The history of the City of Thornton begins on the Eppinger family farm just north of Denver. This is where developer Sam Hoffman bought 400 acres in 1952 to build an affordable but self-sustaining community. When Hoffman launched an open house to showcase the first three completed homes in 1953, actress Jane Russell decorated the interiors of the homes and attended the open house to sign autographs and promote the new community. Russell's brothers worked for Hoffman, which made Thornton a special place to the actress who would visit several times in the future. Hoffman promised the newly created neighborhood would be complete with schools, parks, fire station, city hall, shopping center, churches, swimming pool, and water and disposal plants. Unfortunately, few of these amenities materialized under his oversight. The neighbors, through a spirit of collaboration and ingenuity, decided to take matters into their own hands to create the community they were promised in the middle of this farmland. Families like the Lambertsons still managed large farmsteads in the area that the city would one day surround, which established a rich agricultural history to the city and the county.
The spirit of collaboration begins with the fire department. In 1954, carpooling Rocky Flats employees, including Ken Freiberg (who would serve as the first volunteer fire chief) initiated the idea of a Thornton volunteer fire department. After securing a used fire truck and parking it at the homes of Ken or Carl Nelson (Nelson would later become the first paid fire chief), the volunteers received a land donation from Hoffman and acquired a free Quonset hut to serve as a fire station, police station, and council chambers for the first council that was to be elected. About the same time, residents were organizing to incorporate Thornton as a city. While the first vote for incorporation in early 1956 failed, the second attempt later that year succeeded, and Mayor Oyer (Bill) Leary and the first city council members were elected. The volunteer fire fighters and police officers threw their support behind incorporation and money was secured to build a new fire station, police headquarters and City Hall where the Quonset hut stood.
Upon incorporation, the community chose to name their burgeoning city "Thornton" after then Colorado Governor and U.S. ambassador to Korea, Daniel Thornton. Thornton did not approve of a city being named after him, but the community persevered. An initiate to rename the city was voted on a few years later, but it also failed, and "Thornton" remained. The community wasted no time creating the city they envisioned; the Thornton Community Association (formed in 1954) and the Thornton Women's Club were instrumental in funding and organizing projects like the Community Center Pool and the Thornton Shopping Center. The volunteer Fire Department took care of much of the labor related to these projects, including painting the pool and hauling materials. When the pool finally opened to the public, Mayor Leary received a unexpected surprise when he arrived to dedicate the pool. Take a look at this clip to learn more about the pool and Leary's wild dedication ceremony.
As the city began to expand, the municipal services also needed to expand. In 1960, the population had grown to just over 11,000 people, and that number would only go up. The first paid fire fighters, police officers, sanitation workers, and other public servants were hired, and our local government became more organized and ambitious. As this growth brought in new families, the need for space and especially water became a real challenge. Many projects arose in the 1960's and 1970's to address these concerns, including a larger civic center, a new water treatment plant, the purchase of Northwest Utilities, and plenty of annexations. In 1975 the Thornton Recreation Center was completed in the midst of conflicts surrounding water rights and annexations of reservoirs by the City of Thornton. These annexations kicked off a decades long feud between Thornton and Northglenn that luckily would eventually fizzle into good natured rivalry in the future. The FRICO water agreement between Thornton and surrounding cities was the selected solution for these water disagreements at the time.
In 1965, Thornton selected it's first City Seal via a contest amongst Thornton public school children. "The City of Planned Progress" was the winning design, and it was created by a Mapleton High School Student. By 1967, the Thornton community overwhelming voted in favor a making Thornton a Home Rule City and wrote the first City Charter. In 1975, Thornton High School opened and the first Comprehensive Plan for the city was created and approved. The following year, in 1976, Thornton celebrated their 20th anniversary. This anniversary was made even more special because it aligned with the U.S. bicentennial, and Thornton was designated an official Bicentennial by the American Revolution Bicentennial Administration. The end of this decade would introduce Thornton to their longest running Mayor to date, Margaret Carpenter.
