Loveland’s Story

The History of Loveland, Colorado
From Exploring Loveland’s Hidden Past, the People and Places of Early Loveland, Colorado.  Authored by Jeff and Cindy Feneis, and published by the Loveland Hisorical Society.

Colorado & Southern Railroad Depot, Constructed in 1902.

Earliest Big Thompson Valley Inhabitants For centuries the area of northern Colorado now known as the Big Thompson Valley was inhabited by Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians.  These tribes were nomadic and moved their lodges and camps according to weather seasons and animal movements.  As permanent settlers began to inhabit the valley the Indians continued to travel throughout the area as they always had, often setting up camps located in and near the present Loveland town site.

Until a large number of explorers and settlers began to arrive in the late 1850s, the Indians generally maintained a peaceful existence with the new inhabitants.  However, as the population increased the new settlers encroached on the Indians’ way of life, and eventually there were hostilities and skirmishes throughout the high plains.  As a result, by the 1860s the U.S. government had established a strong military presence along the Front Range of Colorado and the Indians were displaced by the settlers.

Historic Loveland

Arapaho Indians with interpreter, ca. 1890.  Courtesy Colorado Historical Society (F-42157), All Rights Reserved.

There are no records of significant hostilities between the Indians and settlers in the Big Thompson Valley.  However, military records indicate that in the late summer of 1864, several valley residents volunteered for short term duty in the Third Colorado Cavalry.  This regiment was established by Governor John Evans specifically to subdue Indian threats throughout the region.  The Third Colorado Cavalry is now well known for its involvement with Colonel John M. Chivington in the controversial Battle of Sand Creek, in which several hundred Arapaho and Cheyenne Indians were killed.

The origin of the naming of the Big Thompson and Little Thompson Rivers is the subject of much debate.  A common explanation is that the rivers were named for David Thompson, an explorer who is said to have explored the area in 1810.  This is unlikely, as Thompson himself never claimed to have been in the region.  Another theory is that the rivers were named for a lieutenant who may have traveled through the area with Captain John C. Fremont in 1842.  This, too, is unlikely as there is no record of a Thompson in Fremont’s party.  A third account is that they were named for a prospector buried next to one of the rivers, after being killed by Indians while en route to California in the 1849 gold rush.  This cannot be accurate, as the rivers appeared with the Thompson name on Fremont’s maps in 1842.  The most likely explanation is that the rivers were named for Phillip Thompson, a fur trader who sold mules in the early 1830s at nearby Fort Vasquez.

Namaqua In the late 1850s gold was discovered in Cherry Creek near the present town site of Denver, resulting in a gold rush to the area.  A group of prospectors and mountain men led by George Andrew Jackson joined the rush to Cherry Creek in the fall of 1858, departing from Fort Laramie in what would later become Wyoming Territory.  When the expedition arrived at the Big Thompson River most of the mountain men decided to build cabins and stay for the winter, while the prospectors continued on to Denver in search of gold.

The group that remained was a mixture of guides and trappers.  They were impressed by the abundance of natural resources in the Big Thompson Valley and established a trappers’ camp, intent on residing in the area for several years.  During this time other mountain men were attracted to the new community, including Jose de Mirabel, who relocated there from Denver and became the community’s unofficial leader.  In 1858 a well-known mountain man and former guide by the name of Mariano Medina visited his friend Jose de Mirabel in the valley, but soon left for parts unknown.

Mariano Medina returned to Miraville in September of 1860 with his family and a small group of Spaniards, and acquired land next to the Big Thompson River.  The Overland Trail crossed his property and Medina established a ferry service to safely transport travelers across the river for a fee.  The trail was originally known as the Cherokee Trail, and had been used for many years by Indians and explorers as the primary link between the Arkansas and Platte Rivers.  By the time Medina arrived in the Big Thompson Valley the Overland Trail had become the main route connecting the Santa Fe and Oregon Trails, which resulted in considerable traffic.

The ferry service proved successful and Medina proceeded to construct a combination trading post and saloon, and lodging for travelers.  He also replaced the ferry with a toll bridge, which most travelers chose to use rather than risk fording the river.  At this time the area became known as Big Thompson, and also as Mariano’s Crossing.  A post office was later founded at the site, which was given the name of Namaqua.  This is the name most commonly used to refer to the community.

Historic Loveland

Namaqua, ca. 1900.  Courtesy Loveland Museum/Gallery.

