People have lived in the St. Vrain valley for uncounted thousands of years. The first people relied on the water in the St. Vrain and Left Hand creeks, hunted bison and smaller game, and moved to take advantage of available resources. By the 1820s, the primary tribes living in this area were the Cheyenne, the Arapaho, and the Ute. The Cheyenne and Arapaho spent their lives on the plains, hunting bison and trading with fur trading companies, while the Utes spent more time in the mountains.
When goldseekers arrived in Colorado in the fall of 1858, they were violating treaties that the government had signed with the tribes. The discovery of a small amount of gold sparked a gold rush in 1859, with an estimated 100,000 people, about 20 times Colorado’s pre-Rush population, heading for Colorado. While many turned back, those that stayed often camped on lands where Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes had been living for many years. After a brutal and one-sided conflict, the Cheyennes, Arapahos, and Utes all were forced to move to reservations far from the St. Vrain valley.
In the early 1860s, a small community called Burlington arose in the St. Vrain valley, with its center where a trail from Denver to Cheyenne crossed the St. Vrain River. A stagecoach stop and post office gave more permanence to this settlement.
In 1870, a group in Chicago decided to found a new town in the west, and formed the Chicago-Colorado Colony, a membership organization, to make it happen. In early 1871, the locating committee of the colony rode the train to Colorado and selected a site near the community of Burlington. Settlers began arriving in spring of 1871 to the colony, now called Longmont. Most of the residents of Burlington joined the new effort, even moving their houses and other buildings to the site.
The arrival of the Colorado Central Railroad in 1873 helped ensure Longmont’s success, and soon agricultural industries such as flour milling, vegetable canning, and sugar beet processing gave Longmont a solid economic base. The town grew more diverse as people from many places, including Scandinavia, Russia, Mexico, and Japan, came to this area to work in the farm fields.
The new arrivals were not always welcomed, and the Ku Klux Klan took control of much of Colorado’s political establishment, including Longmont’s City Council, for several years in the 1920s. Ultimately, the Klan was voted out of office. Discrimination did not end with the Klan’s ouster, however -- Latinos in particular had to fight for the right to eat in some local restaurants and live in some parts of town. Today, over a quarter of Longmont’s population is Latino.
After World War II, Longmont’s economy began to shift from agriculture into technology. The arrival of an FAA air traffic control center in 1962, and a large IBM plant halfway between Boulder and Longmont, led to an influx of high-tech workers. Many other technology firms have followed, and Longmont today is a center for data storage design and specialized manufacturing. It also boasts some of the fastest internet connections in the country, thanks to NextLight, its municipal broadband utility.
In 2021, Longmont looks back on 150 years since its founding. The town has grown from a few hundred colonists to nearly 100,000 residents. While there have been many challenges, the community has been resilient, and looks ready for the next 150 years.
Erik Mason is Curator of History at the Longmont Museum, and the author of Longmont: The First 150 Years, available at the Longmont Museum and local bookstores.