A Call for WHA Six Shooters Panel Participation

Are you experimenting with ways to use digital tools in your historical research? Do you teach western history with interactive digital media? Do you work in a museum, archive, or public agency that is curating digital archives or exhibits? If so, please consider sharing your ideas, successes, and challenges in a non-traditional session with WHA members who are keen to find out more about how to get started.

The WHA Technology Committee is seeking additional presenters for its 4th annual “Six-Shooters” session to be held on Sunday, October 23rd from 8:30-10:00 AM at the 2016 conference in St. Paul, MN. The session uses a lightning round format that allows each presenter six minutes and six slides to present their work. See the “Digital Frontiers” blog for reports on the previous presentations:

Should you either be planning to attend the conference and have some time on Sunday morning to share your work, or are close enough to come to St. Paul for the day and would like to present, please contact session chair Doug Seefeldt for more information ( If you are simply curious to find out what others are doing with technology in their teaching, research, or public history projects, please attend the session!

A Disappeared Resource

by Leisl Carr Childers

This semester, I have asked my students to explore the history of nuclear testing through the Nevada Test Site Oral History Project and related digital collections through the Department of Energy (DOE) and the Nevada Field Office of the National Nuclear Security Administration in Las Vegas, which operates the Nuclear Testing Archive and the OpenNet platform.

The Nuclear Testing Archive in Las Vegas, Nevada.

The Nuclear Testing Archive in Las Vegas, Nevada.

The online Library run by the Nevada Field Office, in conjunction with physical collections at the archive, has been one of the most important resources in my research and lately, in the classroom. Sadly, the online library is no longer available and it’s wealth of historic photographs, fact sheets, films, publications such as Origins of the Nevada Test SiteThe Nevada Test Site Guide, and the one affectionately called “The Big Book” (United States Nuclear Tests July 1945 to September 1992) are largely no longer available. As of this week, the library’s webpage only takes researchers here:

The current state of the web address

The current state of the web address

There is nothing more frustrating as a researcher, whether professor or student, than seeing critical resources and source material disappear. The new website for the Nevada National Security Site Library offers plenty of information on the administration’s programs over the past decade, but contains little historical material. The NNSA has a YouTube channel where some historic videos can be found, but the new Flickr page that features the agency’s photographs does not contain any images from the nuclear testing era between 1945 and 1992. The publications are nowhere to be found. Those are the resources that I and my students find most valuable. They were easy to access and they were in the public domain.

In a world filled with a multitude of digital resources, I find it remarkable that the loss of these images is so staggering. Sure, I can hunt for them on Wikipedia (entries such as Nevada Test Site and Sedan (nuclear test) feature some of these photographs) and I can email personnel at the testing archive and ask to have images sent to me, but that is less desirable than having them readily accessible all in one place. Besides, how will I or my students know what to ask for? Without the online collection, there is no more perusing through sequences of images that detail specific testing operations, no more directing students to sets of digital images that address the differences between atmospheric and underground testing, no sending them to the archive to discover the visual history of nuclear testing and its siting in Nevada.

As I sit here considering all that I no longer have access to and the ramifications this has on the course I am teaching and on my research, I am struggling to understand why this has happened. Does the administration and the DOE even know what they have done? Do they know how many of us have come to rely upon this collection? I can only hope that the email I sent to them today gets someone’s attention and the agency migrates those images and reports to the new website. I guess we will have to wait and see.

The Color of Our Parks – Public Lands History Center Host Panel on Race and the National Parks

plhccolorofourparksposterby Maggie Moss Jones

Americans experience their parks in many different ways, something not formally acknowledged until recently when the National Park Service identified relevancy and diversity as two of its primary initiatives for the 21st century. Scholars such as Lauret Savoy, Carolyn Finney, and Nina Roberts have written about the many ways in which the national park experience has been, and continues to be distinctive for people of color, involving patterns of exclusion and inaccessibility. Scholar Nina Roberts notes “what people [of color] do for leisure, historically, was not spending time in the outdoors, because they worked in the outdoors or they were killed in the outdoors.”

