Arvada History


Arvada's story began with Colorado's first gold discovery.

On June 22, 1850, a wagon train bound for California crossed the Platte River just north of the confluence with Clear Creek, following Clear Creek west for six miles.

The members of the wagon train rested for a day, and Lewis Ralston dipped his gold pan in an unnamed mountain stream. He found almost $5 in gold in his first pan.

John Lowery Brown, who kept a diary of the party's journey from Georgia to California, wrote on that day: "Lay bye. Gold found." In a notation above the entry, he wrote, "We called this Ralston's Creek because a man of that name found gold here."

Ralston continued on to California, but returned to 'Ralston's Creek' with the Green Russell party eight years later. Members of this party founded Auraria (later Denver City) in 1858 and touched off the gold rush to the Rockies.

Arvada is Site of Colorado's First Gold Discovery

Over the next century and a half, the significance of the discovery was lost. Eventually the entire area became blighted. And the State recognized the first gold find as being at the confluence of Little Dry Creek and the South Platte River in 1858 by William Greenberry Russell.

Astute research by Lois Lindstrom, a local historian, proved that Arvada was the site of the first gold discovery.

Ms. Lindstrom began her research in 1971 and sought Colorado State designation for Arvada in 1992. That attempt was unsuccessful because Lindstrom could not pin down the exact location of the gold discovery. Later on, she found a 1937 aerial photograph showing a grove of cottonwood trees at the confluence of Ralston and Clear Creeks which had since been removed for construction of a mobile home park. A member of Ralston's party had written about just such a grove.

On December 1, 1995, the Colorado Historical Society officially recognized that Colorado's first discovery occurred in present-day Arvada.

Today, land has been set aside for the development of Gold Strike Park at the confluence of Ralston and Clear Creeks celebrating Colorado's first gold discovery.

A spectacular pedestrian bridge connecting the Ralston and Clear Creek trail systems was completed in October of 2001 and is a signature architectural gateway on Arvada's eastern edge. The 400-foot long curved bridge is supported by suspended cables and anchored by a three-foot diameter mast 100 feet tall.

Development of a Community

In 1859, John Reno helped George Calvin Swadley, William Barranger, and others dig the Ralston Point Mining Ditch (later called the Wadsworth irrigation ditch).

By 1860 more than thirty land claims had been filed in the Ralston/Clear Creek valley by men who came for gold but stayed to develop farms and establish a home.

Crops that thrived were wheat, corn, oats, plums, celery, cherries, berries, melons, strawberries, and various vegetables. At one time, Arvada was known as the "celery capitol of the world."

Arvada farmers found a good market for their produce in Denver and in hungry mining camps. They had to drive a horse and wagon into Denver City to pick up their mail and to purchase supplies. Their address was "near Ralston's Point" - the high ridge between Ralston Creek and Clear Creek.

Benjamin Franklin Wadsworth and the New Town

Benjamin Franklin Wadsworth purchased a land claim in 1863 and by 1869 had moved his family into a primitive log cabin. After the Wadsworth family had settled into their log cabin, Benjamin Wadsworth began to make plans for a school located on his property. He also realized that the Colorado Central railroad, laid from Denver to Golden in 1870, would make a post office possible if a town could be platted and named.

Wadsworth developed a plat for a town of nine square blocks on his 160 acres, and his wife Mary Ann named the new town Arvada after her brother-in-law, Hiram Arvada Haskins.

The formal notice of the new town, population 100, was posted on December 1, 1870.

Wadsworth applied for a post office and became the first postmaster. Passing trains 'threw off' mail sacks and the Wadsworth family would sort mail into boxes labeled A - Z.

Wadsworth worked tirelessly to attract storekeepers and homeowners to the town. Stores were centered around streets called Railroad (later Grand View) and Centre (later Wadsworth Blvd.) and included a bank, doctors, real estate agents, restaurants, grocery stores, a pharmacy, a hardware store, a blacksmith shop, a livery stable and more.

