The late 19th century marked the beginning of the period when our modern city of Pueblo began to take shape as one of the great cities of the West. From modest beginnings as a Mexican-American trading post to its heyday as one of the economic centers of Colorado, Pueblo was shaped along the way by a combination of natural resources, geography, and ambitious businessmen.
The area at the confluence of the Arkansas and Fountain Rivers had been favored as a settlement site by members of the Native American Ute tribe for its mild winter climate and access to both the high country and the plains. By the middle of the eighteenth century, the Spanish presence in the region was undeniable, leading to bloody clashes with Native Americans as the Spanish continued to encroach on their indigenous lands.
1883 Sanborn Map shows South, Central and Pueblo (North). Library of Congress. From 1870 to 1894, the three Pueblos and Bessemer would consolidate to form modern day Pueblo.
The name “Pueblo” was first applied to this area in 1842, two decades after Mexico gained its independence from Spain, when trappers established “El Pueblo Trading Post” on the Mexican-American border of the Arkansas River – somewhere around present day First Street and Santa Fe Avenue. At the post, flour, whiskey, and blankets from New Mexico were traded for coffee, tobacco, and manufactured goods from St. Louis and hides and furs from the Native Americans – a prologue to the cultural and ethnic diversity that continue to characterize the demographics of Pueblo to this day.
In 1848, the Mexican Cession at the conclusion of the Mexican-American War moved the border south to the Rio Grande, the fur trade having all but petered out completely. Only a few residents remained at Pueblo, most of whom were wiped out in an Apache-Ute attack on the Fort in 1854.
The establishment of a permanent town was precipitated by the Colorado Gold Rush of 1858, as thousands of settlers crossed the Plains to settle in the Rockies. A camp named “Fountain City” was established on the east side of Fountain Creek, in Pueblo’s present-day Eastside neighborhood. Two years later, the Pueblo town site was laid out on the other side of the creek, and the following year, Pueblo County was established as one of the seventeen original counties of the Colorado Territory.
Over the course of the ensuing decade, Pueblo grew to include several hundred permanent residents, a grist mill, several grocery and merchandise stores, an elementary school, hotels, a courthouse, and a newspaper – the Colorado Chieftain – the first edition of which announced the death of famed frontiersman Kit Carson.
In 1870, Pueblo officially became a town under the Colorado territory, marking the end of an era of competing colonial interests and setting the region on a trajectory to become one of the most important manufacturing and commercial centers of the West. A key player in this evolution of Pueblo was General William Jackson Palmer, the founder of Colorado Springs to the North, who had the ambition to build a north-south railroad from Denver down to Mexico. In 1872, he established the town of South Pueblo on the south side of the Arkansas along his Denver and Rio Grande Railroad (D&RG), naming many of the streets after small towns in Mexico to emphasize the American-Mexican connection.
At this time, steel manufacturing became the driving force behind Pueblo’s economic, cultural, and political development. In particular, Palmer’s company Colorado Fuel & Iron (CF&I) built the first steel mill West of the Mississippi in 1881 in order to supply a steady flow of rails to the railroad. In 1882, the city of Central Pueblo incorporated between Pueblo and South Pueblo. Four years later, the three cities of Pueblo, South Pueblo, and Central Pueblo consolidated into one city by a vote of 1,381 to 87 in a special election. An article from March 1st, 1886 in Leadville’s The Carbonate Chronicle sums up the consolidation of the cities succinctly, if not rather brusquely saying:
“The three Pueblos are still discussing the question of consolidation. The question is really whether to remain three nobodies or to become one somebody. It is difficult to see how there can be any difference of opinion on such a question, among sensible men.”
The Carbonate Chronicle, March 1st 1886
That same year, the town of Bessemer was created to house the growing population of steel mill workers and businesses. Bessemer was later annexed into Pueblo City in 1894.
By this time, Pueblo was on its way to a population of nearly 25,000, close to seven times the size it had been a decade earlier. The town included St. Peter’s Episcopal Church at Seventh and Santa Fe Avenues, Centennial High School at 315 West Eleventh Street, First National Bank on Santa Fe Avenue, the Victoria Hotel at 201 West B Street, and countless other businesses and municipal buildings. At one point 40 different languages were spoken in the steel mill, with a combination of Irish, Italian, German, Slovenian, Serbian, Croatian, Greek, Jewish, Polish, Hungarian, Filipino, Japanese, African American, Chinese, and Mexican workers inhabiting the town and driving its growth.
At the turn of the century, the newly consolidated and industrializing Pueblo was well on its way to becoming the “Pittsburg of the West,” with steel production set to drive the city’s economic growth for the better part of the 1900s.
Now in 2020, 150 years after the consolidation of four cities to make the Pueblo we know today, the cultural and industrial building blocks of Pueblo’s foundation still color the city with their influence. Acknowledging the anniversary of our modern city of Pueblo is in itself a celebration of the dissolution of boundaries that earned Pueblo its title of “Melting Pot of the West.”