In addition to his business ventures Medina maintained a small farm, and is credited as the first person to experiment with crop irrigation in the Big Thompson Valley.  He was well-known for his fine horses, and was a respected horse trainer and marksman.  Medina continued to operate his businesses until his death in 1878, the result of complications from gunshot wounds he received decades earlier while working as a military scout.

Homesteaders In 1859 homesteaders began to arrive in the Big Thompson Valley, attracted by the promise of free land provided by the U.S. government.  For an $18 filing fee a homesteader could make claim on 160 acres, “prove up” the land by constructing a home, work the land, and after five years of continuous occupation receive title to the property.  For hard working individuals willing to endure some hardships this proved to be the opportunity of a life time.

The primary source of income for the earliest homesteaders was cutting hay to sell to the mining camps in Black Hawk and Central City.  Because enough hay could not be grown in the mining areas, the farmers were able to sell their product for attractive prices.  The hay was cut during the summer and delivered by the homesteaders with oxen-pulled wagons during the fall and winter months.  The round trip to the mining camps required nine adventurous days across roads passable only in good weather.  The homesteaders also raised livestock and grew garden vegetables for personal consumption, as well as for market.

Historic Loveland

Home of John and Albina Washburn, undated photograph.  Courtesy Loveland Museum/Gallery.

After several years the homesteaders began to cultivate grain crops such as wheat, barley and corn.  This proved to be a difficult endeavor and many crops were lost to inclement weather and grasshoppers.  Floods were also an occasional problem and at times the river was up to a mile wide in places.  Ironically, the lack of water also proved to be a problem and by the mid-1860s the settlers began to experiment with crop irrigation.  The introduction of irrigation proved to be the single most significant factor in the continued development of the valley, opening up many acres of fertile land to crop farming.

St. Louis In the mid-1860s much of the wheat that was grown in the Big Thompson Valley was delivered to a flour mill operated by Andrew Douty,  located near Boulder.  In an effort to be near the northern Colorado farmers, Douty relocated the mill to the valley in 1867, and a small settlement emerged around the mill.  The settlement was given the name of St. Louis when Douty began printing the words “St. Louis Flour” on the sides of his flour bags, as a marketing ploy to increase sales of his product in the mining districts.

Historic Loveland

The Douty Mill, after 1874.  Courtesy Loveland Museum/Gallery.

St. Louis emerged as a thriving community and in 1868 was on the ballot to become the county seat, losing the election to Camp Collins.   Competing directly with Namaqua for economic development, the town boasted a blacksmith shop operated by Duncan Watt,  a general store owned by the Smith brothers,  and a meat market operated by Frank Bartholf and C.C. Bushnell.   Physician Perry McClanahan arrived in 1871, serving the community as both doctor and deputy sheriff.  The medical practice was eventually purchased by Dr. George Taylor, who also operated a drug store.  The first public school system in Larimer County was established in St. Louis, and the settlement was home to several churches.

By the mid-1870s it was anticipated that the Colorado Central railroad would extend rail lines from Longmont north to Fort Collins, and that the rail lines would pass through St. Louis.  As a result, in late 1874 John Washburn officially platted a 40-acre town site on the northeast corner of his property, which already contained a large portion of the St. Louis settlement.  In honor of Washburn’s daughter the town was given the name of Winona, but the settlement also continued to be referred to as St. Louis.  With the prospect of the arrival of the railroad the community continued to expand, culminating in 1877 when the Big Thompson Hotel was constructed by Mrs. Harriet Sullivan.

As expected, the Colorado Central located rail lines through the Big Thompson Valley in late 1877.  Unfortunately, the rail lines were routed approximately one mile west of St. Louis, completely bypassing the community.  The town of Loveland was soon established along the rail lines, which led to the immediate demise of St. Louis.  Out of economic necessity, most of the business establishments were either closed or relocated to Loveland.  In acknowledgement that the St. Louis community had been abandoned, the settlement became known as Old St. Louis.

David and Sarah Barnes David and Sarah Barnes arrived in Colorado from Illinois in 1860 as part of the gold rush.  They first settled in Russell Gulch, where they operated a stamp mill and saw mill.  In 1863 the family moved to Golden where David established a successful flour mill, the first in the state.

In 1870 David and Sarah Barnes purchased 320 acres of land in the Big Thompson Valley.  The family moved to the property in 1873, which was located on a bluff north of the Big Thompson River.  Unknown at the time, this property was destined to become the town site of Loveland.

Sarah Barnes

Sarah Barnes, courtesy Loveland Museum/Gallery.

Historic Loveland

David Barnes, courtesy Loveland Museum/Gallery.