Margaret Wilson Carpenter served as a City Council member in the mid-1970's and was elected as Mayor in 1979. She would launch Thornton into the greatest era of expansion and development it had yet seen, with more annexations, business openings, and greater community management and service. Not long into Mayor Carpenter's term, one of the most devastating natural disasters that Thornton has ever seen occurred on June 3 of 1981. A tornado ripped through Thornton and surrounding areas days before the silver anniversary celebration for the city. Homes, businesses, and city buildings were damaged or destroyed, and there were a small number of causalities and injuries. The response to this disaster was much larger than Thornton, but Thornton fire rescue and police were the first on site. The national guard and other entities soon stepped in to help secure and rebuild the areas.
Thornton was not in the clear yet, however, and in 1982 one of the worst blizzards to hit the Denver Metro Area covered Thornton with six feet of snow and made roadways incredibly deadly. This was yet another challenge for Thornton's first responders, but one that they overcame even at the cost of the life of Thornton Fire Fighter, Larry Jolley. The Thornton community, as resourceful as ever, pulled together to celebrate their anniversary even in the wake of such a tragedy. These setbacks did not slow Thornton down, though, and Mayor Carpenter continued to lead the city into new improvements and expansions. The I-25 Interchange at Thornton Parkway was completed in the summer of 1986, and actress Jane Russell once again visited Thornton to attend the opening ceremony and congratulate Margaret Carpenter on Thornton's success.
The original Old Tyme Thornton Days parade that was held in the 1960's and 1970's was brought back as Thornton Festival Days. Many other new community events and celebrations were established over the next two decades.
The 1990's also brought some significant changes. The Thornton Fire Department merged with surrounding Fire Departments to form the North Metro Fire Rescue District (called North Metro Fire and Rescue Authority at the time). This partnership lasted roughly 4 years in the mid-1990's before the Thornton Fire Department reformed as an independent entity. The Thorncreek golf course was completed in 1992, bringing a 72-par championship course to Thornton. Thornton celebrated their 40th anniversary in 1996 bigger than ever, with historical projects, community events, and even broadcasts. The city initiated a donation drive to collect historical items from Thornton citizens to be displayed at city facilities such as City Hall. This effort was the first time Thornton's history had been prioritized and provided the groundwork for the current Thornton Archive and city exhibits. The decade culminated in the creation of the new Thornton Harvest Fest in 1999, which is still held annually to this day.
In 1999, Mayor Carpenter officially retired with a large reception where she was thanked by the entire community for her many years of service and leadership. In 2000, the Thornton Recreation Center was rededicated and renamed the Margaret Carpenter Recreation Center, and Margaret Carpenter herself attended the dedication ceremony. As the city said goodbye to a beloved Mayor, the nation faced one of the most tragic incidents in recent memory, the terrorist attack on September 11th. Thornton Fire Fighters and Police Officers joined emergency response workers across the nation to support each other and honor their fallen comrades. The "Peace Wall" art installation was revealed in front of the Margaret Carpenter Recreation Center to encourage peaceful thinking and community support in the wake of this national tragedy. The Thornton community proved it's tenacity, resourcefulness, and unity by yet again overcoming challenges and celebrating the city that they built, maintained, and improved for more than 60 years.
Due to growth and technological advances, much has changed in the city of Thornton over the last 50 years. However, one thing hasn’t changed—Thornton’s commitment to planning for the future. Thornton works to revise its comprehensive plan every ten years; the last being in 2020. As mentioned previously, the city adopted the Eastlake Subarea Plan 2003 and the North Washington Subarea, which covers 126th Avenue north to Highway 7 and from Interstate 25 east to the Big Dry Drainage area, in 2005.
Construction on FasTracks, will bring alternative modes of transportation for Thornton commuters in the form of commuter rail. Many improvements are also being made to I-25. Numerous other improvements are in the works to improve traffic flow to existing roadways including the addition of right turn lanes on major arterials.
As part of the program to expand the recreational opportunities within Thornton, the city will continue its program to acquire future park and open space sites, build new bike tails, connect existing bike trails, and develop parks.
In the area of economic development, Thornton will continue its efforts to attract new businesses and jobs to Thornton.