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Historic Jeffco: Mount Vernon Towne

 

How Mount Vernon Canyon was named

After the United States doubled its size in 1803 by buying the "Louisiana Purchase" from France, President Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark to explore the new western territory. Another expedition led by Lieutenant Zebulon Pike discovered the Royal Gorge of the Arkansas River and the Colorado mountain peak that bears his name. While other boundary struggles continued, the responsibility for governing the million square miles of "Louisiana" was crudely managed by emigrant fur trappers, gold seekers, and "squatters" who hoped to eventually gain ownership of land.

Drawing of Mount Vernon

Optimistic settlers of the ungoverned territory were motivated by "rugged individualism," an opportunity to start a new life, and democratic patriotism to the United States. By 1843, there were 3,000 Americans in the "Oregon Country." The Texas Annexation of 1845 and Mexican cession of 1848 established most of today’s U.S. boundaries. While tension of the slavery abolition movement developed into a full-fledge Civil War (1961), the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 left the free or slave decision up to settlers of the new territories. In 1859, thousands of emigrants headed west seeking gold. Today’s Colorado was then part of four territories—Nebraska, Kansas, New Mexico, and Utah.

The earliest "roads" were nothing more than wagon track trails where huge stones, stumps and trees had been removed by hand (dynamite was not discovered until 1866). Weather caused mud slides, rock-slides, flash floods, deep snows, ice, and severe damage from alternate freezing and thawing. Stream crossings were crude fords or log bridges always in danger of washing out. Travelers were never safe from thieves or Native Americans defending their land. Supply villages for travelers to stop and rest on route made the slow, laborious, and dangerous travel bearable.

The primary motivation of the 1859 emigrants was to stake a gold claim, but some had more than quick riches in mind. Enterprising Ohio clergyman Joseph Casto arrived in March 1859, and is said to have grubstaked John Gregory’s gold strike near Central City. He is also credited with discovering the famous Casto lode, was the first Colorado post master (Mountain City), and organized the first Masonic Lodge. He was the primary "developer" of Mt. Vernon Towne, west of the hogback, southwest of today’s I-70 exit to Colorado Highway 26 (the road to Morrison). Except for 20 private acres, Jefferson County’s Matthews/Winters Open Space Park preserved Casto’s plat of 3,600 lots of 66’ x 132’ each.

Nestled between the foothills and the hogback, Mt. Vernon thrived for two years as an outfitting station for freighters and travelers on route to the mines. According to the November 17, 1859 Rocky Mountain News, the site was "where the road leaves the plains to go to the South Park and Colorado Diggin’s. It is well situated, close to a small stream and not far distant from quarries of lime and sandstone. The site is a handsome one surrounded by timber and a stream that can irrigate with little expense." Casto advertised free lots for those who would build and settle there.

Passage up the canyon, previously known as the Ute Trail, became "Mt. Vernon Road" from Denver, through south Golden, to the foot of the canyon. In December, 1859, Casto officially filed it as the Denver, Auraria, and Colorado Wagon Road Company. At "Mt. Vernon Junction," travelers continued south to Turkey or Bear Creek (Morrison), north to Clear Creek (Golden), or directly west up the canyon which required crossing Mt. Vernon Creek at many as 20 times. John Patrick established a "toll gate" near today’s buffalo herd. The canyon road then continued west to Bergen Park to a three-way fork to the mines.

Mt. Vernon Towne residents, 1873.
Legend says this photo is of Mt. Vernon Towne
residents at their school house, 1873.

For two years, Casto’s "planned community" was a busy "Gateway to the Rockies" for long wagon trains of frontier families who stopped to enjoy a saloon, general store, post office, and Wells Fargo Express office. According to the Rocky Mountain News, "The air was filled with the hurry and bustle of the passing of long wagon trains, of the arrival of stages filled with hungry and hopeful passengers" who spent the night, purchased supplies, and continued their mission for quick riches and a new life. Casto promoted Mt. Vernon town as "the greatest thoroughfare in Jefferson Territory."

Jefferson Territorial Government

The greatest risk of emigrating to the Kansas Territory in 1859 was the total absence of government—no property boundaries, schools, churches, law enforcement or legal system. Without government institutions to regulate legal and civil affairs, settlers were in constant danger of losing anything gained. They clamored for some form of "provisional" government.