Slowly, the NPS has admitted that it needed to do more to bring diverse populations into national parks as visitors and employees. The 1991 National Park Service Vail Agenda sought to guide the parks into the 21st century and addressed the need to develop a diverse workforce, yet it said little about the needs and interests of people of color as visitors. More recently, the National Park Service signaled its deepening commitment to making the parks relevant and accessible to people of all races, ethnicities, ages, and genders. With park visitation in the 21st century reaching levels never seen before, park professionals must help diverse visitors connect to national parks while they continue to protect and preserve the parks’ natural and cultural resources.

In 2016, the National Park Service’s centennial year, the Public Lands History Center outreach program, the American West Program, seeks both to celebrate the NPS and to examine significant issues in the past, present, and future of our parks. On Thursday, September 29th, the American West Program will present a panel discussion on “The Color of Our Parks: Nature, Race, and Diversity in the National Park Service.” The panel speakers will share historical and contemporary perspectives on race and diversity as they affect experiences of nature, resource stewardship, and interpretation in the national parks.

Our goal for this event is to continue a conversation about diversity and the relevancy of our national parks. Event organizer and panelist, Ruth Alexander of Colorado State University’s History Department will examine patterns of erasure, exclusion, and resistance related to race and gender in the NPS in the early 20th century. Camille Dungy of Colorado State University’s Department of English will discuss her experiences as an African American female writing on and in our national parks. Colorado State University’s Gillian Bowser will share her experience as an African American woman working for the NPS in natural resource stewardship and her efforts to develop programs that will expose young people of color to careers in science in the NPS. Panelist Alexandra Hernandez of the NPS Intermountain Region will focus on NPS efforts to highlight grassroots efforts of diverse communities to tell their own stories in new park units, National Historic Landmarks and National Heritage Areas. While Hernandez looks at NPS accomplishments, Nina Roberts of San Francisco State University will ask if the NPS is willing to evolve to meet the challenges of cultural barriers and shifting cultural landscapes. As the Park Service enters its second century and addresses the challenges of opening national parks to diverse populations and making park units relevant to people of many backgrounds our panel speakers will engage the public in a meaningful discussion of park initiatives and challenges.

This public event will be held on Thursday, September 29th, from 7:30 to 9 pm in the CSU Morgan Library Event Hall. If you’re in the Colorado Front Range, we hope to see you at this essential discussion of our national parks.

Maggie Moss Jones is a graduate student at Colorado State University working with the Public Lands History Center to better understand national park experiences. She is an organizer of this event.

Review of the Range Podcast

By Jason Heppler

I am a heavy consumer of podcasts. They’re perfect forms of entertainment and information, something that I can consume throughout the day during commutes, down time, or tasks that don’t require full focus. And while there are a good number of excellent podcasts focused on history, none come to mind that focus on the American West.

Earlier this year, journalists Julia Ritchey and Amy Westervelt launched the Range Podcast, a bi-weekly show telling “stories about the New American West.” The show focused on stories, issues, and entrepreneurs of the West. They tell stories, as they describe in their pilot episode, about the “outlaw spirit” of the West and opportunities to “reinvent yourself” in the “wide open spaces that define the West.” This year is the first season, an eight episode arc balancing commentary and interviews on a given topic.

Podcasts in general have a tendency to run long—many of my favorite shows run 90 to 120 minutes. Nationally-recognized shows like Radiolab and This American Life often run an hour or more. Not so for Range, whose shows run twenty-to-thirty minutes in length. The easily-digestible format of the episodes make for perfect commute-length listening or a chance to catch the show in those moments of short time.

