Colorado History 101: Researching towns

Originally Published August 17, 2009

Since I have been learning the hard way how to find some of the towns of Colorado’s past myself, I thought I’d pass along a few tips to shorten your research time and help you find as much information as you possibly can.

Your town probably had several names. You may know the name of your tow in 1890, or may know the current name, but you’re having trouble finding the information on the town – it’s almost like it doesn’t exist. Likely your town had more than one name before it settled. As I have been looking, I’ve been finding towns with five different names! Two excellent books, which you should be able to find in your local library (if not, they are at the desk on the fifth floor of the Denver Public Library)

 Colorado Post Offices, 1859-1989: A Comprehensive Listing of Post Offices, Stations, and Branches by William H. Bauer, James L. Ozment and John H. Willard. 1990
This book is quite useful in finding towns, IF they had a post office. A seemingly common practice in the mountains of Colorado was to have a post office that came and went; here for a few years, then gone, possibly moved down the road, or reissued as the area was “rediscovered” and renamed.   However, a lot of the small towns didn’t have a post office – and still don’t. The book you want next is:
Place Names of Colorado by Donald R. Elliott. 1999
This book goes through and lists all the names alphabetically, and tells you other names the town held and when, as well as when and if they had a post office.
Once you know all the names, head to the library’s card catalog – and look all those names up. Sometimes articles about the same place will be under one name and not the other. This could lead you to books, documents, newspaper articles – be prepared to spend a little time looking through things, as well as spending time on the microfiche machine.
But what if you don’t know the name, but have a good idea where it is? Let’s say you are out taking a wandering drive and happen upon a ghost town – without a sign, of course. First of all, I find Google maps highly helpful. I use the satellite view option the most of all; I can zoom in really close and find a familiar landmark, and then follow my tracks from there. Once you have a pretty good idea where it is, then its back to the library and on to the maps. The Denver Public Library (and I’m sure several other libraries as well) have an excellent collection of maps from the time the state was still a territory up through today. There is also a large collection of the USGS (United States Geological Society) maps that are satellite, so you can pull those out for comparison. You can also access these maps online athttp://store.usgs.gov/b2c_usgs/usgs/maplocator/(xcm=r3standardpitrex_prd&layout=6_1_61_75&uiarea=2&ctype=areaDetails&carea=0000001753)/.do  It walks you through how to find the map you want.
When using the maps, make sure you have a magnifying glass so you can look closely at the area in question. Remember, if you can’t find it on a modern map, perhaps you can find it on a map from 1921. Or 1887. Or even older. It can be time consuming, but the happiness you feel when you finally find the spot is wonderful!
Even with all this work, it is possible you won’t find very much at all about the area in the main newspapers. Once you know where the town is and its name, you can find out what local newspapers there were at the time- perhaps not in your town, but in towns nearby. Sadly, some of these spots were just not notable and just not around for long enough to be talked about.
Other resources you can tap – local historical societies and museums. They may not have much written about it, but they may an old journal, or best of all, a photo or two of your town. A lot of times, they have things that the bigger museums don’t.
The Colorado History Museum may also have things on file that you cannot find in the library.
If it’s possible that your town was along a railroad, The Colorado Railroad Museum library is packed full of resources. Valuation maps for the railroad bring it down to small details, including marking the buildings that were there when the valuation was done. They also have a plethora of photos, books, employee records and other things for you to look at.
Above all, have patience. You never know where some bit piece of information is going to show up. Good luck in your searches!
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