In May 1859, Nebraska lawyer and legislator Robert Williamson Steele settled at Mt. Vernon which he named to honor the first President of the United States. Settlers were constantly confronted with quarrels and disputes of competition for control of the new settlements. In October 1859, Steele was elected Governor of the "provisional" Territory of Jefferson. Although the U. S. Congress failed to approve the new territory, he traveled the area similar to today’s Jefferson County boundaries, conducting government business with papers "filed" in his top hat.

By January 1860, Mt. Vernon was reported to have 44 voters who wanted their village to be the seat of the "provisional" Jefferson Territorial Government. Some records say as many as 50 wagons traveled through Mt. Vernon daily and that houses were going up as if by magic to support a population of 200. There was a school, blacksmith shop, a general store, two hotels, and possibly as many as 35 cabin homes.

On September 19, 1860, villagers formed the "District of Mt. Vernon" with boundaries north to Golden, south to Turkey Creek (285), west to the head of Mt. Vernon Canyon (El Rancho), and east to the sandstone line of the hogback. They adopted a 2,000-word "constitution," complete with a preamble and five "articles." Nothing came of the "District," as Casto became a delegate in Golden considering the organization for the whole territory.

Legend says Steele considered the "District" as separation from the larger territory. After his family log cabin burned in 1860, he moved his family to help organize the Apex settlement. between Mt. Vernon and Golden City near today’s Heritage Square. Steele (a Democrat) served as provisional Governor until June 1861, when William Gilpin was appointed by President Lincoln (a Republican) to serve as the first Colorado Territorial Governor.

The Jefferson Territory laws, presumably written primarily by Steele, are said to be extremely rare and unique in American history. While most leaders wanted government to satisfy their personal ambitions, Steele governed with a "dignified, scholarly tone of dedication, character, principals, faith, hopes, and dreams."

The initial grand plans for a huge city gave way to recognition of Mt. Vernon as a convenient stopping place to and from the mines, quarries, and timber. By 1863, Steele moved his family to Empire and then Georgetown. Casto left in 1864 and returned in an attempt to revive the Towne in 1867, but it was too late. Golden and Morrison dominated the early foothills.

Competition

Mt. Vernon was in peril from the very beginning from competition with other settlements—Arapahoe, Golden Gate, Apex, Golden City, and Morrison. The Civil War pulled many settlers back to serve either the Union or Confederate armies. After his hastily erected Mt. Vernon log cabin burned in 1860, Governor Steele moved his family to start his own toll road up Apex Gulch that rises from Heritage Square.

Steele’s original Apex and Gregory Wagon Road Company changed to the Denver City, Mt. Vernon, and Gregory Toll Road. It was advertised as the "shortest, best, and most traveled road to all parts of the mines" and is still visible from the JeffCo Open Space Apex Trail. It did not prosper when Steele was involved, but a toll was collected at the Apex camp for travelers to rise to today’s Lookout Mountain Road. In 1866, the "Apex and Mt. Vernon Consolidated Company" collected tolls at both Mt. Vernon and at Apex Gulch.

The Boston Party gave birth to Golden City in 1859. By the spring of 1860, the town is said to have occupied 320 acres where Clear Creek settles into the plains. It served as the first capitol of the Colorado territory from 1862 until settlers were outnumbered by Denver voters in 1867. George West, Edward Berthoud, and William Loveland helped found the City of Golden and the Colorado School of Mines.

Arapahoe and Golden Gate were short-lived early settlements north of Golden City leading to the Central City mines.

George Morrison 1860 stone house
George Morrison's 1860 stone house

After constructing what is believed to be the first stone building erected in Colorado at Mt. Vernon, George Morrison petitioned for a road south along the hogback to Bear Creek where he established the towne of his name in 1872. Morrison, a Scotch stone mason from Canada, was thrilled by discovering area limestone, "available in inexhaustible quantities," and first milled the gypsum south of Red Rocks.

His extraordinary sandstone sheets still trim the Brown Palace Hotel in Denver. Morrison operated the Mt. Vernon hotel and livery until 1868 when he sold the native stone house to Hubert Lake who sold it to William Edward Matthews in 1870.

