February In Colorado History

Actors during action scene at Dickens Opera House in 1907
Play at Dickens Opera House (1907) | Photograph courtesy Longmont Museum

Colorado historical headlines from the month of February include the Dickens Opera House featuring its opening performance, the Moffat Tunnel welcoming its first train, and Colorado Territory legislators passing the state’s first wildlife protection laws.

February 2, 1882: Dickens Opera House features opening performance

Dickens Opera House Advertisement
Antique card advertising Dickens Opera House | Photograph courtesy Longmont Museum

Early Longmont rancher and businessman William Dickens Jr. envisioned opening the Dickens Opera House in the late 1800s to bring culture to the Longmont area. Located at 300 Main Street in downtown Longmont, his two-story brick building would house storefronts on the main floor and an auditorium on the second. Farmers National Bank, owned by Dickens, would occupy one of the storefronts. The other would be home to the local newspaper Longmont Ledger.


When construction on the opera house began in 1881, Dickens transported several loads of bricks himself. He was eager to see his vision for a hub of culture and community come to fruition. He didn’t have to wait long. On February 2, 1882, the Dickens Opera House welcomed its opening performance: a play called The Greek Twins by local author Will Holland. Ten days later its first opera, “Penelope,” debuted.

 

In the years that followed, the Dickens Opera House hosted an enormous variety of performances, along with political rallies, wrestling matches, charity benefits, and monthly campfire festivities that drew beyond-capacity crowds for an evening of dinner and dancing.

Performers at Dickens Opera House in Longmont Colorado
Performers at Dickens Opera House (c. 1880-1900) | Denver Public Library

As business at the Dickens Opera House boomed, William Dickens became the subject of a puzzling mystery. On November 30, 1915, he was fatally shot at home when a rifle bullet ripped through his library window. Investigators believed the murder was premeditated; the killer had laid in wait. William Dickens’ son, Rienzi Dickens, was found guilty of the crime in 1916, though exonerated a short time later. The murder of William Dickens was never solved.

 

While subsequent owners of the opera house upheld the tradition of hosting performances and community events, the ravages of time took its toll on the old building. Following significant renovations in 2006, the Dickens Opera House was restored to its original splendor. Today  it’s a cherished Longmont landmark.

February 26, 1928: First train passes through Moffat Tunnel

Postcard of Denver and Salt Lake Train at Moffat Tunnel
Postcard of a Denver & Salt Lake train entering the Moffat Tunnel (c. 1928-1947)

An early Colorado pioneer named David Moffat was determined to address the challenges of getting trains through the Rocky Mountains. After switching careers from banker to railroad man at the turn of the century, Moffat set his sights on creating a more direct route from Denver to Salt Lake City than the existing transcontinental railroad provided.

 

The mountainous Continental Divide presented a major obstacle to developing a direct route. Transcontinental lines built in the 19th century bypassed Denver entirely to take advantage of easier routes across the mountains to the north and south. Laying out a route that traveled due west from Denver would mean tunneling through the heart of the Continental Divide. It was a tall order. The Denver, Utah & Pacific Railroad had already failed at tunneling under the divide in the 1880s. How would Moffat’s tunnel be different?

 

According to Moffat, it all boiled down to financial feasibility. The coal, lumber, and livestock industries had taken off in the 20 years following the failed attempt of the 1880s. Moffat believed the substantial costs of building a tunnel would be justified by the financial payoff from opening up access to these resources.

Train exiting Moffat Tunnel
Moffat Tunnel (c. 1930s-1940s) | Denver Public Library
Moffat’s plans from 1902 estimated it would take three years and $4 million to build the tunnel. Reality proved him wrong. As costs swelled and the construction time lengthened, Moffat grew weary. When he died in 1911, his dream tunnel was severely underfunded and nowhere near completion. In 1922, the Colorado State Legislature stepped in to provide financing to finish construction of the Moffat Tunnel. At a cost of $24 million and 28 lives lost, the 6.2-mile-long tunnel through the Continental Divide welcomed its first train on February 26, 1928.

February 11, 1870: Colorado passes first wildlife protection laws

With the passage of its first wildlife protection laws on February 11, 1870, the Colorado Territory codified its commitment to preserving native game and fish across the state.

 

The Act “To provide for the Protection of Fish in Colorado Territory” focused on trout and other native fishes. It banned the use of poisons for killing fish, and required dams and other artificial waterway obstructions provide for the free passage of fish.

 

 The Act “To preserve Game in Colorado” focused on game birds, such as quail, grouse, prairie chickens, and wild turkeys. It specified the dates of hunting season, prohibited the use of snares and traps, and outlawed buying, selling, and possessing game birds out of season. It also outlawed killing insect-eating upland birds.

Brook Trout | American Fishes (1887)

The Colorado General Assembly appointed the first State Fish Commissioner in 1877, a year after Colorado was granted statehood. In 1893 the role changed to the State Fish and Game Warden. The scope and size of this position would continue to expand over the decades that followed. Protections were extended to all wildlife, not just those associated with hunting and fishing. State parks and natural resources became a focus of preservation too. Entire divisions were created, split apart, then reunited again until arriving at today’s iteration: Colorado Parks and Wildlife