Founding of CU was a Community Effort

by Silvia Pettem (published in the Daily Camera, January 25, 2000)

In CU’s early days, the town of Boulder ended at Boulder Creek. To the south of Boulder and up on a bluff was the university’s first building, now called Old Main. It stood alone and faced north to keep its ties with Boulder.

The University’s founding was a community effort.

CU had been a dream of local residents within two years after the arrival of the area’s first settlers. During the Colorado Territorial legislature’s first session, in 1861, a bill had been introduced to establish a public university in Colorado. At the time, Boulder had only 300 residents, but a Boulder County representative relayed his constituents’ request that the university be located in Boulder.

But hopes and plans weren’t enough to make Boulder’s dreams come true. The frontier town barely grew in the 1860s. The university needed to be financed, and residents had little extra cash. The public-university issue lay dormant until new silver and gold discoveries reinvigorated Boulder’s economy. Even then, what little money people could spare went into bonds to bring in two competing railroads.

In 1872, territorial legislators talked of locating the university in Denver, Colorado Springs, or Greeley. This debate prompted the immediate donation by Boulder residents Marinus Smith, George Andrews, and Anthony Arnett of 52-acres on the then-barren bluff just south of town.

The land was a start, but funds were still needed for a building. In 1874, the Colorado Territorial Legislature agreed to provide matching funds of 15,000 dollars. Their offer was open to any Colorado community with a site.

Boulder resident Captain David Nichols was Speaker of the House and realized that he needed to take immediate action. According to the writings of James P. Maxwell, another territorial legislator from Boulder, Nichols had said, “If $15,000 is what they want, we’ll get it.”

As Maxwell related, Nichols jumped on his horse on a cold January night and rode for five hours from Denver to Boulder. Just before midnight, he knocked on the door of a leading Boulder businessman who personally assured him that he would raise the money. As the story goes, a weary Nichols was back at his seat in Denver the next morning having secured the university for Boulder.

Then came the hard work of collecting subscriptions. One hundred citizens pledged the needed funds, with most donations between 50 and 250 dollars. Although Marinus Smith contributed 1,000 dollars, one donation was for 15 dollars.

The three-story brick building was completed in July, 1877, just two months before opening day. It housed the entire university including living quarters for its president, janitor, and both of their families.

Today, trees and other buildings have filled in the space between downtown Boulder and Old Main. In 1980, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places as part of the Norlin Quadrangle Historic District. The CU Heritage Center museum, on Old Main’s third floor, depicts the university’s history.

You can learn more about the university’s history by visiting the museum or coming to the February 6 presentation to be given by CU-Denver history professor Tom Noel and Boulder city councilman Dan Corson.

Corson has a family connection with the founding of CU. His great-great-grandfather’s cousin, William Corson, was the poor fellow who gave the 15 dollars.

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