A History Of Fort Collins, Part 1
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A History Of Fort Collins

Fort Collins History Series | Part 1

Fort Collins Local History Archive (left); Veronica Baas (right)

After living in Fort Collins for four years, the deep history this city has to offer comes very interestingly to me. This piece is the first of the Fort Collins History Series. I hope you'll find as much entertainment reading as I did research and writing it. This cover photo is a then and now portrait featuring the old Poudre Valley Bank, today a building for sale in Old Town.

Founded in 1862, Fort Collins was originally a military post established to protect travelers in covered wagons on the Overland Trail. For a while, the growing town was referred to as The Fort. As it grew in size and was recognized on the election precinct in 1868, what is known as Old Town today became Camp Collins.

The story of the transition from "Camp" back to "Fort" is unknown and the group of migrants who founded "The Fort" had moved away from the devastating aftermath of a flood in 1864. To prevent future floods, they wanted to move to higher ground. The time of year was misconceiving, and the commander at Fort Laramie made a questionable call, directing his people to another floodplain.

Old Town Fort Collins historic district, 1978.Photo from Fort Collins History Connection.

This area of northern Colorado still sees heavy rainstorms in the Fall, sometimes flooding Fort Collins and surrounding areas like Denver and Boulder. As a freshman at CSU in 2013, the campus and town experienced a flood that shut down the university and businesses for a few days.

Shortly after the new territory was claimed, one of the most important battles of American history took place in what is today Kiowa County. The Sand Creek Massacre was in November of 1864. Twenty-four United States soldiers were killed, 52 were wounded, and 70 to 160 Native American lives were lost. The Treaty of Fort Laramie had given the Native Americans that territory, but soon the government wanted to renegotiate this agreement.

People were flocking to the area during the Pikes Peak gold rush and there wasn't enough space. After a compromise could not be reached, the Sand Creek Massacre changed everything. Tribes all over were outraged and seeking revenge. As more settlers came to Fort Collins on the hunt for gold, houses filled up like clown cars. During this time an occupancy law similar to what is now "U+2" in Fort Collins today was enacted. This prohibited miners from packing houses with residents and today limit CSU students from more than three roommates to a house or apartment.

U+2 has seen harsh protests from the student government and body. Movement in the last few years to rewrite this legislation has suggested a change to "ME+3". Some houses in Fort Collins have four or five bedrooms and rent in Colorado continues to rise. In some cases, an additional roommate makes the most sense and is almost necessary.

The Railroad Changes Everything

Colorado Central built the first railroad in Fort Collins to deliver goods in and out of the town in 1877. The company also built an all-purpose station for its passengers, a railroad depot, and a freight. The original station was built on the north side of Mason Street but was later demolished in 1906 and rebuilt at a different location. The station that replaced it in 1889 was the Colorado and Southern Railroad Passenger Depot. It sat on the corner of Laporte Avenue and Mason Street, serving Fort Collins for more than 60 years.

A railroad system changed everything for Fort Collins. Trade was possible, goods were available, and even more jobs were made. As the population grew, the need for a passenger railroad became clear. The Union Pacific filled this need and purchased around $400,000 worth of properties along Jefferson Street to build the second railroad. A passenger station was built too and still stands today as a restaurant.

This is the Union Pacific passenger depot today. It is a Brazilian steakhouse called the Rodizio Grill. Photo by Veronica Baas.

The rail industry still thrives in Fort Collins today. Although far fewer trains come through the city now then back when I was a resident.

Earliest Established Business

The first drawing for lots was in December of 1872. It is what divided up the land along College Avenue. In 1985 the population of Fort Collins was estimated at five hundred. It boasted a drugstore, newspaper, livery stable, bank, three hotels, three sawmills nearby, one church with a building and three or four other congregations, and a flour mill. Next, I will cover some of the earliest establishments that thrived on the land where Old Town is today.

The first livery stable opened at the northwest corner of Jefferson and Pine Streets. During this time, the most practical way to get around was riding a horse. "Nothing could be more important to a businessman or homeowner than a livery stable to house the animals" (Fleming). It was called the Old Grout Stage Barn and was later sold in the 1910 auction to make room for a new railroad passenger station (photographed above). Over 100 different buildings were auctioned off.

This included a local secondhand store that is today known as the Open Door Mission in Fort Collins. The original shop, the Collins Store, was owned by W.C. Stover and it was the first building in town to be constructed out of bricks. Another one of the earliest commercial stores was a bicycle repair shop/shoe store on the corner of Walnut and Pine Streets.P. Anderson Merc' CO. opened in 1888 at 222 Walnut Street.

The owner Peter Anderson was one of the earliest settlers in Fort Collins. He was a farmer, a freighter, a stockman, a cattleman, a bank director, a merchant and then a business owner. He was also the proud owner of Andersonville, a sheep-feeding farm located by the sugar beet factory. This building is now known as Walnut Creek in Old Town.

