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Stories Along the Line: Failed real estate development turns into thriving Aurora

Before you know it, thousands of people will be traversing through Aurora, north and southbound, in a new way.

They will be riding in light rail trains on the new 10.5-mile long R line that will help folks get to such vibrant places like Denver International Airport, the Denver Tech Center, downtown Denver, the Anschutz Medical Campus, the Aurora City Center, and much, much more.

R Line with sunburst

When this new rail line is completed it will tie to RTD's existing rail lines that (one) run southeast toward Douglas County and the City of Lone Tree; or curve north toward downtown Denver; and (two) to the new University of Colorado A Line that will zip passengers between the airport and Union Station in downtown Denver.

Furthermore, the city of Aurora played a key role in rerouting the new R line through Aurora's City Center to encourage a "town-like" feel and to help bring more transit-oriented development (TOD) to the area. TOD is a type of community development that includes a mix of housing, office and retail space in a walkable neighborhood that is close to public transportation.

And to think that Aurora, the third-largest city in Colorado, started out simply as four square miles of prairie in 1891-and it wasn't even called Aurora then.

Town of Fletcher

Donald Fletcher c. 1890
Donald Fletcher c. 1890
Actually, it grew out of a real estate deal called the Town of Fletcher after Donald Fletcher who, with his real estate partners, bought and developed the land east of Denver.

But, alas, Fletcher skedaddled a couple years later when the Silver Crash of 1893 left the struggling community with a huge water debt and no water.

That "Crash" is also known as "The Denver Depression of 1893."


Denver Depression

Denver and the surrounding area boomed during this period after numerous silver mines were discovered and developed. And at that time, almost every Colorado resident had a vested interest in silver's success.

But the circulation of silver precipitated a decline in gold-based money and hurt big banks in the east. The collapse of the silver market, along with successive years of drought and harsh winters not only hurt agriculture but led Denver to its first economic depression.

Original Aurora c 1920
"Original" Aurora, Colorado around 1920. Courtesy: City of Aurora
In 1907, by a vote of citizens, the Town of Fletcher was renamed Aurora after a subdivision by the same name-which, in Latin, means "Dawn."

Today, Aurora is comprised of hundreds of subdivisions but interestingly carries the name from one of its original developments.

"Original Aurora" where the Town of Fletcher was founded can be found in the northwest corner of the city (bordered by East 25th Avenue on the north; I-225 on the east; 6th Avenue on the south; and Yosemite Street on the west).

A square plot of land sits in the heart of Original Aurora and is named "Fletcher Plaza" which includes a sunken garden and tree-lined sitting area.

Transit premonition

But Fletcher may have had a premonition about the importance of transit and its ability to move people.

Fletcher and his partners deliberately placed the fledgling town, east of Denver, on the Colfax Streetcar line, which gave it a direct connection to the capitol city.

That same year, he and his group purchased the Colfax Electric Railway. He immediately expanded the line east to serve his new town.

But poor ridership forced him to sell to the Denver Tramway Co. in 1889.

Denver Tramway Trolley Trailer No. 610 has been restored for display at the Aurora History Museum. Photo courtesy: Aurora History Museum collection
Denver Tramway trolley trailer No. 610

By the early 1900s, trolley traffic on Colfax Avenue into Aurora flourished during early morning and late afternoon hours.

Trolley trailers, as they were called, held 50 passengers seated and 50 more standing.

One of the original trolleys, No. 610, was restored and is on display at the Aurora History Museum.

Big city and still growing

As the third largest city in Colorado, Aurora has rapidly surpassed Denver in land mass and spans across the counties of Arapahoe and Adams, with a southeast corner tucked into Douglas County.

Fitzsimons Army Medical Center in 1989
Fitzsimons Army Medical Center (1989). Courtesy: U.S. Army
At the end of WWI, in 1918, Aurora attracted a large military presence.

Army General Hospital #21, the forerunner to Fitzsimons Army Hospital, opened and cared for veterans. It was later expanded and upgraded to care for veterans returning from WWII.

