Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Colorado is famous for its high Rocky Mountains, but the eastern one-third of the state consists of High Plains. There is a dynamic relationship between the mountains and the Plains. The rain and snow that falls in the mountains almost every day of the year flows down to the Plains and is used to irrigate highly productive farms and ranches. On the other hand, the mountains create the rainshadow effect that condemns the Colorado Plains to a meager annual average of fifteen inches of precipitation.

Originally, the land area that is now Colorado was part of four other U.S. territories– Nebraska, Kansas, New Mexico, and Utah. The major event in the governmental history of Colorado was the discovery of gold near present-day Denver. The year was 1858, and news of the gold strike attracted large numbers of prospectors and miners to the area. One of the high Rocky Mountains–Pikes Peak–rises above the Plains just seventy miles south of Denver. Gold seekers rushing into the region simply steered their horses and covered wagons toward Pikes Peak, which was readily visible on the western horizon.

As the population around Denver increased, there was a movement to make the gold-mining areas a separate territory and, eventually, a separate state. In 1861 the U.S. Congress went along with this idea, and the same legislation that granted statehood to Kansas created Colorado Territory. The boundary of the new territory was nothing more than a big rectangle drawn around the city of Denver.

The gold mines continued to produce valuable ore, and then silver was discovered. By 1876 there was enough mining activity and population for Congress to grant statehood to Colorado. Because Colorado became a state in the same year as the 100th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, Colorado adopted the nickname "Centennial State."

The government of Colorado, like that of most states, is based on the national government. The legislative power is vested in a bicameral state legislature, the upper house known as the Colorado Senate and the lower house called the Colorado House of Representatives. Most of the executive power is vested in a governor. Other elected executive officials include the treasurer, the attorney general, and the secretary of state. Starting in 1990 all state elected officials in Colorado, legislative and executive, have been limited to two four-year terms in office.

Because Colorado is a large state with high, isolating mountain ranges, the state government has granted a great deal of power to county and city governments. Cities in particular have strong home-rule powers and are allowed to govern themselves, with reduced interference from state officials or the state legislature. In the Plains counties, which are mainly rural and small town in character, local governments have extensive powers over welfare programs, road paving, and law enforcement.

Colorado mainly votes for Republican Party candidates, but the state has a two-party flavor and qualified Democrats often do win high political office. From 1976 to 2000 the Republican Party enjoyed comfortable majorities in both houses of the Colorado state legislature. In the twenty-four years from 1974 to 1998, however, the Democrats controlled the governorship. Richard Lamm, a Democrat and a nationally known environmentalist, was elected governor in 1974 and served twelve years in office. Roy Romer, a Democrat with many business connections in Colorado, was elected to succeed Lamm in 1986 and also served as governor for twelve years. Romer had to leave the governor's office following the 1998 election when the eight-year term limits took effect. He was succeeded by a Republican, Gov. Bill Owens.

Gold and silver mining are no longer the mainstays of the Colorado economy. During World War II the U.S. government located a large number of military facilities in Colorado, mainly in Denver and Colorado Springs, two cities located in the Plains right at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. As a result, Colorado enjoyed a post–World War II economic and population boom. That boom was sustained in the late twentieth century by a large number of "high-tech" computer and data processing firms locating in Colorado. In 2000 the population of Colorado was 4.3 million persons and continuing to grow.

Most of the economic and population growth in Colorado is concentrated along the Front Range, an urbanized area running from north to south at the eastern foot of the Rocky Mountains. To the east, the High Plains of Colorado did not share in this rapid growth, but the region has remained a productive and successful agricultural area, due in part to irrigation from rivers and from deep wells.

See also AFRICAN AMERICANS: Webb, Wellington and Wilma / HISPANIC AMERICANS: Peña, Federico.

Robert D. Loevy Colorado College

Cronin, Thomas E., and Robert D. Loevy. Colorado Politics and Government: Governing the Centennial State. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993.

Lorch, Robert S. Colorado's Government. Niwot CO: University Press of Colorado, 1991.

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