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William Hansen (right) and Thomas Noel (left) Photo by Fiona Murphy
Books

Colorado’s Biggest History Buffs on What the State’s Past Tells Us About Its Future

Following the release of their third book, Boom and Bust Colorado, we spoke with Thomas Noel (aka Dr. Colorado) and William Hansen about the Gold Rush, COVID-19, and the effect of cancel culture on history.

On March 1, 2020, former Colorado state historian Thomas Noel—known affectionately as Dr. Colorado—and William Hansen, a longtime Denver attorney, were convinced they had completed the manuscript for their third book. 

The literary work, titled Boom and Bust Colorado, explores Colorado’s history as a series of peaks (the Gold Rush) and valleys (Spanish flu), and was originally slated to be published last spring. COVID-19 forced the pair to change their plans. “The book became irrelevant overnight,” says Hansen. 

The ensuing pandemic caused the biggest global “bust” in more than 100 years, and Noel and Hansen worked to record that history as it unfolded. The resulting book charts the state’s many ups and downs, and provides one of the first comprehensive looks at how Colorado handled the early days of COVID-19. Following the book’s September release, we chatted with the authors about rewriting history and penning an archival roadmap to the uncertain future.  

5280: Your book details how Colorado dealt with both the 1918 pandemic caused by the Spanish flu and the current coronavirus pandemic. What similarities did you notice between how the two were handled by the state, as well as perceived by the public? 

William Hansen: At the time of the Spanish flu, the Denver mayor [William Fitz Randolph Mills] said it would take half the population of Denver to force the other half to wear masks. There was a lot of rejection of public health policy, and the commercial interests were complaining vigorously because they were losing so much money. In fact, the public health policies that we are currently using, such as mask mandates, quarantining, and social distancing, date back to the 1666 London plague rules. It’s the same thing we’ve been doing for 400 years. It didn’t really work too well in 1918. In 2021, we can argue that we’ve done better than other states, but with a lot of resistance because, frankly, the country is at war internally. In the last two weeks in the United States, the total number of COVID-19 deaths surpassed the total number of Spanish flu deaths in 1918. Keep in mind, Colorado had one-third the population size that we have today.

Thomas Noel: We saw it almost as a replay. The tensions between the business community, which wants their customers back., then the politicians are saying, “Aren’t we overdoing it?” And finally the medical professionals saying, “you’ve got to wear these masks,” and “you’ve got to be careful.” In many ways, these tensions parallel today. 

What, in your opinion, has been the most lucrative boom and the most disastrous bust in our state’s modern history?

Noel: I would say the original booms, the mining booms. They really gave birth to Colorado with gold and then silver. Then you have the silver crash of 1893, which for the first time, caused Colorado to start losing population. It almost rivals the Great Depression of the 1930s. Colorado early on was also a great home for people with tuberculosis and asthma and any kind of lung disease. The National Jewish Hospital is a remnant of that. Come to think of it, the health industry is a boom that hasn’t busted. It seems to be recession-proof. 

Hansen: We’ve got a number of booming industries that a lot of people just don’t think about. Colorado has become a transportation, cultural, and business hub of the West. During the 1890s, transportation in the Rocky Mountains was a huge issue. All the early routes went either north to Wyoming or south into Santa Fe to avoid them. The transcontinental railroads finally got their little narrow routes up into the mountains, but actually getting over the mountains and all the way to Utah was an incredible feat. I-70 through Glenwood Canyon wasn’t even open until 1992. The [Rocky Mountains] had been a huge problem for Colorado until we penetrated them. Now, with the winter sports, the Rockies have a four-season area, meaning tourism and recreation are some of our biggest draws. 

Photo Courtesy of Tom Noel

What do you think Colorado’s next ultra-successful industry will be? 

Noel: Tourism will probably remain steady as the second biggest contributor to wealth here. Tourism seems to be somewhat recession proof. Instead of going to Europe, people go to Colorado. I think the high tech boom, which we’re already seeing now, that’s probably going to increase and may grow to be a much bigger part of the economy than it is today. Boulder, Denver, and Colorado Springs are beginning to serve as our own Silicon Valley of sorts. 

Hansen: People want to live here because it’s beautiful, and the tech industry has allowed Coloradans—out in the plains, or down to Trinidad—to continue working remotely. For our state, what has really come out of COVID-19 and 2020 is e-commerce, and the importance of it to our population. In Denver, you can’t go into a restaurant now and get a menu without having a cellphone and a QR code, and that’s challenging for some of us. But that kind of thing is going to continue, and I think it’s great. 

What is a part of Colorado’s history that you feel has been neglected? 

Noel: The Mexican diggings of 1857, which were groups of people who came up from Mexico to dig for ore and gold. These people predated the Gold Rush by one year. They were mentioned only once in a book from 1901, and then the record of them disappeared. Probably what happened is similar to what happened a lot in California during that Gold Rush. That is, if Spanish speaking people found something first, whites would come in, chase them out, and change the name of it. So, we don’t have the Mexican Diggings Nuggets basketball team or the Mexican Diggings Broncos, right? That is an ongoing and very relevant story when we’re talking about critical race theory. Do we bury this racial tension, or do we talk about it?

Hansen: To me, the real deficit is that we generally look at it from an Anglo-American viewpoint. Native American tribes and the Spanish were in fact the first people here, but we don’t learn our [state’s] Hispanic or Native American history. It is often overlooked because they were just shoved aside in the process. You have people that made big wealth, and history forgets about the little guys, a lot of whom were immigrants coming in the late 19th century. They are usually ignored. 

What’s a historian’s approach to the idea of “cancel culture”—specifically, the practice of taking down statues and changing neighborhood names?

Noel: I react to and oppose it. If all of our villains are gone, history is going to be awfully dull. Why not have the name Stapleton there to remind people that Denver was a Klan city, and we had a Klan mayor. That might prevent it from happening in the future. 

Hansen: So many things are going to offend some number of people, and it’s hard to get anybody to agree on anything anymore. I love Civil War history, and I still wrestle with the Confederate monuments. I think it’s kind of gone overboard.

Are you hopeful about the future for Colorado?

Noel: I am impressed with young people who are still optimistic. The older you get the more cynical you get, particularly in view of climate change. 

Hansen: I think the political climate scares the heck out of us. We’re handing the baton on to young people who will decide.

Noel: Keep in mind, those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it.

Hansen: “The only history that’s new is the history we don’t know yet.” That was a Harry Truman quote. But, I’m very optimistic. I think we’ll figure it out. I’m optimistic about Colorado, too. I think we’ll always be a prospering and progressive state, if we can survive the divisiveness of today. I just assume the young people will take over and not make too many mistakes. There’s just too much here for it to not continue to be progressive. We have so much industry. I always see Colorado being on an upward trajectory, but I love this place, so that might just be me.

Noel and Hansen have a book signing October 11 at Tattered Cover on East Colfax at 7 p.m. 

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