Lance Gilman, owner of the Mustang Ranch. Photo by Winni Wintermeyer for Fortune

Lance Gilman, owner of the Mustang Ranch. Photo by Winni Wintermeyer for Fortune

What is “new” about this West? For western historians the topics might feel familiar: issues about race and progressivism, sport history, cowboy poetry, the sustainable food movement, and medical marijuana made up just a few of the topics this season. This isn’t the stereotypical West dismissively derided as “flyover country,” nor is the focus exclusively on those urban centers often associated with the West, like Denver, San Francisco, or Phoenix. As someone who studies western high-tech boomtowns, their bonus episode “The 21st Century Prospector” on efforts to turn the hillsides of rural Nevada into the 21st century’s Silicon Valley illustrates the appeal of the show to anyone interested in thinking about the pasts and futures of the region. In some ways rural Nevada parallels mid-twentieth century Silicon Valley. The epicenter of Silicon Valley’s urban growth, stretching from Palo Alto to San José, was an unlikely place for high technology to emerge. The future boomtowns of central California were rural farming and ranching communities prior to the flood of Cold War funding that transformed the San Francisco Bay Area into a major center of research and development. In Nevada, the flow of capital is slightly different, fueled instead by an ambitious real estate developer, Lance Gilman, motivated by profit rather than military research. Nevertheless, just as the builders of Silicon Valley envisioned this postindustrial activity as the future for California’s economy, promoters in Nevada see high-tech as a pathway into new avenues of economic development that’s less reliant on gaming and entertainment. And when Telsa decides to build a gigantic factory for manufacturing batteries—and spending $5 billion in construction and creating 6,500 new jobs—it’s little wonder why states hitch their futures on high-tech. (There are downsides to that, but you’ll have to wait for my book to wrap up to learn more about that.)

Perhaps most enthralling, for me at least, is that they take the region’s distinctiveness seriously. The region does carry with it a kind of uniqueness we call “western,” a historical process roughly shared throughout the region just as the Northeast might be said to have a “New England feel” or that we can ascribe to the southern states a “southern hospitality.” But while it’s fair to generally refer to area west of the 100th meridian as “The West,” we shouldn’t lose sight of the idea that the West is, as David Wrobel once put it, many wests. Perhaps I’m expecting too much from short podcast episodes, but the West contains distinctive subregions defined by their environment, identity, and culture. Are there differences, for example, in ski seasons in Nevada, Utah, California, and Colorado? And if so, what does that tell us about the sport and its place in the West? Furthermore, their show is an artifact of their location: since they’re based out of Reno, many of the episodes tend to focus on Nevada and the surrounding region. But the Great Basin is quite different, both in historical experience and present-day, from the Pacific Northwest or areas of the Southwest. It may be outside the bounds of what Ritchey and Westervelt seek to achieve, but I would love to see future episodes touching on their topics across western subregions.

I’d also call on the show to provide more historical context. It’s not the case that many of these themes are suddenly new to the 21st century. Many of these topics have long histories in the West: ethnic diversity and racial strife, urbanization, new industrial activity, battles over land use, the degradation of the environment—the “new” sometimes looks a lot like the “old.” Many of the issues they bring up this season have roots in historical patterns worth touching on, even briefly, to give a better sense of what exactly is “new” about this West.

These slight criticisms aside, I loved the show and look forward to next season. Do yourself a favor and give the show a listen. And if you have an interesting story to pitch, send it their way.

A Call for Conservation — the National Park Service at 100

By Michael Childers

nps_centennial_logoToday marks the centennial of the National Park Service. Established in 1916 to “conserve the scenery and the national and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations,” the Park Service has grown into one of the most beloved federal agencies in the nation’s history. Its 100th birthday should be cause for a nationwide celebration. Yet, this year could not have gotten off to a worse start for the Park Service.