The New Town Grows

World War I brought an upsurge in prices paid for crops, but the population fell to 840 as most eligible men joined the forces overseas. Rationing of food and supplies affected all citizens, and children helped tend war gardens. Military training was compulsory for freshman and sophomore students, and war training became an elective subject for upperclassmen.

A.L. Davis built a two-storied brick building to house his Ford Automobile Agency in 1916, and the same year Clemency McIlvoy gave land and money to establish Arvada's first park. Marcello Nicolino erected a brick building in 1922 which housed his drugstore and a grocery store.

Even the Ku Klux Klan had a presence in Arvada. In the early 1920s, the KKK targeted Arvada's small Italian Catholic community, burning crosses on Carr Hill, Hackberry Hill, and the lawn of The Shrine of St. Anne's Catholic Church.

Arvada welcomed E.E. Benjamin's Arvada Flour Mill in 1925. Wheat moved through the mill with a system of bucket elevators.

Benjamin conducted a contest to name his fine flour, Arva-Pride. The first sack of flour was sold on April 12, 1926. The Mill also produced whole wheat flour and self-rising pancake flour. The Flour Mill, located at 5590 Olde Wadsworth Boulevard, can still be viewed today.

World War II ended August 14, 1945, and Arvada, population 1,500, felt the excitement of the housing boom. In 1947 George Clizbe built 38 houses north of Ralston Road, and in 1948, Chet Hoskinson built 38 houses east of Carr Street in west Arvada. Hoskinson, in 1952, built 300 more houses east of Independence Street. With a population of 2,359, Arvada became a City on November 1, 1951.

Arvada's old town boomed. In November of 1947, Lloyd King opened his first King Soopers store in the Ralph E. Ashton Building on West 57th Avenue and Webster Street.

Changes came when Arvada Square Shopping Center opened in 1959 followed by Arvada Plaza Center, and these new centers, coupled with shopping malls throughout the metro-area, pulled business from Arvada's downtown commercial district. Wadsworth By-Pass was constructed in 1958, further diverting traffic from Olde Town Arvada.

Fortunately, City leaders and historians recognized the significance of the Olde Town area. Instead of razing the original downtown for new development, Olde Town Arvada is now a National Historic District and is undergoing a revitalization. Arvada's population has grown significantly from the 600 people who resided here in 1904. Today, Arvada is a thriving suburb of over 102,000 people.

Incorporation and the Provision of Municipal Services

In the early days between 1870 and 1904, Arvada had no sewage or water system, no organized fire or police protection, no electricity . . . . in short, Arvada had no town government.

On April 22, 1903, leaders of the town met to discuss incorporation. Dr. Richard Russell, who had moved to Arvada in 1902, asked his friend Dr. Henry Buchtel, Chancellor of the University of Denver, to make a speech. The meeting was chaired by the Reverend John F. White, former Methodist minister. After heated discussion, those present voted to support incorporation and an election was held May 27, 1903. Incorporation was defeated.

A second election was held November 10, 1903. Again incorporation was defeated.

A third election was held on July 26, 1904 and the vote for incorporation passed 159 to 62!

Articles of Incorporation for the Town of Arvada, population 600, were filed on August 24, 1904. The town boundaries were Ralston Road to the north, Carr Street to the west, 54th Street to the south, and Lamar Street to the east.

The elected Town Board began meeting in September: Dr. Richard Russell, Mayor and Trustees Morton Alexander, W.L. Jeffryes, John F. White, F.S. Bobb, H.P. Benson, and Gibbs West.

The new town board quickly awarded franchises to provide for the installation of electric and telephone lines. They hired a town marshall to keep order, eliminate farm animals and cats and dogs from the streets, and supervise the water ditches.

The Town Board moved into a vacant building east of Wadsworth Avenue on Grand View Avenue. They rented space for $15 a month, finally purchasing the building in 1914. This building served as City Hall for 67 years until a new City Hall was built in 1971 at 8101 Ralston Road.

