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A university forged from vision, generosity

Before there was the state of Colorado, there was the University of Colorado.

And before there was CU, a courageous and tenacious few were so profoundly committed to the transformative power of an education.

The idea of a public university in the young Colorado territory was considered a valuable and worthwhile pursuit as early as 1861. But political disputes, economic distress and local jealousies stalled the idea from becoming a reality for years. Some folks clamored that Colorado didn’t have any use for an academic institution.

But some early settlers never gave up.

First, there was the gift of land. Three Boulder families—Marinus and Annie Smith, George and Mary Andrews, and Anthony and Mary Arnett—collectively donated 51 acres of land on the heights south of Boulder Creek, which was formally accepted in January 1872 by the legislature as the permanent location of the future university.

Funds were still needed for a university building. Bitter rivalries among Colorado’s lawmakers, who wanted their communities selected instead as the home for a public university, continued to embroil the idea for another two years. Then, in January 1874, the Colorado Territorial Legislature agreed to provide $15,000, a sizeable sum in those days, toward a university on the condition Boulder citizens contribute an equal amount.

David Nichols, the territory’s speaker of the house and a Boulder resident, realized he needed to immediately raise the necessary funds, lest his town lose the opportunity.

Legend has it, Nichols said: “If $15,000 is what they want, we’ll get it.”  

Like Paul Revere, he rode by horseback that cold and rainy January night for five hours the 30 miles between Denver to Boulder to knock on the doors of ordinary citizens to see if they could—if they would—donate the money.

The fate of CU hung in the balance.

By the time a weary Nichols was back at his legislative seat in Denver the next morning, Boulder residents—104 parties, to be exact—had pledged the funds needed to secure the University of Colorado, and the appropriation bill passed.

Collectively, the citizens of Boulder committed a total of $16,806.66—more than enough to give the fledgling university a permanent home. Pledges ranged from $15 to $1,000. More than half the donors contributed fewer than $100. Finally, after long years of struggle, the University of Colorado was more than an idea—it had sufficient funds to begin the construction of the first university building.

On Sept. 20, 1875, the cornerstone for Old Main was laid. By the following spring, CU officially opened its doors, five months before the Centennial State joined the union in 1876.

After 15 years of effort, and though these early philanthropic contributions placed a true hardship on Boulder’s frontier families, their commitment to education remains an enduring testament to what CU stands for to this day.

It is a legacy upon which we continue to build and honor.