News broke in March that the Delaware North Company had trademarked the names many of Yosemite’s iconic buildings, including the Ahwahnee and Curry Village, after losing its bid to remain the park’s sole concessioner. The naked money grab enraged the public, especially after the park was forced to change the name of every building while waiting for the courts to settle the issue. Then in May, reports of the Park Service’s low employee morale, caused by the agency’s chronic funding issues, reliance on seasonal employees, and an entrenched leadership flooded the Internet. That was soon followed by stories of widespread sexual harassment at Grand Canyon National Park, which led to a barrage of accounts of unbridled sexism throughout the agency and calls for Director Johnathan Jarvis to step down. Jarvis did not help matters by failing to gain approval before publishing a book on the national parks, a violation of ethics.

Even so, such controversies did little to slacken the torrent of visitors traveling to one of their 413 national units this past summer. Early counts suggest that visitor numbers will swell well past last year’s record breaking 305 million people. And that is a real problem.

As the chronically underfunded agency grapples with how to leave the parks, monuments, and other sites under its care “unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations” it simply cannot meet the challenges of hundreds of millions of visitors inundating the parks, particularly those units relatively near large metropolitan areas, while meeting its scientific and preservationist mandate.

find-your-parkMaking matters more difficult is the National Park Service’s charitable partner the National Park Foundation’s “Find Your Park” campaign. To celebrate the NPS’s centennial, the campaign calls for people to visit their parks, and then through a clever social media promotion share their stories and photographs to promote visitation. In addition with its online campaign, the National Park Foundation commissioned the documentary “National Park Adventure” to commemorate the NPS’s anniversary. Produced by the same team that filmed the 2008 documentary Grand Canyon Adventure, National Park Adventure can simply be described as muscular white people in spandex climbing things in national parks.

IMG_2131All of this has caused people to find their parks in overwhelming numbers. Upwards of five thousand come to watch each Old Faithful eruption, making the area around the geyser appear more a rock concert than a natural wonder. Further south, Rocky Mountain National Park has become so crowded that the park took the unprecedented move of telling people not to come to the park if they could not arrive by 8:30 in the morning. Most units in or near metropolitan areas are experiencing similar problems, leading to resource loss. Following climate change, visitation has become the primary environmental issue facing the Park Service.

Furthermore, facing a $12 billion backlog in maintenance, the Park Service has had to rely heavily on corporate involvement for its centennial celebration efforts – including outdoor retailer REI, Disney, and Subaru, each of which have used the anniversary to market their own brands.

Mission 66This is not the first time in the Park Service’s history the agency has faced such problems. Following the end of the Second World War millions of Americans jumped into their family car and headed to their favorite national park. Visitor numbers exploded. Yosemite alone welcomed 641,767 visitors, exceeding the record set in 1941 by nearly 50,000. Underfunded due to the Korean War and a general reluctance by Congress to embrace anything that smacked of the New Deal, park infrastructure including roads, campgrounds, and visitor centers, proved unable to meet the demand. Bernard DeVoto’s famous call to close the parks captured the era’s frustrations over a lack of coherent solution to twin problem of visitation and adequate facilities.

The Park Service’s solution however was a ten-year capital campaign called Mission 66 for its planned completion on the NPS’s fiftieth anniversary. Congress funneled millions of dollars into the parks, building new visitor centers, modernizing roads and camp sites, and improving other infrastructure including sewage and electrical.

As National Park architectural historian Ethan Carr points out, while Mission 66 reinvented the national park system and the National Park Service, along with the national park idea, to meet the exigencies of the postwar America. But by emphasizing capital construction over social and environmental concerns, the program provided a one-dimensional solution to complex social and environmental problems facing the park system – a lesson the Park Service should have learned from for its centennial.

The agency and its partners should have seized upon the 100th anniversary to engage the public in a broader conversation over what the next one hundred years should look like by launching a new campaign like Mission 66 to preserve and define what the next century will look like in the national parks. Rather than “Find Your Park” there should have been a “Fund Your Park” campaign promoting a way of not only solving Congress’s reluctance to adequately fund the parks, but also to provide a vision for how to face the complex social and environmental problems of the future.