Another prominent Jefferson County pioneer who first settled at Mt. Vernon village was John Parmelee, who continued southwest to establish the Denver and Turkey Creek Wagon Toll Road along Turkey Creek Canyon (U.S. Hwy 285) and settled Indian Hills.

Other causes of the Mt. Vernon’s failure to thrive were departure of men to serve in the Civil War (1861-65), a grasshopper rampage in 1861, a flood in 1866, and continuous Indian raids until 1867. When the railroads entered Golden in 1870, the Clear Creek and south Park routes were favored by miners over the direct rise up Mt. Vernon Canyon.

Except for the pioneer families from Bergen Park and Rockland, travel up the muddy canyon road nearly ceased until citizens convinced Jefferson County to purchase it (and take responsibility for maintenance) in 1880. The Towne of Mt. Vernon was listed as a stage stop until 1885. Mt. Vernon Road was never paved.

Legendary “Mt. Vernon House”

William Matthews was a British bootmaker and colorful personality who operated the Mt. Vernon House as a way station and tavern for many years. With the help of two wives, he produced twenty-two children. After his first English wife Louisia died, leaving him with 13 children, Matthews returned to his Cheltenham, England birthplace to marry his childhood sweetheart Frances who became an instant mother and gave birth to eight more Matthews children. Legend says that Ute Indians were curious about the "white squaw." When they enthusiastically arrived to greet her, she was so terrified that she ran upstairs, locked herself in a bedroom, got under the bed and refused to come out until her husband placed iron bars on all the windows. Frances eventually adapted to the hard life of the American West.

Ironically, she was admired for her compassion and generosity with the Indians who came to her door begging for food after the U. S. government took rights to their land. She was also treasured by her family and community.

Historian Georgina Brown interviewed many Matthews for her book "Shining Mountain." They say Frances Matthews was tiny and always busy. While she was giving birth and caring for those already here, she never left the house or yard for eleven years! "There were enough Matthews children to keep the Mt. Vernon school open until 1885. Several additions to the stone house were necessary."

Mt. Vernon house today
Mt. Vernon House today

The Golden Transcript noted on June 24, 1880, that William Matthews was in the City on business “flying about in his usual manner.” The loss of sight in one eye while fighting the “Indian Wars” added to his colorful personality. After he died in 1908, his obituary read, "He was a just man, kind husband, and indulgent father" He served three years in the Army under General Custer. It was in the Sand Creek battle that he was injured, and he was permanently crippled for life. Owing to loss of records, he never received a pension" He was a student of geology and mineralogy, and well posted on mining matters." Many Matthews decendents still live in Jefferson County.

“Fancy” shingles were added to the Morrison-Matthews house, but the original corner stone dated 1860 remains above the front door. A stone "gas station" was built adjacent to the home in the 1920s. This building, that housed Colorado’s first provisional legislature, is savored today as a private family residence. It was the first site in Jefferson County to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places on November 20, 1970.

Another home from the original plat, built in 1871 across the creek from "Mt. Vernon House," also continues to serve a private family. Legend says a wealthy banker financed "the finest home in the area" constructed of 20-inch thick area sandstone block walls. An architect drew plans for remodeling and restoration for a member of the Matthews’ family in the 1930s when it was fashionable to add porches, "modern kitchens," bay windows, and room additions to the historic homes.

Mt. Vernon Today

A part of the old Mt. Vernon Road, unpaved all its life, still follows the creek to these two historic private homes. In 1880, the toll road became a county free road up the canyon to Bergen Park. During World War I it was a Colorado road known as the Victory Highway. In 1926, the federal government numbered it 40 — “a transcontinental highway between New York and California.” In 1937, public demand for a better motor vehicle road resulted in construction of U. S. Highway 40, high on the north canyon wall, above the flooding creek bottom.

George Morrison's stone house in the 1920's.
George Morrison's stone house, in the 1920s.

When Interstate 70 was planned to cut through the original Mt. Vernon plat during the 1960s, the Colorado Historic Society and Colorado Department of Transportation successfully lobbied to preserve site of "outstanding historic importance." After some vehicles crashed off the Interstate and down into the historic area, heavy guard rails were installed at what became known as "Dead Man’s Curve."