In 1877 the Colorado Central Railroad surveyed the proposed rail line between Longmont and Fort Collins through the Barnes’ wheat field.  David Barnes granted the railroad right of way to lay rail lines and construct a depot, and the town of Loveland was born.  As soon as the crops were harvested in the fall of 1877, Barnes began to plat an 80-acre town site.  A number of the lots were given to the railroad, and the remaining plots were made available for sale.  Barnes also provided a lot free of charge to any church that wished to build in Loveland.

When the new town was originally planned it was proposed that it be named Barnesville in honor of the Barnes family.  Neither David nor Sarah Barnes approved of this idea and instead named the town for their good friend and former Golden neighbor, W.A.H. Loveland, who was president of the Colorado Central Railroad.

Colorado Central Depot

Colorado Central depot, ca. 1880.  Courtesy Loveland Museum/Gallery.

Construction of Loveland began immediately, and by the spring of 1878 the downtown area was beginning to take shape.  The railroad was the reason for the town’s existence, and the new depot located at the intersection of the railroad tracks and 4th Street became the center of activity.  The rail yard servicing the local industries was located west of the depot, and the business district was located east of the depot centered in the first two blocks of 4th Street.  The first homes in town were constructed near the downtown area.  In 1881 Loveland residents voted 50 to 1 in favor of incorporating.  On May 11 of that year Loveland legally became an incorporated town, with J.H. Aldrich appointed as the first mayor.


Business District On October 7, 1877, David Barnes legally dedicated the streets and alleys of Loveland, and town lots became available for sale.  Sales were brisk, and according to Larimer County property records at least 20 lots had been sold by the end of December.  Many of the lots sold were located on the first three blocks of East 4th Street, which became the center of the business district.  Merchants were anxious to establish themselves in the new town and typically purchased one or two lots on which to construct a building.  Area resident George Rist unofficially became the first real estate speculator in November of 1877 when he purchased 10 lots, most of which were on West 4th Street.

In most instances construction began as soon as a lot was purchased, and by early 1878 establishments were opening for business.  Loveland quickly boasted a general store, meat market, grocery store, hotel, livery, blacksmith shop and a doctor.  Several of these operations were new business ventures, while others were existing businesses relocated from St. Louis.  Most of the new buildings were constructed of wood and were eventually replaced with brick structures.

E. 4th Street

East 4th Street viewed east from the railroad tracks, ca 1905.  Courtesy Loveland Museum/Gallery.

For over a century the 4th Street business district remained the center of economic activity in Loveland.  However, beginning in the 1970s many businesses left the downtown area and relocated to new shopping centers that were being constructed.  In other instances locally owned businesses could no longer compete with department stores, and many eventually went out of business.  The result was that the 4th Street business district stagnated and fell into a state of neglect.

In the early1990s interest in the downtown area renewed and businesses were once again attracted to downtown Loveland, in large part due to redevelopment discussions led by the City of Loveland.  Today many business district buildings have been updated and restored to their original character, and vacant lots and neglected buildings have been redeveloped.

Industries The early Loveland economy was driven by the local industries, most of which were established to process and distribute the abundant agriculture products found in the Big Thompson Valley.  The earliest industries were grain elevators and flour mills, followed by a sugar factory and canning operations.  The industries provided direct wages to the mill and factory employees, but equally as important they also provided indirect wages to the area farmers, laborers, and local companies that supplied the resources consumed by the factories.  These wages often remained in Loveland to purchase goods and services, which in turn drove the growth of the business community.

Big Thompson Mill

Big Thompson Milling and Elevator Company, ca. 1900.  From Cindy Feneis collection.

Great West Sugar

Great Western Sugar Company factory, ca. 1910.  From Cindy Feneis collection

Loveland leaders recognized the importance of the industries and actively pursued the development of new manufacturing opportunities, resulting in a gradual migration away from agriculture based industries.  In 1925 the Loveland Bottling Company was established, which produced carbonated beverages under the Nehi and RC Cola labels for several decades.  In the 1960s technology based companies were attracted to Loveland by the favorable environment and available work force.  The first to arrive was the Hewlett Packard Company, followed by the Lego, Teledyne, and Square D companies.  In addition several significant manufacturing companies were founded in Loveland, including the Colorado Crystal Corporation and Colorado Memory Systems.

Additional Loveland History

Additional information regarding Loveland’s history may be found in the publications offered by the Loveland Historical Society and the Loveland Museum/Gallery.  We also encourage you to visit the Loveland Museum/Gallery, and to attend the events hosted by the Loveland Historical Society.