Soaring granite walls. The sounds of rushing water crashing down the mountainsides. Snow capping the spires and trees. These are just some of the images ingrained in my mind from a drive up Boulder Canyon.
As a resident of Nederland, I’ve made hundreds of trips over the past six years up and down the canyon, the scenic byway that connects Boulder to the Town of Nederland over the course of 18 miles. But occasionally my mind drifts back to what it was like in years gone by — maybe 100 years ago, when the first automobiles like the Stanley Steamer made their way up the bumpy dirt road. Or even farther back in time, 140 years ago, when the road was first built. Back in 1875, wagons and stages made the arduous trip starting at sunrise in Boulder and hoping to make it to Nederland by sunset.
Boulder Canyon Road is the product of a mining boom and the competitiveness of Boulder business owners. In the early 1870s, during the boom of the gold rush in Black Hawk and Central City, the first mining roads were built. Most road connected the towns of the plains to the mining camps up in the foothills. The most well traveled road of the time was the Enterprise Road, connecting Golden to Black Hawk. Boulder business owners wanted a piece of the mining pie and decided to build a road from Boulder up to the mining camps, mainly as a stage route.
The silver mining boom in Caribou coincided with their plans to build a road, and the construction was expedited to take advantage of the freight traffic that was sure to follow. Building the road up the canyon was no easy feat. Workers had to navigate steep and rugged terrain, following Middle Boulder Creek, forcing them to cross from one side of the canyon to the other a mind-boggling 33 times. The road, finished in 1871, was a one-lane road with little room to pull out for oncoming traffic.
Riding the canyon was fraught with danger for all, with few turn outs to use in the face of oncoming traffic. Drivers would attach bells to the harnesses of the draft horses or mules, or lanterns to the wagon boxes at night to alert those coming the other way. Because of the few turn outs, wagons with lighter loads had to remove the box off the wheels and be lifted off the roadway to allow oncoming traffic to pass. It often took from dawn until dusk to cover the 20 or so miles from Boulder to Caribou town site.
Miners weren’t the only ones to frequent the canyon. Tourists used the road to view the scenery and escape the heat down below. The first open top touring wagons used to carry people to scenic vistas along the canyon, such as Boulder Falls and Castle Rock. They would often have picnics at grassy spots along the creek, before returning back to Boulder by nightfall.
The road as it was originally built wasn’t suitable for automobile use. When the first cars started driving the canyon in 1911, the grades of the canyon road took its toll on cars. Motorists frequently had to pull over from their radiator overheating and use water from the creek to refill it, before commencing with their journey.
Because of this, Colodorado’s Department of Transportation completely reconstructed during the 1940s and 1950s — building a tunnel through the rock face, widening the road, straightening out hazardous curves, and eventually paving it. All that work came at a cost of 2.3 million dollars, but most today would find that well worth it. Today, the groundwork laid in 1871 has proved to be not only a commuting route for Nederland residents, but a scenic byway that draws hundreds of thousands of visitors who use it to view the beauty of the Rocky Mountains.