Press "Enter" to skip to content

Creating Colorado by William Wyckoff

Review by Ed Quillen

Geography – October 1999 – Colorado Central Magazine

Creating Colorado – The Making of a Western American Landscape, 1860-1840
by William Wyckoff
Published in 1999 by Yale University Press
ISBN 0-300-07118-3

WHY DO OUR TOWNS and cities sit where they do? Sometimes that question is easy to answer because natural resources provide the explanation. A 19th-century mining town like Leadville or Aspen had to be close to the mines, so that the miners could get to work.

But that doesn’t explain other towns. If we look at Central Colorado in the pre-railroad era before 1880, the major settlements were at the junctions of old trails and newer wagon roads — places like Gardner, Nathrop, and Saguache.

The railroad changed all that; Walsenburg supplanted Gardner, Buena Vista took over from Nathrop, and Alamosa and Salida superseded Saguache.

The Interstate highways haven’t invaded here yet, but where they did, they laid on a new geography: a railroad siding that was once so remote that it was named “Solitude” is now the bustling resort of “Copper Mountain,” and Vail (born in 1962) is a world-famous spot, as opposed to older nearby spots like Minturn and Red Cliff.

So transportation and its associated technologies help define our landscape. Sargents was a stage station that became an important railroad stop, where narrow-gauge locomotives took on coal and helpers for the climb up the west side of Marshall Pass. But when improved highways killed the railroad, Sargents shrank to little more than a post office. Transportation isn’t the only factor, though, as Wyckoff points out.

Politics can play a role, as our forebears knew when they battled to create new counties and to get the county seat in a favored town. And economic forces also come into play, and then there are cultural influences.

Hispanic settlements with plazas where the farmers lived in town and walked to their fields put a different stamp on the land than Anglo T-towns that served farmers who lived on their farms.

All these processes, and much more, are well explained in Creating Colorado. After two introductory chapters — “The Geographer’s View” and “Pre-1860 Geographies” — Wyckoff divides the state into five regions. He traces the geographic development of each zone from 1860 to 1920, and concludes with a statewide assessment of the transitions from 1920 to 1940 as the highway supplanted the railroad as an organizing force.

Wyckoff’s prose is clear and accessible, though rather compressed at times:

The commercial architecture of these mining towns suggests the propensity of builders to reproduce known styles from the East rather than be terribly innovative in the West. The room layouts and V-notching patterns that held together early single-pen log structures resembled many examples of the time from the Midwest and Upland South, although the western versions often had their principal entrance placed on the gable end, perhaps to shed heavy mountains snows. The larger false-front frame buildings also borrowed from older traditions, essentially replicating patterns from innumerable small towns in America. Although often simple and unadorned in the West, even these structures and their subsequent brick and stone counterparts often sported stylistically informed Greek Revival window detailing, Italianate door lintels and keystones, or a bit of Queen Anne flourish at the cornices. They added substance to the simple front-gable buildings that lined Main Street. All these features reinforced the stability an

THE ONLY PROBLEM I had with this book is that it didn’t appear earlier. In 1991, I began working on a big project for High Country News. Its working title was “Is Denver Necessary?” and it evolved into an examination of the Mountain West and its dominant cities and the consequences on how the region was developed.

I consulted with all manner of professionals, but none seemed to have a handle on what I was looking for until I met a geographer, and discovered that geographers studied those precise topics in their varied disciplines — economic geography, cultural geography, political geography, etc. It’s all about us and our relationship to landscapes. If this book had been around then, it would have saved me about a year of hard reading.

I’m glad Creating Colorado is here now and that geographers are paying attention to the Mountain West. If you share my interest in these processes, or want to expand your understanding of Colorado’s history, you’ll enjoy this book, too.

— Ed Quillen