May In Colorado History

Historic photo of Boulder Flood 1894
Water Street, Boulder (1894) | Carnegie Library for Local History, Boulder

Colorado historical headlines from the month of May include the first female zookeeper opening Elitch’s Zoological Gardens, a gold discovery at Clear Creek igniting “Gregory Fever,” and a massive flood decimating Boulder.

May 1, 1890: Female zookeeper opens Elitch's Zoological Gardens

Elitch Zoological Gardens historic poster from Denver, Colorado
Elitch's Zoological Gardens Poster (circa 1900) | Historic Elitch Theatre Archives

Female zookeeper Mary Elitch opened Elitch’s Zoological Gardens on May 1, 1890, making her the first woman in history to own and operate a zoo. No other zoos existed west of Chicago at the time, and in an era when women had little political or economic power, the idea of a female zookeeper running the show was extraordinary.

 

Mary Elitch and her husband, John Elitch Jr., had previously opened a restaurant together called Elitch Palace Dining Room. They bought a nearby farm and grew fruits and vegetables to serve customers. A lifelong animal lover, Mary Elitch began caring for stray animals at the farm. She imagined one day transforming the farm into a zoo, with exotic animals, apple orchards, gardens, and lively entertainment.

 

Her dream became a reality when she opened Elitch’s Zoological Gardens. The attraction was an overwhelming success. Elitch would go on to wow visitors with outdoor symphony concerts and stage shows by the biggest entertainment legends of the time.

May 30, 1894: Massive flood decimates Boulder

1894 Boulder flood, looking west from top of flour mill
Boulder flood, looking West from top of flour mill (1894) | Boulder Carnegie Library

Rapid snowfall melt and 96 hours of heavy rain flooded Boulder on May 30, 1904. It was considered the first 100 year flood in Boulder County.

 

As Boulder Creek swelled out of its banks, a rampage of surging waters tore through the area. It destroyed roads and bridges, wiped out communities, and decimated Boulder’s infrastructure.

 

The damage was so extensive, the area was cut off from the rest of Colorado for five days. In reporting on the event, Boulder’s Daily Camera newspaper wrote, “The windows of heaven opened and Boulder was submerged.”

 

Once the floodwaters receded, the landscape of Boulder County was permanently reshaped. Many said the natural beauty of Boulder Canyon was never the same. While downtown Boulder eventually recovered, some surrounding communities and mining camps were never rebuilt. They were washed away entirely.

May 13, 1859: Clear Creek gold discovery ignites "Gregory Fever"

A Pikes Peak prospector at his log cabin
Pikes Peak Prospector | Library of Congress

Prospector John Gregory, credited with igniting the Colorado Gold Rush after discovering gold at Black Hawk in January 1859, made another big discovery at the North Fork of Clear Creek on May 13, 1859.

 

Gregory’s discovery couldn’t have come at a better time. The gold mining region of Colorado was experiencing whiplash from a rapid boom and bust cycle, that saw tens of thousands of disappointed prospectors giving up and returning east. Denver alone lost two-thirds of its people during the exodus.

 

When Gregory presented a vial of gold containing his new diggings, valued at eighty dollars, everything changed. The Colorado Gold Rush was reinvigorated. Prospectors began pouring in, filling up mining camps, and tearing the landscape apart with excitement so intense, it became known as “Gregory Fever.”

May 27, 1941: Construction begins on Denver Ordnance Plant

Men laying bricks at the Denver Ordnance Plant
Denver Ordnance Plant, bricklaying (1941) | History Colorado

The first steel frames of the Denver Ordnance Plant were erected in the Jefferson County farmlands west of the city on May 27, 1941. Five months earlier, the federal government granted Denver the contract for the munitions plant. This created thousands of jobs and spurred an ambitious effort to construct a complex with over 200 buildings and a major manufacturing area in a matter of months.

 

Remington Arms, operator of the plant, would become one of the largest producers of ammunition in the US for World War II. The Denver Ordnance Plant produced millions of rounds of ammunition per day. At the conclusion of the war, the plant’s operations ceased.

 

The complex still stands to this day, providing office, laboratory, and storage facilities for various governmental agencies.