On April 8, 1951, Arvada, population 2,539, achieved the status of second class city. The Town Board was now called a City Council and the Trustees became Councilmen or Councilwomen. The first City Manager was hired in 1961.

New Fire Department

In 1907, the Arvada Town Board approved the purchase of Arvada's first fire engine. The hand-drawn chemical fire engine arrived by rail from New York, and a group of volunteers known as the Arvada Fire Company was established.

In 1911, the Arvada Fire Department was formed, funded primarily by appropriations from the Town Board and profits from dances held on the second floor of the First National Bank building.

Arvada's first motorized fire engine was a 1923 Graham Brothers chemical engine purchased in Denver from the Julius Pearce Fire Supply Company. The "Old Dodge" can still be seen traveling the streets of Arvada, with its use now restricted to parades and other special events.

In 1949, local citizens approved the formation of the Arvada Fire Protection District, which transferred control and financing of the department from the Arvada City Council to a separate Board of Directors consisting of five elected officials.

For many years, the Arvada Fire Protection District (AFPD) was the largest volunteer fire department west of the Mississippi. In 1999, voters within the District supported a mill levy increase to allow the Arvada Fire Protection District to move from an all-volunteer organization to a combination volunteer/career District.

Today the Arvada Fire Protection District covers approximately 40 square miles and serves a population of 110,000.

Police Department Organized

In its early days, Arvada faced crime and lawlessness from time to time. Murder, robbery, assault, and other crimes were reported every so often.

Concern at the lack of police protection was one of several reasons why some citizens pushed for incorporation.

The Golden Globe newspaper reported in January of 1904, "In view of the robberies going on at this place, the citizens feel that they ought to have some protection. Well, the constable lives out of town, the deputy sheriff is protecting Moffat's coal mine and the high sheriff himself visits the town about once a month at high noon. Why not incorporate?"

The establishment of a police presence was a primary goal following the vote to incorporate on August 24, 1904, but for years the town got by with elected magistrates and marshalls.

In 1941, the Town Board hired Arvada's first uniformed policeman. In 1950, the Arvada Police Department was formed, beginning its operation with a chief and a deputy chief. In addition to responding to calls for service, the duo also read meters and performed a myriad of other duties.


Early Arvada's country lanes were not made for automobile traffic, a fact which became obvious soon after the first county automobile license was issued in 1908.

Rail transportation was a boon to the area. In 1902 the Denver Interurban, fondly called "the trolley", began regular runs from Arvada to Denver. The line was extended to the coal camp at Leyden and a run of the trolley "every hour on the hour" could carry both coal and passengers. The trolley made its last run on June 25th, 1950.

In 1877 a road was built from Clear Creek north to Arvada. Later, a bridge was built over Clear Creek, and by 1917, traffic had increased on the road to the point that a warning signal had to be established at the railroad crossing.

Road improvements for the entire town became more and more necessary. Wadsworth road was graveled, and in 1922, Arvada's Town Board ordered 52 loads of gravel to be dumped on Grand View Avenue. The men of the Town, shovels in hand, spread the gravel through the business district to connect Arvada's "Main Street" with the under-construction cement road from Denver, which would terminate at Graves Avenue (Lamar-Marshall Street).

The first Arvada Harvest Festival, now an annual tradition, was held in October of 1925 to celebrate the completion of the paved road.

On October 15, 1941 the first traffic light was installed at the corner of Wadsworth and Grandview (in 1934 the street was renamed Grandview from Grand View). This was the first traffic light in Jefferson County!

On January 28, 1967, the "super highway," Interstate 70, was opened between Wadsworth and Kipling streets.

Bringing Water

A primary responsibility of any municipality is the provision of water. In Arvada as in most front range communities, water is a scarce and precious resource. Prior to Arvada's incorporation in 1904, houses and stores drew water from individual wells or filled buckets from the irrigation ditches.

As Arvada's early pioneers settled into their daily routines, the demands for water grew along with the population. Farmers needed water to grow crops, miners required water for milling operations, and industries such as the local blacksmith needed water as well.

