Grit from the Ground Up

Greeley’s story of immigration, building our town from the ground up

Article by Bethany Wiley, MPH, RYT

Photography by Shannon McTighe Photography

Originally published in Greeley Lifestyle

Imagine giving up your house, your land, belongings, and saying goodbye to family and friends to start anew in an unestablished community. A trip to the Greeley History Museum reveals that this is what the initial Greeley settlers resorted to in April 1870. Leaving their homes with a spirit of adventure, experiment, hope, and a shared vision to create a new utopian society, the settlers met challenges and hardships, such as building homes, starting farms, and having adequate access to a water source. 

In 1820 when Major Stephen H. Long wrote about his trip to the Great Plains, he described the area east of the Rocky Mountains as “uninhabitable by a people depending upon agriculture for their subsistence.” Nearly fifty years later, in 1869, Nathan Meeker visited Colorado Territory’s front range on assignment for The New York Tribune, which sparked an idea for a utopian society based on agriculture and shared social values. Upon returning to New York, Meeker shared his vision with his employer, Horace Greeley. Greeley was delighted by Meeker’s ideas, so they began writing an article entitled “The Call,” printed in the December 14, 1869 issue of The New York Tribune. 

In Meeker’s article, he invited 50 people to move West to start a town. Meeker received over 3,000 responses of interest. Of those he selected, 480 initially moved from northern and eastern states to be part of the new colony, called The Union Colony.  The Union Colonists paid a $5 initiation fee and a membership fee of $150. Each member was entitled to a parcel of farming land and the right to buy a town lot from $25-50. The proceeds funded a schoolhouse, town hall, and other community improvements. Union Colony members also agreed to a way of life built on shared ideals: faith, family, education, irrigation, temperance, agriculture, and home.   

The Greeley History Museum displays how the colonists made irrigation plans, drew up a town, and built schoolhouses and town structures. Irrigation was the priority for the Union Colonists. Within two years, 37 miles of ditches were in place. Early settlers also established water rights, transforming the land into a rich agricultural center that still thrives today. They designed Greeley on a grid of wide tree-lined streets with large yards and a central Park (Lincoln Park), modeled after other cities Meeker saw out east.  

The railway played a prominent role in Greeley’s growth. In 1869, construction of the Denver Pacific Railway resumed, designed to connect Denver with Cheyenne and with the Union Pacific. On December 13, it reached Evans from the north. Workers completed the railway on June 22, 1870, and Denver gained an outlet to the outside world.

Heather Bean, owner of Syntax Distillery and Cocktail Bar in Greeley, recalls stories of her grandmother Thelma growing up on the train. Thelma lived with her mother in the berth of the caboose since her mom worked as a railroad cook. The railroad provided regular work for Thelma’s mother. “Railroads would be built in the north in the summer and the south in the winter, so it was a stable job,” said Bean. 

As Thelma got older, it was clear that she was a brilliant child. It was hard to get a proper education on a train, so her mom sent Thelma with families that lived near schools. When the school year was over, they’d put Thelma back on a train to eventually meet up with her mother. Finally, Thelma rode a train to Greeley and finished her teaching degree with top honors from the State Normal School of Colorado, which later became the University of Northern Colorado. Thelma went on to teach in rural schools in Colorado and South Dakota. 

Greeley is growing and transforming today, with its population nearly tripling since 1970. Where open agricultural lands once stood, houses, businesses, and schools now stand. One thing remains the same – Greeley is a community that comes together to embrace change, support one another, and maintain a high quality of life. Exploring these stories at the Greeley History Museum plays a vital role in keeping our local history alive. 

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