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A Colorado History, by C. Ubbelohde, M. Benson, D. Smith

Review by Ed Quillen

History – January 1996 – Colorado Central Magazine

A Colorado History
Seventh Edition
by Carl Ubbelohde, Maxine Benson, and Duane Smith
Published in 1995 by Pruett
ISBN 0-87108-741-3 cloth
ISBN 0-87108-742-1 paper

Of course I like this book. I will delight in pointing to page 369 where it says, “One disgruntled rural writer, Ed Quillen of Salida, even questioned the need for Denver”, as I presume that such a citation makes me immortal. But even without this recognition, I’d still say this book is a fine history of our state, combining the traditional material with modern analysis and occasional flashes of wit.

In one sense, history doesn’t change — what happened yesterday cannot be altered. But our understanding of history, and the lessons we need to draw from our studies of the past, change with the times. Thus the seventh edition of A Colorado History differs in many respects from its predecessors. History hasn’t changed, but what we want from it has.

A Colorado History is generally organized chronologically. It starts with the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde, the first human settlements that we know enough about for informed speculation, and continues to the opening of Denver International Airport in 1995.

But it is also organized thematically, which gives the book more cohesion than a mere time-line narrative.

For instance, the cattle industry — the industry that has re-arranged more landscape than any industry in the history of the world — gets a chapter of its own detailing its Spanish and open-range origins, the drives from Texas up the Goodnight and Dawson trails, cattle barons like John Wesley Iliff and John Wesley Prowers (makes you wonder how different our world might be if Methodists were vegetarians), corporate invasions, fencing, sheep, and so forth from the 1850s into the 1890s.

Similarly, its explanation of an often-neglected part of our history, violent labor wars, extends from the Leadville strike of 1880 through the Ludlow Massacre of 1914, with short tours of the Guggenheim and Rockefeller empires.

Most chapters, then, could stand alone quite well as historical essays, and that may be the best way to read this book — a chunk at a time, rather than all at once, the way I did (one of the hazards of reviewing is that you can’t always read a book the way it should be read).

It’s as good a concise state history as you’ll find, and I couldn’t think of much that they missed. I especially enjoyed fresh material about topics frequently ignored. Colonies like Greeley and the Wulsten project in the Wet Mountain Valley — a communal idealism that infected the West just like gold fever — get full treatment here. So does the Ku Klux Klan, which ran Colorado 70 years ago, and the major transformations wrought by World War II.

It was also a pleasure to read a book whose authors know the difference between “comprise” and “compose,” wherein a “marshal” is a public officer and a “Marshall” is a proper name. Another pleasure is an appendix listing all governors and U.S. representatives and senators. The bibliography is thorough without overwhelming the curious reader, and the index works for everything I looked for.

Then there’s an occasional bit of wit, as in this about the guidebooks that led people into the Pike’s Peak rush of 1859: “they led their readers to believe that the most useful equipment to carry to the diggings was containers to hold the gold nuggets picked up like pebbles from the streambeds. Small wonder that these literary products found ready readers.”

As for flaws, they might have paid more attention to CF&I, for many years the largest employer in the state and an empire of limestone quarries, coal pits, iron mines, water diversions, and railroad lines.

Another quibble: the South Park Railroad went through the Alpine Tunnel under Altman Pass, not “over Alpine Pass” as stated on page 163.

And even though I’m fascinated by our state’s politics, there might be too much focus on that topic for a general history. The authors point out, though, that Colorado is merely some lines on a map, defined through political mechanisms, and thus this emphasis on political history.

Overall, this is a fine piece of work — both authoritative and eminently readable — and it belongs on your bookshelf if you’ve got any interest in how Colorado got to be the way it is.

— Ed Quillen