The first irrigation ditch was dug in 1860, and a maze of irrigation ditches followed, many of which still exist today. Still, the ditches could not provide reliable, quality water, and the first well was dug in 1870.

In 1910, the Arvada Water Tank was completed, providing artesian water that promised to end all water problems. However, a growing population stressed the water system.

Through the years that followed more wells were dug, and dug deeper again. Pumps were installed, and water towers erected. By 1955 residents were using 160 million gallons on an annual basis, and the well system was strained to the breaking point. Therefore, to supplement the wells, other water supplies were developed.

On March 14, 1960, a landmark contract was signed between Arvada and the Denver Water Board. The Contract secures three-fourths of Arvada's water: 19,000 acre feet per year collected from the Fraser River and South Boulder Creek Basins and transported first to Gross Reservoir and then to Ralston Reservoir.

The Contract also specifies that Arvada pays the rate Denver charges itself for water plus one percent, and that the contract is perpetual. Signing of the contract climaxed months of negotiation regarding Arvada's water rights from the western slope and transported through the Moffat Tunnel.


Schooling in the area actually began in 1863, in a log cabin on the John B. Wolff homestead.

In 1869, Benjamin F. Wadsworth donated land for a frame schoolhouse, and in 1882 the wooden structure was replaced with a brick building. The school was located at 5650 Olde Wadsworth Boulevard between Grandview and 57th Avenue, teaching students through 1920.

After 1920, it became a commercial building with a new façade. However, in 1999 during the Olde Town renaissance project, the schoolhouse was uncovered and the front restored to its original appearance.

In 1900, a new school building was opened on Zephyr and Grandview. The Arvada School, as it came to be known, has been in continuous use since, surviving additions and remodeling. The building was renamed Lawrence Elementary School in 1955.

In 1920, the first bricks were laid for the modern-day Arvada High School, still proudly standing on Wadsworth Boulevard.

In 1922 Thomas D. Vanderhoof joined the teaching staff, teaching vocational agriculture and welding. He is remembered as a visionary and a mentor, and Arvada's first honored coach. Baseball, football, and basketball flourished under his leadership.

On Monday, December 8, 1941, the day after Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese and the United States entered World War II, Arvada High School Principal Ray S. Fitzmorris called a school assembly and said to the boys, "You seniors are going to start this war and you freshmen are going to finish it."

In 1950, Jefferson County's 39 school districts, including Arvada's school district, consolidated into one large district and is today is the largest school district in the State of Colorado.

Within the public school system Arvada has four high schools, five middle schools, 22 elementary schools, and two charter schools; in addition Arvada has five private and/or parochial schools.

