Denver Woolen Mills & J W Smith – Lasting Landmark #2

I had seen the plaque marking “Site of the First Colorado Woolen Mill” at City Bark before I ever started writing Across the Creek. It actually inspired the starting, knowing that there were so many stories to tell. When I finally got around to tackling this early Denver Landmark (not officially landmarked), I was in for a surprise.


by Dave Stauffer

Site of the First Colorado Woolen Mill, erected 1870 by John Winterbottom and John W. Smith, Dedicated 1961 by The Territorial Daughters of Colorado

I had then seen the old-timey promotional photo below from the DPL’s amazing online archive, clearly depicting the Smith Mill.


Denver Woolen Mills, West Denver, Col. J W Smith, Proprietor- Courtesy DPL Western History Collection Call Number X-18514 [between 1869 and 1879]

I had read the article published by Colorado Magazine by the State Historical Society in 1961 elaborates on Smith and Winterbottom’s lives and contributions, and reports of the plaque’s dedication “on the site of the first Woolen Mill in the Territory.”

First Woolen Mill Site Marked (Colorado Magazine Vol.39#1, Jan 1962)

Further support was added from my earlier research, such as  West Denver’s Water Legacy and Maps to Lincoln Park’s History that described the area of this building as owned by  J W Smith. See his name on the riverfront parcel on map below. I see a ditch running through it, too.

Thayer's map of Denver, Colorado 1879

Thayer’s map of Denver, Colorado : Located in Tp. No’s 3 & 4 South Range No. 68 West Arapahoe County. Courtesy DPL Western History Collection CG4314.D4 1879.T49

It was easy to find coverage in the Rocky Mountain News on the exciting new contribution to Denver industry. Smith came to Denver with a ditch digging machine and the ambition to build mills upon them. Along with milling equipment, he also would import a partner from Missouri.

Mr. John Winterbottom would help him manufacture “satinets, cassimeres, jeans, flannels, carpets, blankets, shawls, and socks,” “of a very superior quality,” if Smith could put together enough investors to construct the building.

“The superintendent, Mr. Winterbottom, is an experienced manufacturer, and proposes to nothing but first-class work. Everything about the mill is arranged with great convenience and order, and the establishment is one which not only does credit to the company but to our city and territory. It deserves to be fostered and encouraged, and our hope is that many more similar ones will rise in Denver and other portions of Colorado….Mr. Smith wishes those who have agreed to aid the enterprise by cash subscriptions to pay them this week,…We trust all will do so at once, and that others will lend aid to an enterprise of so much importance not only to our commercial interests as a city, but to the general industrial progress of the territory”

But there was one detail that stood out to me. It was impossible to ignore.

“It will occupy ground between Larimer and Sixth Streets, and Cheyenne and Arapahoe avenues, in West Denver”

One of my first lessons in researching these early chapters in our neighborhood history, was the hows and whys of our changing street names (many thanks, Phil Goodstein Denver Streets). If there was one street name that was never changed, I would say it was Larimer Street. It was the backbone of both communities, always bridging Denver and Auraria.

Next task, see if the block described by those street names are found on a map of Auraria.


Glover’s rendering offers support

So, sometimes this as good as you get in this game, but there’s Larimer. At the crease, there is a building facing Eighth that is a fair match for our Woolen Mill photo. And,we have a match on the map below. I’d say the pink box on lot 9 is a possibility based on the evidence in map above. “It will occupy ground between Larimer and Sixth Streets, and Cheyenne and Arapahoe avenues, in West Denver,”


Robinson’s Atlas 1887 shows location of Denver’s First Woolen Mill

In fact, except for the bronze marker and Colorado Magazine article, all references in other articles, directories and advertisements point to the Smith/Winterbottom mill location in Auraria. Unfortunately, permitting records do not exist for either location.

So if the mill described as Denver’s First Woolen Mill actually was located in Auraria/West Denver, what role did the building standing today actually play in this story. The architectural resemblance is clear, and it would have stood on land claimed by Smith. The Rocky Mountain News did also suggest “that many more similar ones will rise in Denver.” 

I finally had to go back and take a closer look at the structure, to see how it compared to the image in the old photo of the Denver Woolen Mills, West Denver, J W Smith, Proprietor. Then I saw it.  The window alignment is significantly different.
denver-woolen-mill-city-bark-zooms I assume there is a central window covered by the signage, but I see no evidence that the positions of those windows were altered. The opposite side, facing the railroad tracks, is the same and offers no alternative explanation. Windows do get moved, but the pitch of the roof and window relationships must give rise to alternative theories. Unless the entire building was moved, I now believe it has a different story than the one told by its marker. I have been digging and digging, but have yet to discover any documentation of the structure’s origin.

Our old friend, Mr. Smiley, often has something to say on these matters. Perhaps his account of Denver’s early industry will clarify:

The miller was also among Denver’s pioneer manufacturers, and from his beginning produced an excellent quality of flour, though the early mills were quite different affairs from the two huge establishments now engaged in that business. John W. Smith brought Denver’s first flour-making machine (and also the first in Colorado) when he came here in 1860. It was a small portable buhr grist mill with which he made in that year the first flour and corn meal produced in Colorado. In 1865 Smith erected in “West Denver” a rather large steam flour mill the fuel for which was wood at twenty-five dollars a cord. Disposing of this a year or so later, he built another and much larger mill which he operated by water power obtained from the Union Ditch Company’s hydraulic canal that had been constructed in “West Denver” in 1864, and taking water from the Platte river some distance above the town. In 1874 Smith built still another and still larger mill—the Excelsior Mill— still in operation at Eighth and Lawrence streets and which in 1879 he sold to J. K. Mullen who later built the present great Hungarian Mills. .. The pioneer conditions in Denver and Colorado were discouraging to the early efforts of manufacturers. Every movement was attended by extraordinary expense, the heaviest of which was the cost of transportation—getting materials into Denver, or into the Territory, and then getting the finished products out to the customers, most of whom were located in places rather difficult of access. These circumstances naturally and necessarily circumscribed the pioneer manufacturers. The coming of railroads in 1870 greatly relieved the transportation situation, but there was no marked expansion of manufacturing in Denver until later in that decade. In 1870 John W. Smith and John Winterbottom built and began operating  a rather large woolen mill making rough flannels, blankets and yarns; their building having been on the south side of Larimer street, near the “mill ditch” in “West Denver.” But the business did not permanently prove profitable. Conditions of 1873 embarrassed it, and in 1877 it was discontinued. This was, we believe, the first and only woolen mill in Colorado. The machine shops and flour mills at that time were the more important manufacturing interests.”

History of Denver, Smiley, Jerome C.,1901.

Courtesy DPL Western History Collection C978.883 S641hi 1901.

OK, so Smiley couldn’t provide THE answer, but in light of all I am comfortable concluding that the building was a mill or manufacturing operation, constructed for or by Smith close to 1870. I hate to lose the neighborhood honor as home of Denver’s First Woolen Mill, but the outcome of this research was still fascinating and the structure should still be valued as a lasting landmark. I do not believe that the Territorial Daughters perpetuate any intentional deceit, but I have discovered how unchallenged assumptions can create or erase history. Over several months, I have made repeated requests through a verified contact for access to any evidence the organization might possess, without reply. Of course, I am always open to make corrections and will continue to seek better answers to the questions this post presents. Yay, history!


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