Denver 101: The Mile High City’s collegiate avenues

Anyone exiting the University of Denver campus to drive south on University Boulevard (named, aptly enough, after DU) will pass Dartmouth, Cornell and Yale (avenues, that is). Meandering through the University Park neighborhood, they’ll also encounter Vassar and Harvard, perhaps even Bates.

Why are so many streets in south Denver named after elite colleges on the East Coast?

Phil Goodstein’s book, “Denver Streets: Names, Numbers, Locations, Logic.”

The answer can be found in Denver historian Phil Goodstein’s book, “Denver Streets: Names, Numbers, Locations, Logic.” This is the definitive history of Denver street names. In fact, it is so widely referenced, the book sits on a shelf a mere arm’s length from the librarian’s desk in the special collections room at the main Denver Public Library.

To understand the naming of these collegiate streets, it helps to understand Denver’s street-naming history.

The town of St. Charles, later named Denver, was founded in 1858 by Gen. William Larimer. He and William McGaa, an early settler, collaborated to plot and name the streets of the new town. Street names were originally applied with no consistency, with many different roads sharing the same name.

Denver’s population exploded in 1870 with the coming of the railroad. The population jumped from nearly 4,800 residents to more than 106,000 by 1890. Denver’s growth was uneven, and real estate speculation fueled the economy. Areas were developed with little direction from the government, with each developer platting streets independently of others.

The resulting inconsistency created problems for the Denver Union Water Co. and headaches for its bookkeeper, Howard C. Maloney. Maloney often was criticized when customers complained about not getting their bills or service as promised. Messengers for the water company simply couldn’t find their customers.

With full support of the water company, the city passed Ordinance 16 on February 20, 1897, which paved the way for imposing some order (often alphabetical) on the city’s streets.

Maloney provided many of the new street names with the aid of a draftsman in the city engineer’s office. He devised a logical system to rename the city streets and seized upon a series of theme alphabets to define the new street system. This is known as the Maloney System. Maloney also introduced several name series, such as the Indian tribe series (think Arapahoe and Bannock) and the great Americans series (think Wolcott and Hooker). 

The first set of Maloney’s changes took place in 1897, with further renaming in 1904.

Originally, “street” and “avenue” had no specific meaning in the Mile High City, but at the turn of the century, they were given precise definitions. “Street” was a road running north and south, while “Avenue” was a road going east and west. “Boulevard” was the name of a major arterial.

Which leads us to South University Boulevard, once known as East Broadway. After the cornerstone was laid for University Hall in 1890, East Broadway became University Avenue to note the school’s presence in South Denver. The north-south corridor was renamed University Boulevard in 1917.

The University was founded in 1864 as the Colorado Seminary and was operated by the Methodist Episcopal Church. It struggled in the early years and was renamed the University of Denver in 1880. The University moved from downtown Denver to land donated by potato farmer Rufus Clark in South Denver.

Three avenues near the campus reflect the institution’s origins as a Methodist school. Wesley Avenue is named for John Wesley, the founder of Methodism; Asbury Avenue recalls Francis Asbury, the first Methodist bishop in North America; and Warren Avenue represents Henry White Warren, the first Methodist bishop of Colorado.

Elizabeth Iliff Warren was the widow of cattle king John Wesley Iliff. She helped the University locate to South Denver and donated funds for the establishment of the Iliff School of Theology on campus, thus the naming of Iliff Avenue. Evans Avenue is named for John Evans, former Colorado governor and a central figure in the founding of the University of Denver.

Iliff Ave. by campus

To reflect the University’s status as a premier institution, other streets near campus were named after elite colleges in the New England area. Harvard Avenue was to denote DU as the “Harvard of the West.” Neighboring Vassar and Yale Avenues were to show the University would combine the best of the East Coast schools in the Mile High City.

Yale Avenue, the street along the southern boundary of Denver, was a dividing point in the Maloney System. The roads directly south of Yale Avenue also had college names, though not in any particular order. Amherst Avenue was Princeton Avenue; Bates Avenue was Cornell Avenue; today’s Cornell Avenue was Johns Hopkins Avenue; and Dartmouth Avenue was Cambridge Avenue. Maloney modified this by installing a new alphabet south of Yale Avenue, thus creating a new naming system for the collegiate streets.

That’s the short version of how Denver’s collegiate avenues from Dartmouth to Harvard got their names. If you’re curious about the naming of the area’s north-south bound streets, a certain book at the Denver Public Library will give you the scoop.

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