A Brief History of Aurora
By the Aurora History Museum
In the 1890s, as Denver was growing into a major metropolitan city, developers began looking outside of the city for new opportunities. Thomas Hayden, Samuel Perry, and Donald Fletcher, interested in an area just east of the settlement of Montclair, decided to join forces. They merged their investment property into the Colfax Trust Company and plotted a new town. The town of Fletcher was incorporated on April 30, 1891.
The new town, one of the new crop of suburbs sprouting up around Denver, was four square miles of prairie reaching from Yosemite St. east to Peoria St. and 6th Ave. north to 26th Ave. Named after one of the developers, Donald Fletcher, the town boasted 39 citizens, the beginnings of a water system, and 14 new brick homes designed with indoor plumbing. This original area would, 100 years later, become known as Original Aurora.
The high hopes of the new residents and the developers were short lived. A drought soon put an end to the water system and the Silver Panic of 1893 caused a severe drop in property values. Nonetheless, the little town persisted. Growth was slow. By 1900, 202 people lived in Fletcher, and the first Town Hall was built in 1906 at 16th St. and Elmira St.
In 1907, the citizens of the town of Fletcher voted to change the town name to Aurora. No reason for the name change was recorded in the town minutes. However, one of the original plotted subdivisions was named Aurora, and Samuel Perry came to Colorado from Aurora, Illinois.
1918 marked the beginning of Aurora’s first building boom with the opening of Army General Hospital #21 (later re-named Fitzsimons Army Hospital) to the east of town. Housing servicemen and their families stretched the little town’s capacities. Aurora reached official “city” status of more than 2,000 residents in 1928; the year before Denver opened Stapleton Airport along the northern border of town. This period also saw the emergence of Aurora’s first commercial downtown along Colfax Avenue.
Ten years later, in 1938, Lowry Air Force Base was opened to the southwest of the original town. Rather than closing Fitzsimons, the U.S. government expanded and upgraded the hospital facilities in 1941 just in time to care for the wounded servicemen of World War II. Lowry expanded to a site 15 miles to the east in 1942 that eventually became Buckley Air National Guard Base and later Buckley Air Force Base.
By 1940, the city’s population grew to 3,437 residents, and, with the return of servicemen to the area after World War II looking for the “American Dream,” Aurora’s population was more than 11,000 in 1950. Hoffman Heights, the first suburb of Aurora outside its original city limits, was annexed in 1954. New subdivisions were annexed on a regular basis after that.
Despite the positive signs of growth, Aurora continued to struggle. One reason was the continuing effort to obtain an independent source of water. After losing their water system in the 1890s, Aurora relied on Denver for their water supply. In 1958, Aurora entered into an agreement with the City of Colorado Springs to construct the “Homestake Project,” designed to use water rights purchased on the Western Slope and bring that water to the two cities. Homestake Reservoir was completed in 1967 and gave the city water independence for the first time since 1892.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, growth in Aurora shifted directions moving south and east. Shopping districts such as Havana Street and the Aurora Mall influenced new development. In the late 1970s, Aurora was one of the fastest growing cities in the United States.
Fitzsimons Old & New
Lowry Air Force Base closed in 1994, and the land was re-developed into a new urban community. Fitzsimons was decommissioned in 1996, and a number of partners have established a bioscience park with the Fitzsimons Life Sciences District and the Anschutz Medical Campus of the University of Colorado. Anschutz Medical Campus has an estimated 18,000 employees, including the health science schools, colleges and research centers of the University of Colorado, University of Colorado Hospital, Children’s Hospital Colorado, University Physicians, Inc. and the soon to be completed Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
More than 100 years after the establishment of the town of Fletcher, Aurora continues to reinvent itself. By the early 2000s, an interest in redeveloping the area now known as Original Aurora along Colfax Avenue brought city resources to bear on Aurora’s first downtown. Redevelopment efforts including the expansion of the Aurora Fox Arts Center and the construction of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Library initiated efforts to re-fashion the Colfax area into a downtown business and arts district. The addition of new low-income housing and some private investment in the area began to re-establish Colfax as one of many commercial hubs within Aurora. That effort continues with Original Aurora Renewal and the Aurora Cultural Arts District.
The character of this area has changed tremendously in the city’s history. Northwest Aurora is now one of the most diverse areas in the city. According to the 2010 census, Aurora is the most diverse community in the metro area. More than half of Aurora’s 350,000 residents belong to a minority population, and over 100 languages are spoken in Aurora Public Schools. Along with its diversity, Original Aurora faces challenges with health disparities, lower income and employment levels and other social determinants of health and economic well-being as compared to other parts of Aurora, the metro Denver area and the state of Colorado as a whole.
Aurora prides itself on its welcoming nature. In recent years, Aurora has become the entry point for refugees coming to Colorado. The low cost housing, valuable resources, and immigrant communities already in place mean many refugees are making Aurora their home. The development of an immigration center and educational and outreach program for Aurora’s new diverse populations has become a city priority. With diversity and affordability come new challenges in helping residents find the support they need to connect, stabilize and grow. Towards this end, the Anschutz Medical Campus Community-Campus Partnership seeks to identify and establish appropriate opportunities for connecting residents and campus entities in mutually beneficial activities.
Through these efforts and many others, Aurora has become a vibrant, creative, and enriching place to live, work, learn, and thrive.
Photos courtesy of Aurora History Museum.