Walnut Creek in Old Town. Photo by Veronica Baas.

Soon a blacksmith shop opened at 232 Jefferson Street. It went out of business when cars became popular, but the original building still stands after revitalization. Around the opening of Jerry's Blacksmith Shop, Billy Patterson opened Hay and Grain on the northeast corner of Jefferson and Pine Streets. The establishment was later burned down in 1889. Today the land remains bare, just a few feet south of the railroad tracks.

Billy Patterson was also a big contributor to the funds that supported the opening of Colorado Agricultural College in 1870. The first classes were held in 1879. Photo from University Archive.

The Miller Block made up the southeast side of Linden and Walnut Streets. When the business went under during prohibition, the building was lucky to have survived. It withstood several neighboring fires and break-ins. People were not as interested in preserving the history of Fort Collins as they are today, and the establishment was neglected.

It was originally built in 1888 by Frank C. Miller, additions were done in 1891. The store had a sampling room for customers to try the beer before purchasing it. Now it is hidden to the average eye in Old Town commercial space.

The Miller Block is now used for three separate businesses in Old Town Square including Little Bird and Bondi Beach Bar. Photo by Veronica Baas.

I've found Frank Miller's history in Fort Collins to be particularly interesting. As is the further exploration of prohibition in Fort Collins and how businesses reacted. Stay tuned as I feature a prohibition piece next in the Fort Collins History Series.

In 1887, The Larimer County Courthouse was built. The crime was beginning to take place and a system to control it was needed. Today, two new courthouses stand on the same land where the original one was built.

Another early business in Fort Collins was Owl, a local drugstore, located at the corner of Mountain and College Avenues. The original building is the old Beau Jo's Pizza building, which has also since moved. The building was built in 1897 as a bank and was later demolished in 1961. It was rebuilt and still stands today. Many believe the building is haunted and several other businesses in Fort Collins Old Town are rumored to be haunted as well.

These rumors stem from the tunnel system built under Old Town that was designed to simplify inventory deliveries to businesses. Most storage was held in basements at this time, and with very narrow stairwells the products delivery process was challenging. Tunnels underground from College Avenue seemed to be a genius solution.

Owl Drug Store was the first shop to occupy 100 North College. Since Beau Jo's Pizza and The Kitchen have operated restaurants out of the building.Photo by Veronica Baas.

One of these tunnels leads to the old Beau Jo's building, formerly Owl drugstore. Before the restaurant moved to its new location on College and Laporte, you could see a door to the tunnel in the women's restroom. If tampered with, an employee would walk in moments later reprimanding you. For ghost stories and other spooky Fort Collins history, check out this link.

The earliest grocery store to open in Fort Collins was Davy Groceries. It was also built in the business district on North College Avenue. It began serving the town in 1833. The owner, "Captain Davy, as Thomas H. Davy was locally known, advertised imported chocolate and cocoa, improved hygienic new-era coffee, and 'Sussex horse radish flour to make bone, nerve muscle and a kind disposition'" (Fleming). Today this land is used to run the Opera Galleria.

Most Fort Collins residents have visited the beloved Walrus Ice Cream. In the early 1900's, sometime before 1910, Mable Rogers opened a hat shop in the Walrus building. At this time, etiquette demanded that a lady wear a hat when she went out. The historic site is on West Mountain Avenue, formerly called Mountain View Avenue during that time.

Then and now of Walrus Ice Cream today next to an old photo of Flowers Millinery Shop. Left photo from Fort Collins Local History Archive.Right photo by Veronica Baas.

In 1879 an opera house was constructed on North College Avenue. The establishment was designed to bring more people to town who seek culture. Plays, musicals, various balls, masquerades and even famous speakers performed here. The building was also used to operate the Windsor Hotel. Although it has seen some remodeling, the building still stands today, part of which houses Mary's Mountain Cookies.

The Howard Block is a red, brick Victorian-style building. It solely hosted a grocery store until 1906 when a second store opened. Later, a bicycle shop occupied the building for several years.

H.C. Howard Block and J.L. Hohnstein Block in Old Town now home to retail and restaurant businesses. Photo by Veronica Baas.

Oldest Grand Homes

There are so many beautiful homes in Fort Collins that date back to the early 1900's, some even older than that. It was hard to pick and choose, but I will spotlight a few.

ACE Hardware in Old Town used to be a very nice home, owned by Benjamin Hottel. The house was built in 1883, but as College Avenue overwhelmingly became a business district, the house was torn down in 1962. Built on top was a J.C. Penney store before it became the hardware store that stands there today.

Benjamin Hottel's residence.Photo from Fort Collins History Connection.