Galen Development Co. purchased 511-acres of Mt. Vernon Towne in 1970 for $300,000 with plans for residential and commercial development. William C. and Joan Winters purchased the 511 acres and sold it to Jefferson County Open Space in July, 1976, for $510,810 (and a "gift" of $787,458). Open Space then purchased 357 acres from Nicolos J. Matthews in 1977 for $410,550. The park now occupies 1,095 acres—210 acres north of Interstate 70 and 877 acres on the south.

Mt. Vernon Creek still runs through Mt. Vernon Country Club and Rockland Valley, crosses under I-70 west of Exit 256, and continues down the canyon past the two remaining historic homes which are surrounded by cottonwood and willow trees, wild plum, chokecherries, yucca and sage.

The Central Mountains Community Plan includes an introduction written by CARE volunteers: "Geology, and human history since 1859, have combined to place control over the first impression of millions of Colorado visitors in the hands of three Jefferson County Commissioners. Tourism is Colorado’s largest industry"

"Most tourists, as well as most residents of the state, encounter the Colorado mountains in Jefferson County, between the upslope approaches to the Hogback and the western boundary of the County. It is fair to say the impact of this area is one of the most crucial large scale planning decisions in the State of Colorado"

“Although the prairie portions of Jefferson County can be the subject of ordinary planning procedures, the mountain portions of the County must be approached with the desire to enhance what nature has provided" the least the Commissioners can permit is to avoid harming an irreplaceable asset.”

The “Father of Colorado”

Many historians consider Mt. Vernon to be the birthplace of the State of Colorado. The "History of Nebraska" by Morton, Volume I, refers to R. W. Steele as the "Father of Colorado." Elected to serve as the first "provisional" Governor, Steele guided the territory’s beginnings without succumbing to "the triple threat of surrendering allegiance to the United States, joining the Confederacy, or starting a new empire." Many settlers from the South pressed Steele to join the Civil War forces of Jefferson Davis. James W. Denver wanted Colorado under his rule as Governor of the Kansas Territory. The "Pikes Peakers," as newcomers tagged themselves, ignored Kansas and wanted their own independent "State of Jefferson."

Another Nebraskan legislator who arrived with Steele was William Byers who founded the Rocky Mountain News and helped support the provisional Jefferson Territorial Constitution. The founder of what beame the Golden Transcript, George West, also respected and supported Steele. They chose "Jefferson" to honor the President who secured the Louisiana Purchase.

Historian Georgina Brown wrote that most early statesmen were "no sooner launched upon their errands than they began plotting for further advancement." The constant dissension, jealousies, and factional disturbances were calmed by Steele’s honest, unselfish, and stable leadership. He demanded: "At all times, you are to recognize the constitutional authority and power of the United States government over us."

On November 7, 1859, he signed the following proclamation: "Let us then enter upon our duties with a determination of spirit that conquers all difficulties: working for the benefit of the whole commonwealth, encouraging moderation and conservation in all our acts, that we may never be ashamed of having taken an humble part of the organization of a Provisional Government for the Territory of Jefferson." In September, 1861, Jefferson County was established with the seat designated at Golden City.

With the Colorado Territory firmly established, Steele moved his wife and four children from Apex to Empire and then to Georgetown. He honored his wife’s desire to return to Iowa in 1865, but convinced her to move back to Colorado, to Georgetown, in 1867. He lived a relatively uneventful and frugal life prospecting for gold and practicing law. Steele was known for his great honesty and love for justice that marked everything he was connected with. A son moved his aging parents from Georgetown to Colorado Springs where Steele died at the age of 81 in 1901, two days after his wife Susan died. They were buried at Evergreen cemetery.

In 1932, the Daughters of Colorado erected an iron fence to protect their gift of a granite monument.

Mt. Vernon Canyon Road
1998 private segment of historic dirt Mt. Vernon
Canyon Road, west of Matthews Winters Park

Sources: Georgina Brown, “Shining Mountains” 1976; Colorado (State Historical) Magazine: September 1932, "The Mission of Colorado Toll Roads" and July 1950, "A Toll Road into South Park"; Mary H. Crain, “A Circle of Pioneers” 1959

Denver Westerner’s Roundup magazine: May 1964, "Notes on a Few Early Towns of Jefferson County" by Francis Rizzari.

Historical photos courtesy Golden Pioneer Museum and the Western History Department of Denver Public Library.

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