If you’re a beer hound that’s living in Denver, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of Lost Highway Brewing Company. However, you probably didn’t know there’s quite a bit of historical significance behind this company’s name. Originally located on Colfax Avenue in downtown Denver, “Lost Highway” Brewing Company pays homage to the fact that Colfax Avenue is indeed a highway, despite seeming more like the typical inner city street.
Once called “the longest, wickedest street in America” by Playboy Magazine thanks to high rates of prostitution and drug-use on certain blocks, Colfax Avenue is known (and at times feared) for its unique character. In full, Colfax Avenue, also known as Highway 40, stretches roughly 50 miles, from Golden to Strasburg, making it one of the longest roads that cuts through Denver.
While today many parts of Colfax Avenue seem to be the definition of gentrification, understanding the history behind this road can help one better understand what has brought it to its current state. More than a century ago, East Colfax Avenue represented wealth as a major route into the Eastern side of Denver, while West Colfax represented a connection to the mountains West of the city. During this period, East Colfax was lined with carefully manicured landscaping and massive mansions that housed some of Denver’s wealthiest residents, while West Colfax benefited from a lively trading culture and as a hub for Western travel.
This started to change during the Panic of 1893, an economic depression that often gets overlooked in the history books. Financial strife during this period made it difficult to maintain the massive homes built on East Colfax during the previous decades, which allowed for a renter’s market to move into the area. As people outside of the upper class were suddenly able to afford living in homes on East Colfax, a major cultural shift started to happen and East Colfax became a place for the middle-class. West Colfax faced an even greater amount of turmoil during this time, as in 1892, the area seceded from Denver to establish itself as the town of Brooklyn, a place one historian referenced as having “a short past, six months of hectic present, and absolutely no future.” This area of West Colfax became incorporated into Denver only a few years later in 1897.
Another major shift occurred on Colfax Avenue around the end of World War II. Following Colfax Avenue’s designation as US Highway 40 in the 1930s, the wealthy and the middle-class started to look towards suburbia, desiring newly constructed, automobile-friendly homes over historic buildings. This resulted in these families leaving the area, leaving mostly transients and low-income renters on Colfax. During this time, the landowners on Colfax were also encouraged by city planners to build new structures in attempt to keep up with market demands. This resulted in many of the historic buildings being ripped down. The promotion of automobile use also impacted new construction, as blocks were designed to cater to the driver, something that made Colfax much less walkable in the process with the road being widened several times.
According to Denver historian Phil Goodstein, these changes started a downward spiral of Colfax Avenue, setting the stage for its reputation as a street to avoid. Problems on Colfax continued to amplify when I-70 was completed, as this provided an alternative route to travelers and a means of avoiding the road altogether. Missing out on the money that comes with tourism traffic, Colfax started to fall into decay at a quicker rate. Another key factor during this chapter of the downfall of Colfax was Denver’s new urban renewal plan, a plan that involved tearing down low-income housing in other parts of the city. Looking for a place to go, many of these low-income residents turned to Colfax because the price was right and there was space available.
As crime rates continued to rise around the Colfax Avenue area, the street began to develop a widespread reputation as a place to avoid. This wasn’t helped during the 1960s when the city of Denver made the decision to purchase the now low-priced mansions on East Colfax to house those recently released from mental health facilities. This brought a lot of mentally ill people to the area, many of which still needed treatment, only reinforcing the public’s opinion of Colfax as a dangerous street. Quickly, Colfax was known for things like rampant drug use, prostitution, and homelessness over anything else. This continued into the turn of the century, as the Piton Foundation, an organization that aims to improve the lives of low-income families in Colorado, noted Colfax Avenue (specifically West Colfax), as one of Denver’s “at-risk” neighborhoods during the early 2000s, thanks to its high poverty rate and low education rate.
That being said, things on Colorado’s Lost Highway might be changing soon, as Colfax has recently been given a breath of new life. One group, called Blueprint Denver, as taken it on themselves to fix the East Colfax area, working to renovate sections and push new beneficial zoning decisions through a typically lengthy process, while the construction of the light rail, a new library, and the renovation of a hospital have been signs of hope for its western counterpart. Development goals have shifted focus to creating a pedestrian-friendly environment for the first-time in decades, rebuilding Colfax to the walkable and safe area that it once was a century ago. Will Colfax be a different place 10 years from now? We’ll see. Until then, the “Lost Highway of Colorado” remains a result of a particularly peculiar past.
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