Another one of Fort Collins' oldest houses is located at 202 Remington Street. According to a plaque sitting outside today, it was built by Charles Andrews in 1889. In 1899, Dr. Peter McHugh began using the house as both a home and a private hospital called McHugh House and Hospital.

Newspapers of that time advertised the business as, "a place to get well instead of to die". The house was restored in 1977 and placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Today, the building is St. Peter's Fly Shop.

This is a front view of the historic home today, where St. Peter's Fly Shop operates. Photo by Veronica Baas.

This is the back view of the house that used to be a part of the original establishment. Today the two have different owners. Photo by Veronica Baas.

History of Hotels

The oldest hotel in Fort Collins still accommodates residents today, but not as a hotel. The Northern Hotel was originally built in 1879. It has since been renovated and revitalized several times, but still stands as senior housing at the corner of College Avenue and Walnut Street — the original hotel sign still hangs.

Then and now shot of the Northern Hotel. The original photo on the left was taken in 1938, courtesy of the Local History Archive. Right photo by Veronica Baas.

The Armstrong Hotel opened in April of 1923. It still operates as a hotel today and out of its original location on the corner of College Avenue and Olive Street. The lobby is restored to look the same is it did in the 1920's and is famous today for the spiral staircase leading to rooms above Old Town. The hotel was made to serve auto-tourists, so its success varied as interest in the car did. This building is also on the National Register of Historic Places.

Then and now shot of the Armstrong Hotel. The original photo on the left was taken in 1924, courtesy of the Local History Archive. Right photo by Veronica Baas.

Earliest Town Churches

One of the oldest churches in Fort Collins was the Methodist Episcopal Church. Before they had a real meeting place, members of the church would meet in various places around town. There is a record of them congregating as early as 1867. Although they did not meet in the original building, which was built back in 1889, the church still holds mass today in their new church. The old building was demolished in 1964 to make room for new offices.

The beautiful structure we see today at 300 West Mountain was the first Catholic church in town. It has housed the St. Joseph's Catholic Church since it opened in 1901. The land was initially purchased from Franklin Avery and has never changed ownership.

This is the original building built to house the Saint Joseph Catholic Parish. It still stands today. Photo by Veronica Baas.

In 1914, First Presbyterian erected the church shown here at the northwest corner of College Avenue and Myrtle Street. The building was replaced with the one that stands today in 1976. It faces Myrtle street and almost takes up an entire block.

History of Education

Colorado State University was founded in 1870. The first building on campus was built in 1878, known today as Old Main. It was designed as a multi-use classroom that included offices and living quarters for the president. The building was destroyed by a fire intentionally caused by students May 8th, 1970.

Since its destruction, Spruce Hall has become the oldest building on campus. It was originally designed and built in 1881 by Hiram Pierce as student housing. Another one of CSU's oldest establishments is the industrial sciences building. It was constructed in 1880 as a place engineering students could seek help with their construction careers. The building has recently been renovated, but it still stands today on Laurel Street.

A view of Spruce Hall today from College Avenue.Photo by Veronica Baas.

In 1890, the Botanical and Horticultural Laboratory was built. The Victorian style cottage sits just north of Spruce Hall. For a while, it also housed the music program. Today the building is called Routt Hall and is used for administrative offices.

Naturally, elementary and middle schools had to be established for the younger kids. Before Remington School was constructed in 1879, classes were held in a wooden building on Riverside Drive and in vacant storefronts. As the town grew, bigger schools became necessary.

Remington Street School in 1967.Photo from Fort Collins Local History Archive.

Franklin School was constructed in 1887 on the southwest corner of Mountain Avenue and Howes Street. In 1959, the building was crushed to make way for a new grocery store. That building was also recently demolished in 2010. The original plot of land used to build the school is now just a parking lot.

Benjamin Franklin School. Photo from Fort Collins History Archive.

In the early 1900's another one of Fort Collin's oldest high schools sat where the Lincoln Center is today. It was later remodeled and used for Lincoln Junior High School, until 1977 when it became the Lincoln Center. Parts of the original building were used for this project.

The Lincoln Center today.Photo by Veronica Baas.

The oldest school in Fort Collins that is still being used as a school today is Centennial High School. The building was originally called Laurel Street School and was almost destroyed. It was built in 1906 and now features a new addition that doubled the size of the building.

Fort Collins High School.Photo from Fort Collins Fifth Column.

Fort Collins High School used to occupy the building that is today used for the University Center for the Arts, east of campus. Fort Collins High School still exists over on Lambkin Way. The building is used now for music events, dance recitals, art showings, and other events within the art department.


In 2005, the city was named a Preserve America city by the White House. More information on the history of Fort Collins can be found at the Museum of Discovery in the local history archive or at CSU in the university archive at the library.

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