Elementary Schools

  • Allendale, 5900 Oak Street, built in 1963. Developer of the area named it for William M. Allen, a homesteader in this area.
  • Fitzmorris, 6250 Independence Street, built in 1959. Ray Fitzmorris was a teacher and principal at Arvada High School, also an administrator in the Arvada District.  After reorganization he was in charge of Pupil Personnel at R-1 Administrator Building until his retirement.
  • Foster, 5300 Saulsbury Court, built in1955.  E.L. Foster, M.D. was a doctor in Arvada for many years.
  • Fremont, 6420 Urban Street, built in 1974. Named for the wife of the explorer by that name.
  • Hackberry Hill, 7300 W. 76th Avenue, built in1966. Named for a hill by early residents because of finding a lone hackberry tree there.  There are two Indian legends about this hill.
  • Lawrence, 5611 Zephyr Street, built in 1900. Helen Lawrence, a teacher in early Arvada Schools, was employed in 1904.  Because of overcrowded conditions, she taught her first year in a storeroom on Grandview Avenue.  For 27 years she taught the younger children in Arvada schools.  She retired in 1932. The Arvada school was renamed in her honor.  She is highly respected in Arvada as hundreds of people remember her and speak highly of her as a first grade teacher.
  • Little, 8448 Otis Drive, built in 1973. Dr. John Little was a superintendent in Arvada Schools before reorganization.  He went on to the University of Colorado from which he later retired.
  • Parr, 5800 W. 84th Avenue, built in 1969.  Mr. and Mrs. Esta D. Parr donated the land to the school district.
  • Peck, 6495 Carr Street, built in 1966.  Homer Peck was superintendent of Arvada from 1930 to 1941.
  • Russell, 5150 Allison Street, built in 1955.  Dr. Richard Russell was a doctor in Arvada and its first mayor (1904-1923).
  • Secrest, 6875 West. 64th Avenue, built in 1955.   T. Ellsworth Secrest™s children sold land to the district at greatly reduced cost.  Thompson C. Secrest came to Colorado in 1882.  Later he bought 3 miles northeast of Arvada.  He taught school for two years in Ohio before coming here.  He was very interested in education and insisted that all children go to college.  In 1920 the East Arvada Junior High School was built on Luther Secrest™s property.  Charles Secrest, who was a principal of an Arvada school in 1897, was a member of this family.
  • Sierra, 7751 Oak Street, built in 1971.  Areas named because of the view of the mountains.
  • Stott, 6600 Yank Way, built in 1972.  David Stott was an early farmer and pioneer.  The family sold the land to the district.
  • Swanson, 6055 W. 68th Avenue built in 1964.  Mrs. Olive Swanson taught math at Arvada Junior High School.  Before coming to Jefferson County she was principal of Canon City High School.
  • Vanderhoof, 5875 Routt Court, built in 1969.  Thomas Vanderhoof was a teacher of agriculture and a football coach in Arvada for many years.  He was also a member of the first Jefferson County School Board after reorganization.
  • Warder, 7840 Carr Drive, built in 1973. Zina Warder taught at Lawrence, held other positions in education and retired from Fitzmorris as principal.
  • Weber, 8725 W. 81st Place, built in 1972.  Joe Weber taught Driver™s Education and coached at Arvada High School for 30 years.
  • West Woods, 16650 W. 72nd Avenue, built in 1996. Named after the surrounding area.

Middle Schools

  • Arvada, 5751 Balsam Street, built in 1953.  Arvada was named, according to one source, by Mrs. Benjamin Wadsworth for a brother in law, Hiram Arvada Haskins.  Another source says that he was the brother in law of B.F. Wadsworth.  A third source says that it was named for the daughter of B.F. Wadsworth who had been named for an uncle.  The first name of the area was Ralston Creek.
  • Drake, 12250 W. 52nd Avenue, built in 1959.  O.B. Drake was Arvada Superintendent of Schools from 1902 to 1919.
  • Moore, 8455 W. 88th Avenue, built in 1980.  Mr. Charles Moore served on the Board of Education at various times since 1955 when he was first elected.  He resigned in 1958 when he moved to Ohio and, upon returning to Jefferson County, was named to replace Tom Eych when he resigned in 1963.  Subsequently he was reelected to the Board in 1967 and served until his retirement in February 1969.
  • North Arvada, 7285 Pierce Street.  Named after the area.
  • Oberon, 7300 Quail Street, built in 1964. Oberon was a pioneer family.  The Moffat Railroad had a stop here named Oberon Junction.

Senior High Schools

  • Arvada, 7951 W. 65th Avenue, built in 1972.  Named after the area.
  • Pomona, 8101 Pomona Drive, built in 1973.  Named after the area.
  • Ralston Valley, 13355 W. Avenue, built in 2000.  Named for Ralston Creek which runs through the valley.
  • Arvada West, 11325 Allendale Drive, built in 1963.  Named after the area.
  • Standley Lake, 9300 W. 104th Avenue, built in 1986.  Named for Standley Lake.

Community and Culture

 The town of Arvada was the business and social center of the valley. Everyone came to town on Saturdays. Most stores had a hitching rack to tie up horses while customers shopped, and trees in the middle of Grand View provided welcome shade. There were no paved streets or sidewalks. Planks were laid across the largest puddles in wet weather.