A new main building was dedicated in 1941, which at the time, was the largest structure in Colorado.

It opened four days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and within weeks was filled with casualties from Hawaii. The hospital is named for William T. Fitzsimons, the first American medical officer killed in WWI.

Fitzsimons little known facts ...

  • In 1955, President Dwight D. Eisenhower suffered a heart attack while vacationing with his in-laws in Denver. He recovered in a suite of rooms on the 8th floor and stayed for seven weeks. He was released on Armistice Day, Nov. 11. In 2000, those rooms were restored to their original state.
  • On Dec. 11, 1943, John Kerry, former U.S. Senator, former presidential candidate and current Secretary of State was born there while his father received treatment for tuberculosis.
Anschutz Medical Campus
Anschutz Medical Campus, Aurora, Colorado. Courtesy: University of Colorado-Denver
Today, the campus at I-225 and Colfax Avenue, is called the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus and contains the Fitzsimons Life Science District, the University of Colorado Hospital, Children's Hospital Colorado and Denver Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

The university is exploring the feasibility of building a $300 million carbon-ion radiotherapy research and treatment facility. If the project comes to fruition, it will be the first of its kind in the nation and would provide help to animal and human cancer patients.

Air Force presence

Another military facility, Lowry Air Force Base, opened in 1938. It closed in 1994 and was redeveloped into "Lowry" a popular master-planned urban community by the cities of Denver and Aurora. More than 25,000 people live, work and go to school there.

In 1938, Buckley Air Force Base was originally constructed as an auxiliary landing field for Lowry Field.

In 1942, the Army Air Corps built and renamed Buckley Field in honor of First Lt. John H. Buckley, who was killed in WWI.

This facility was first a sub-post for Lowry Field and later renamed several times as:
  • Naval Air Station-Denver
  • Buckley Air National Guard Base
  • Buckley Air Force Base
Buckley AFB, Aurora, Colo.
Buckley Air Force Base, Aurora, Colo. Courtesy: RekonDog/Wikimedia Commons

Today it is an active duty air force base where the 460th Space Wing provides missile warning, missile defense, technical intelligence, satellite command and control and aerospace communications.

Most visible along the eastern horizon and from I-70 are Buckley's six massive "golf balls" which sit on the northwest corner of Buckley.

These 60-ton white geodesic domes, which resemble golf balls, are clustered across the landscape and provide weather protection for satellite antennas-large dishes which communicate with satellites that are always on the watch for missile launches around the world.

If a missile launch is detected, the information is relayed to NORAD-the North American Aerospace Defense Command-in Colorado Springs.

Buckley also supports the 140th Wing Colorado Air National Guard, a reserve unit of the U.S. Air Force. Base personnel have been deployed to the Berlin Crisis, the Vietnam Conflict, Iraq, Afghanistan and to various locations around the world.

More little known facts ...

Minute Men jet over Buckley AFB
A single F-16 was painted in Minute Men colors in 2006 to mark the 50th anniversary of the demonstration team. U.S. Air Force photo
  • Colorado's Air National Guard became the first federally recognized unit of its kind.
  • The "Minute Men" was the name of the Air Guard's first and only precision aerial flying demonstration team. The unit was disbanded in 1960 due to lack of funding.
  • A fledgling Air Force precision team-the "Thunderbirds"-emerged about the same time.
Today, Buckley is Aurora's largest employer with a workforce of 12,100.

Fletcher evolves into thriving Aurora

Although Fletcher's original vision didn't pan out for him, his idea eventually evolved into the thriving city of Aurora that grew from four square miles to nearly 143 square miles and is home to more than 345,000 people.

And he had the right idea about transportation as an efficient way to connect people.

Similar to the trolley lines of the 1890s that trundled up and down Colfax Avenue, tomorrow's new light rail trains will finally connect the city to its neighbors and the region.

Colfax Station arch
Colfax Station arch under construction on the R Line in Aurora




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