th birthdays. The lives they had lead were rough and Emma’s was no different. Slipping into a life of indigence, she was no longer able to find domestic work and moved to the slums of Jungle Town. She resorted to begging for money from local homes and businesses. Often she was seen walking the streets of Boulder barefoot, disheveled, and wearing only a tattered house dress.
Around the turn of the 20th century the population of Boulder began growing steadily. At the same time, Jungle Town was becoming an increasingly squalid, fetid eyesore people were eager to see demolished. In 1906, the City of Boulder began pursuing plans to dismantle Jungle Town and make way for a scenic park. Numerous parcels of land were purchased from the Colorado and Southern Railway. Local landowners sold and gifted lots as well. Despite the momentum behind the city’s efforts to clean up Jungle Town, it took 14 years for the project to come to fruition.
When demolition day finally arrived in 1920, local photographer Ed Tangen arrived to document the scene. The bulk of Jungle Town’s vagrant population had already moved on by then. Only 10 adults, a handful of children, and Queen of the Jungle Emma “Em Bugtown” Birge were still present.
After the slum dwellings were demolished, all that remained of Jungle Town was a field of dirt with old wooden boards and slabs of broken concrete strewn about. The few deciduous trees growing along the edge of the land had been left standing. The remaining vagrants scattered themselves across Boulder County.
Over the next 13 years, the City of Boulder marched forward with its plans to install a new park, which would be called City Park. The site of Jungle Town, and the land acquired from the railroad and local landowners, was filled in with dirt from the Pine-Spruce paving district. Significant improvements were made along Boulder Creek. A nearby park that had existed since the 1800s, known by locals as Cigarette Park, was folded into the area.
Central Park was unveiled to much fanfare in 1933. The City of Boulder commissioned architect Glen Huntington to design an art-deco style band shell with risers in 1938. A monument to commemorate Boulder’s railroad and mining days was installed as a narrow-gauge train engine, purchased from the Colorado and Northwestern line, in 1953. City Park had become the gem of downtown Boulder its early supporters envisioned; a shared space for people to recreate, socialize, enjoy cultural experiences, and soak up the Colorado sunshine.