Early Arvadans participated in community activities of all sorts, and founded service clubs, literary societies, sporting clubs, farming organizations, pioneer associations, and adult education. There were always lectures or club meetings to attend. Barn dances were held in various people's barns or in public buildings. Women brought cakes and pies, and passing the hat paid local musicians.

In 1925, the first concrete road between Arvada and Denver was completed and the newly formed Chamber of Commerce planned a huge celebration with Arvada's fall harvest for October 17. An appearance by the Governor and a football game were planned, as well as speeches, displays of goods and farm animals, and music and dancing.

No one counted on a blizzard the night before the celebration, but Arvadans shoveled the roads and celebrated anyway, without the Governor or the football game.

Thus the annual Harvest Festival was born. Only three times since has the Festival not been held-one year during the Great Depression, once during World War II, and once during a polio scare.

In 1937, a group of Arvada women decided to get together to discuss the growing of plants and flowers. Soon the group became the Arvada Garden Club. Their motto was: "Strive to develop the beauties of our town."

Until 1999 when the Club officially disbanded, members planted trees, flowers, and shrubs all over the community, including Olde Wadsworth Boulevard, Hackberry Hill Park, the Arvada library, and McIlvoy Park, a held fund raisers to support community projects such as providing Christmas trees to Fitzsimmons Hospital and running a therapy project at the Ridge Home.

The Arvada Center

The idea for the Arvada Center began in 1972, when almost 160 sixth grade students from Secrest Elementary School presented a pageant called Look Back With Pride.

Arvada teacher Lois Lindstrom had written the pageant so these students could learn about Arvada's rich history.

That same year, the Arvada Historical Society was formed by Lindstrom, who served as its first president. In 1973, the Arvada City Council asked Lindstrom to chair a committee to develop the concept of a cultural center.

The Cultural Center Committee wanted much more than a place to meet and talk about history. They wanted a place where artists could come together and share a living history with the community, a center that would enrich cultural life. The committee, with assistance from architect Harold Carver, developed a plan which was adopted by the City Council:  a center which would house a museum, art galleries, and a theater.

The Arvada City Council set the date of May 21, 1974 for a bond election on two questions: $3.4 million dollars for Parks and Open Space, and $3.6 million dollars to construct a cultural center. When the votes were tallied on election night both the parks bond and the cultural center bond issues had passed.

The Center and the Museum opened in 1976. Today, the Arvada Center is one of the metro Denver area's largest cultural attractions, offering a wide variety of arts experiences - professional theater productions for both adults and children, concerts, dance performances, critically acclaimed gallery exhibitions, a history museum, classes in the arts and humanities, banquet /conference facilities and more.

Preserving our History

The Arvada Historical Society was organized August 24, 1972. Over the years its efforts resulted in the birth of the Arvada Center, and the restoration of the Arvada Flour Mill.

The Society helped secure State and National Historic Designations for Olde Town Arvada, and urged the dedication of Gold Strike Park to commemorate the Lewis Ralston gold discovery of 1850.

In 2002 Olde Town Arvada received designation as a Colorado Main Street Community by the Colorado Community Revitalization Association, helping further efforts to revitalize Olde Town and the surrounding neighborhoods.

And the Society has written a number of books chronicling Arvada's rich history, to make sure it is not lost for generations to come.


Arvada retains its small town feel despite its estimated population of 111,559. Arvada's land encompasses nearly 40 square miles.

Three proximate interstate highways provide easy access to the larger metropolitan region and Denver International Airport.

An extraordinary trail system links with Denver trails on the east and the foothills of the Rocky Mountains to the west, punctuated with thousands of acres of parks and open spaces.

Residents and businesses have easy access to world-class research institutions including the University of Colorado and Colorado School of Mines; in addition, the Arvada campus of Red Rocks Community College provides training assistance to meet employer needs.

Arvada's diverse economic base, highly educated workforce, low crime rate, and superb quality of life have helped shape our community into one of the most attractive and competitive cities in the Centennial State!