Creating a Digital Denver
By Robert Jordan
In the spring of 2015 and 2016, students in my HIST475 course on digital history at Colorado State University began work on an ambitious new project focused on recreating historical spaces in a virtual environment. During the selection process for the location of the project, I identified Denver as an ideal historical space to work with, as it was familiar to nearly all my students, local archival materials were easily accessible both physically and digitally, and the breadth of available archival materials would allow for a multifaceted recreation of the economic, social, environmental, and cultural life of the city. In order to take the first steps towards the ultimate goal of the project – the creation of a 1:1 scale, virtual facsimile of the city of Denver at the dawn of the twentieth century – my students and I utilized resources from the Denver Public Library’s collection of Sanborn maps and digital photographs, Colorado State Library’s Historic Newspapers Collection, and an education-focused version of the immensely popular video game Minecraft. As a digital platform for the building of virtual environments, Minecraft.edu had enormous advantages due to its relatively shallow learning curve for my students working within the time confines of a 15 week semester and its utility for use as part of a public history project, as our final product could potentially be accessed by tens of millions of Minecraft users.
Students also were tasked with researching thematic topics from within the social, economic, political, and cultural history of the city and the larger U.S. West to be incorporated into a companion website. Blue-colored information markers placed throughout the virtual environment allow for visitors to engage with a multifaceted, multimedia exploration of the history of Denver provided on our prototype Tumblr site still in development.
By layering online access to newspaper articles, historical photographs, and original student research onto the virtual spaces of the city, visitors will gain a deeper understanding of the spaces and places of this growing city seated on the edge of empire. However, as much as potential visitors have to benefit by an exploration of this virtual space, my students benefitted most from this complex process of creating a historical facsimile of Denver.
Student outcomes from participation in this project were varied, but several themes remain consistent as we come to the close of construction this semester. First, despite the fact that many students came into the course unfamiliar with the history of the U.S. West, they soon came to understand Denver through researching the daily practices and experiences of frontier peoples within the spaces and places of this booming city. According to French sociologist Henri Lefebrve, these public and semi-private places, real and imagined, represent the spatialized production of ideas, values, and memories that individuals and the state attach to them. In their individual research, students came to better understand that historical actors’ creation and ordering of spaces across the city had the power to “transform space into place,” capable of shaping and reshaping the cultural landscape of the city of Denver.
Secondly, as a prerequisite to constructing the spaces and places of the city, students did research at a level of detail unlike anything encountered in their previous history classes. To accurately recreate the historical spaces of Denver, research into the small details needed to do so revealed information about
Denver’s placement within the larger history of cities in the U.S. West. During the turn of the twentieth century, Denver strived to assert itself as more than a mere imitator of east coast cities and attempted to showcase itself as a unique center for local innovation and economic development. These aspirations of city officials and wealthy residents could be seen in our virtual version of historic Denver by reading the built environment like a text. The small details discovered by my students as they built the urban landscape from the ground up illuminated the social and cultural life of a city in transition, made visible through details such as the planting of non-native oak and maple trees in the green spaces of the city by homesick easterners; the manipulation of the Platte River and its subsidiary creeks for urban use; the ubiquity of saloons as gathering places for immigrant men; the grandiose theatres, opera house, and civic buildings designed to showcase the city’s cultural sophistication; the abundance and nature of peripheral businesses connected to the boom in mining and agriculture; and the technological advances in energy, communication, and transportation made manifest in the chaotic webs of electrical wires and streetcar tracks coursing throughout the streets of the city.
Thirdly, through this process of building a living city from scratch, my students gained an incredible amount of understanding of the history of the city and the daily practices of its residents, but equally as important, they came to understand the limits of historical knowledge and the impossibility of ever truly knowing the past. In their attempts to conduct research on the ethnic composition of Denver at the turn of the twentieth century, students were disheartened to discover a significant lack of photographic and written evidence for the existence of non-white peoples outside the cold figures of the census rolls. This marginalization of non-whites was further hammered home by a greater understanding of the spatial orientation of the city, as students came to realize the amount of physical distance placed between the wealthy elites in the city center and the immigrant laborers relegated to the growing periphery. Additionally, despite that the majority of my students were Colorado natives with a high degree of familiarity with Denver, despite the fact that our archival materials were incredibly extensive, and despite the fact that our research focused on a period roughly a mere century ago, many students were shocked by how little we can actually know about city life during this period. Huge knowledge gaps exist on the appearance of physical structures, the design and utility of interior spaces, and the aforementioned social and cultural practices of many non-white community members. As David Lowenthal famously stated and my students came to discover, the past is a foreign country, not an easily discoverable body of comprehensive, objective data.
Lastly, this kind of project-centered learning with a heavy emphasis on collaboration between students, archivists, and instructors to create an immersive and interactive means of exploring the past has been an amazing experience for everyone involved. A number of teachable and non-teachable skills were gained through the process of our project development, including leadership, problem-solving, locating and utilizing archival data, digital literacy, the practice of public history, and project planning. Looking to the future, the time-intensive nature of this kind of ambitious digital project requires far more than two semesters of labor to fully create the city of Denver at the dawn of the twentieth century, as we have currently completed streets and building exteriors for only around 40 blocks of the city. Our projected launch date for a living, fully completed version of historical Denver is currently the year 2020, but soon we will be releasing updated versions of the map on a regular basis to share it with libraries, schools, and the general public, allowing a unique opportunity for any interested parties to virtually immerse themselves within the living landscape of the city of Denver as it was over a century ago.
 Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991), 321-323.
 David Lowenthal, The Past is a Foreign Country, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.