Medallion NameTAKE YOUR PICK

Significance – Wazee, Champa, Wewatta, Wynkoop…did you ever wonder how Denver’s streets got named? The designations of the Mile-High city’s roads offer a trip through Denver’s bygone days. Many streets, avenues and boulevards memorialize the colorful characters, long-ago leaders and local legends who forged Denver history.

Inscription – “Champa,” I think is Arapahoe for some common animal, deer, antelope, horse, steer. Buffalo, wolf or dog.

History of Denver, 1901

Edited for

The Denver Times

By Jerome C. Smiley

Location – 39°44’52.8″N 104°59’36.9″W

Details – Whether you’re a Colorado native, newcomer or Denver visitor, chances are you’ve been on the downtown streets and noticed that Denver roads can have rather unique names. Did you ever stop and wonder how street names are chosen?

“They’re often one generation’s heroes,” offered Professor Tom Noel, known on the UC Denver Campus as Dr. Colorado.

Indeed, many of the namesakes of Colorado streets, towns, counties and landmarks, tell stories of the Wild, Wild West days before statehood. Denver Street names honor prospectors, politicians, businessmen and others who settled amidst the Rocky Mountains and guided Denver toward statehood and into the region’s largest population center.

“To the victor go the spoils, and part of that is being able to name things,” Noel stated.

Odd fellow William McGaa was one of the infamous early characters who facilitated the development of St. Charles (now Denver). Born in Scotland, McGaa was a salty character with touch of charm who could down a bottle of grog before you could count to 10. He claimed an upper-class ancestry and spread the story that he was the son of the Lord Mayor of London and that his family estate in Scotland was called Glenarm. Rogue son that he was, McGaa had immigrated to the United States long before the Colorado Gold Rush. He could be found along Cherry Creek under the name Jack Jones, living and loving among the Arapaho.

McGaa, boasted having several native wives and mistresses from the Arapaho, Oglala Sioux and Cheyenne tribes. Indeed, he and his squaw were camped with the Arapaho on the bank of Cherry Creek, when they were approached William Larimer. McGaa claimed that because of his marriage into the tribe, he had the authority to represent the Native Americans in a land transfer transaction. Larimer allied with McGaa to acquire the land for the town of St. Charles from the local Native Americans. This lead to the 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty.

Legend has it that as a reward to the Native Americans, McGaa named several Denver streets in their honor. Wazee and Wewatta Streets are said to be named for his wives. Champa has been acknowledged as one of McGaa’s Indian names, although details have been lost to history. McGaa also named Glenarm Street after his alleged family castle and named McGaa Street after himself. It has since been renamed Market Street because McGaa’s contemporaries did not think highly of him. He was reputed to be a drunkard and had a tendency for hyperbole. Journalist Jerome Smiley wrote, “McGaa had promised more than he could perform, was a troublesome customer to manage, and a hard man to browbeat.”

Wynkoop Street is named for the first sheriff, Edward W. Wynkoop, who brokered the peace agreement that was supposed to protect the peaceful Arapaho and Cheyenne…who were subsequently slaughtered in the Sand Creek Massacre in 1864. Other early, wealthy arrivals also had roads named after them — Charles Lawrence. E.P. Stout, Thomas Bayaud, Charles H. Blake, Alexander J. Williams, S.S. Curtis and Rocky Mountain News founder William Byers.

“The settlers vanquished much of the Indian population. And while there are some things named for Indian names, there are a lot more things named for the people who staked claims to this land, who developed it, who made Denver and the state of Colorado what they are today,” noted Dr. Noel. “Only in retrospect are people like Little Raven, who should have been celebrated for a long time, being honored.”

Little Raven Street, one of downtown Denver’s newest streets, now glistens with the glass towers and town homes of the fashionable Riverfront Park neighborhood. There, at the entrance to Commons Park, is a memorial to the street’s namesake, “Little Raven,” the head chief of the southern Arapaho who first welcomed white settlers to the region.

“He made what he later realized was the mistake of saying, ‘We’ll share the land, we’ll share the water, we’ll share the cottonwoods, we’ll share the grass’,” Noel noted.

Denver itself was named for James Denver, the governor of Kansas Territory; which is what they called Colorado Territory, before it was created by Congress in1861. Colorado’s first territorial governor was William Gilpin, for whom Gilpin County and Gilpin Street were named.

“Gilpin was a sidekick of Abraham Lincoln‘s, and Lincoln appointed him become the first governor in 1861,” Noel noted. “John Evans was number two, right after him, and the most prominent of the early governors.”

Evans has a street named for him, not to mention one of Colorado’s 14,000+ ft. mountain peaks.

Colfax Avenue is Denver Country’s longest continuous business boulevard. It is named for Schuyler Colfax, an Indiana congressman who introduced the bill for Colorado statehood.

One of Denver’s most-traveled thoroughfares, Speer Boulevard, is named for the mayor who envisioned it, Robert Speer. “Mayor Speer really transformed Denver from a dusty, grid city with a pattern of streets to one where you have curvilinear streets and Speer Boulevard, following Cherry Creek and really playing up the beauty of Cherry Creek,” Noel explained.

Depew Street in Denver honors New York politician and railroad magnate Chauncey M. Depew.

The longest-serving mayor in Denver’s history, Benjamin Franklin Stapleton, has a neighborhood named for him, but some who live there are conflicted about whether his name should be celebrated given his story.

“He joined the Klan, and the Klan helped elect him,” Noel revealed. “And some people moving-in out there didn’t want to live in a neighborhood named for Klansman.”

Stapleton had been home to Denver’s International Airport until the 1980s when then-Mayor Federico Peña led the push for a larger, more modern DIA. The celebrated new airport now sits on the plains about 15 miles to the northeast. The new 10-mile road between the terminal and Interstate 70 has been dubbed Peña Boulevard.

DIA features Jeppesen Terminal, named for Elrey Jeppesen, a local aviator whose hand-scrawled flying diagrams, used for helping pilots avoid obstacles at night in the early days of aviation, became and remains the definitive navigational guide for pilots.

Dick Conner Avenue near Sports Authority Field honors the legendary Denver Post columnist who died in 1992, and Gene Amole Way memorializes the former Rocky Mountain News columnist as well as the paper’s former location. Amole passed in 2002.

To name a street, the developer submits road names to the city through the relevant departments for review. The building, engineering and public works departments all comment, but the departments that have the most input and veto power are police and fire. The concern here is that the street names are unique and intelligible enough for them to distinguish in case they need to find a street and property in an emergency. As a general rule, the post office also gets a final review.

In the United States, most streets are named for numbers or trees. According to the National League of Cities, the most popular street name is Second (or 2nd). This is because First Street is often designated as Main, Broadway, or something similar.

Streets are also commonly named for current or former landmarks (Windmill View Road), American presidents (especially Washington) and famous people who were born in the area. For example, along New York City’s Bowery at Second Street is Joey Ramone Place. Located near the former sight of CBGB’s Nightclub, the sign honors the Ramones, one the most famous local bands to graduate from the NYC punk rock scene.

When it comes to new and modern urban construction projects, developers are typically responsible for naming the new streets they build. Developers often choose street names recognizing family members or based on certain desired traits they want people to associate with the neighborhood… think Whispering Pines Drive, Sunset Street or Buckingham Lane.

Quiz Questions

Why do many of Denver’s streets have odd names?

Can you name at least two Denver streets that honor Native Americans?

Who was the city of Denver named after?

How does a street get named?

If you could make up the address for your perfect home in paradise, what would it be?