Brown vs. Board of Education National Historic Site

Brown vs. Board of Education National Historic Site

Such a campaign could have helped foster the national conversation on race by bringing visitors to its exemplary work at place such as Manzanar and Brown vs. Board of Education National   Historic Sites, drawn the connections between cultural and natural resources at places like the Elwha River in Olympic National Park, and build deep emotional ties to all national park units by redefining what national parks could be to this and future generations.

While it is easy to lament the lost opportunity, such a conversation is still possible. In many parks and monuments it is already happening. Perhaps today is a good time to start having it more overtly so that the next 100 years will be as historic as the past 100.


Coalition for Western Women’s History Announces Travel Grant for Graduate Students Travel to Western History Association


Thanks to a generous donation from 2015 WHA President Elizabeth Jameson, the Coalition for Western Women’s History is pleased to announce a 2016 CWWH-WHA Conference Grant. This grant continues the Coalition’s commitment to supporting graduate students whose research and teaching interests in the history of the North American West engages in the analysis of women, gender, and sexuality.

The grant of $500 may be used for travel, registration, and lodging in St. Paul. The recipient will also receive a ticket to the CWWH Breakfast, where s/he/ze will receive the award.

For information see the CWWH web page


Restoring a River and a People: The Elwha River Project

by Michael W. Childers with photographs by Leisl Carr Childers

Standing on the abandoned roadbed, I look down at the large earthworks imagining the dam and hydroelectric plant that once stood here. There are signs of the dam if you know where to look. A small eye-hook embedded into the ground, a handful of holes where the dam was once anchored into the bedrock, and of course the roadbed on which I, along with rest of a tour group* led by NPS Historian Chris Johnson and Olympic National Park’s chief cultural resource manager Dave Conca, are now standing. In truth, the area appears like any reclamation site. Carefully graded slopes are thinly covered with native grasses, and further up stream, what was once the reservoir’s high water mark is now planted with those same grasses in efforts to stabilize the slopes and beat back invasive species. But what is most important is the Elhwa River pouring through the narrow rock gap on its way to the Straight of Juan de Fuca.

The connection between mountains and the sea is particularly pronounced on the Olympic Peninsula where the Olympic Range rises to 8,000 feet above sea level before plummeting down to the peninsula’s rocky, weather-beaten beaches. Snowmelt cascades down from the mountains into the Pacific, the Straight of Juan de Fuca, and Puget Sound in a system of streams and rivers, cutting through dense rainforests. The peninsula abounds with elk, bobcat, otter, and thousands of bird species. On the peninsula’s northern end, a quirk of geography blocks much of the rainfall seen on the rest peninsula. Sheltered by the Olympics, the area is much drier, which has made the region much a more attractive place for human habitation for millennia.

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I join the rest of the tour already hiking down to the former dam site, where we listen to Conca briefly tell the dam’s story. Built in 1913, the Elwha Dam system, consisting of an upper and lower dam, provided the needed electricity to the upper Olympic Peninsula’s thriving timber industry. But in doing so, it slammed the river shut to thousands of Chinook and Coho salmon from making their annual run upstream and inundated the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe’s creation site, severing both the tribe’s physical and spiritual connection to its ancestral home, causing them to become, in the words of the tribe’s lawyer, refugees in their own homeland.

Unable to make it past the dam (the original fish ladders having lasted only a year before collapsing) salmon failed to reproduce in sufficient numbers. As the number of fish declined, the once thriving beach at the mouth of the Elwha slowly eroded away, leaving behind only a rocky shore. With no fish and no beach, the birds, crabs, seals, and sea lions all moved on.

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And so it remained for a century. The two dams destroyed one way of life while providing the basis for another. But one generation’s triumph became another’s foil, and dams, particularly those in the Pacific Northwest, became the targets of increasing criticism over their environmental and cultural implications.

By the late 1980s, electricity from outside the region surpassed that produced by the increasingly outdated Elwha plant. Faced with the reality of both the dams’ growing obsolescence, along with growing calls to remove all dams throughout the northwest, in 1995 the owners of both the Elwha and Glines Canyon Dams, along with the Bureau of Reclamation and the National Park Service agreed to take down both. As is often the case, the final removal of the Elwha Dam took nearly another two decades. But in the spring of 2012 the Elwha Dam and hydroelectric plant were gone.**

After wandering around the former dam site, we loaded back onto the tour bus and headed down to the month of the river where the tribe’s river restoration director Robert Elofson meets us in parking lot of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribal Center. Herding us back into our bus, we follow Elofson in his pickup down to the beach where he excitedly marches us to a newly formed estuary. With a wide grin, he explained how this winter’s torrential rains, some of the heaviest in recorded history, had plowed open the beach, allowing seawater to flood back in, recreating the long-vanished estuary.

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Cautioning us not to stand too closed to the bank, Elofson then led us off onto wide gravel beach. Whole trees, along with cedar stumps the size of my car and driftwood lie strewn across the expansive beach. Walking along the water’s edge, I soon am pointed to a school of porpoises swimming in the straight. A seal pops its head above the shallow waves before disappearing again below. Thousands of sea birds soar above us in the crisp afternoon air, their cries creating a cacophony of sound. Reaching the far end of the beach, about a mile hike, I notice several bald eagles resting on a stump in the middle of the Elwha as it enters the Straight of Juan de Fuca.

Remarkably, none of this, not the birds, the clams, the porpoises, not even the beach itself was here just a short two years ago. The removal of both dams released nearly 14 millions tons of sediment down the river, forming this beach in a matter of months. Today, the estuary measures some seventy acres, and life has returned to the Elwha. Pausing where the river fans out and enters the straight, Elofson begins to talk of the future. The tribe is waiting another few years before they start harvesting the salmon in order to allow the number of Chinook and Coho to stabilize. They are already in talks with Whole Foods he grins, hoping to capitalize on the Elwha’s story to sell salmon in the Seattle area, a possibility that was inconceivable two decades ago.

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In his Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River, historian Richard White writes, “We have managed the river to deliver power that has improved lives; the river has also irrigated land and served as a highway for barges. But judged against the larger hopes, our efforts have been failures, and integral to them was a failed relation with nature.” Published in 1995, the book could have as easily been about the Elwha as the Columbia. Walking back across the beach I am struck by two thoughts. One is how the removal of the Elwha Dam adds a chapter to White’s work. We have remade the river by removing a dam, and in doing so, have reconnected a people to their home. But the second is how modern a story this is. The Elwha will continue to work, but this time producing salmon and clams for the Seattle market, an economic as well as cultural link between the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe and the millions who call the booming metropolitan area home. It is this reconnection between river and people, people and fish, fish and birds, birds and mountains, that is so captivating as I turn to leave the new beach. This is better model for the modern West.

* The American Society for Environmental History Conference organized the Elwha Dam Removal Tour as part of their conference activities on April 3, 2016. Our thanks to Chris Johnson from the National Park Service Pacific West Region’s Seattle office  for all the work he did in putting the tour together.

** For more on the restoration of the Elwha River, see the National Park Service’s Elwha River Restoration site and the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe’s Elwha River Restoration site.

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 stepsSlide2 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, had enormous advantages due to its relatively shallow learning curve for my students Slide4working 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 studentSlide5 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.

Slide6 Slide7 Slide8 Slide9

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.[1] 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.

Slide20Secondly, 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 Slide19maple 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.


Slide13 Slide15

Slide12Thirdly, 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.[2]

Slide22Slide21Lastly, 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.

[1]  Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991), 321-323.

[2] David Lowenthal, The Past is a Foreign Country, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.