Driving south down Broadway, passing underneath I-25, an expanse of open land greets passersby—a rarity in the city of Denver. This land once hosted a vast complex of buildings, home to the Gates …
This item is available in full to subscribers.
If you're a print subscriber, but do not yet have an online account, click here to create one.
Click here to see your options for becoming a subscriber.
If you made a voluntary contribution in 2022-2023 of $50 or more, but do not yet have an online account, click here to create one at no additional charge. VIP Digital Access includes access to all websites and online content.
Driving south down Broadway, passing underneath I-25, an expanse of open land greets passersby—a rarity in the city of Denver. This land once hosted a vast complex of buildings, home to the Gates Rubber Company. From its humble beginnings in 1911, with only one product and three employees, to today, with 14,000 employees around the globe, Gates has been an integral part of Colorado’s economy for over 100 years.
The Gates plant shot with a view of its rooftop garden, above, and its iconic water tower, below. Photos courtesy the Denver Public Library.
In 1911, Charles Gates Sr., a mining engineer from Michigan, bought the Colorado Tire and Leather Company for $3,500. At the time, the Colorado Tire and Leather Co. manufactured only one product—a steel-studded tire cover designed to extend the life of rubber tires. The company employed only one worker and the promised backlog of orders proved to be a fabrication. Charles, his wife, Hazel, and his brother, John, all set to work. In 1912, they began manufacturing leather horse halters, made from the scraps of the tire covers. Recognizing the importance of celebrity endorsements, Gates convinced Buffalo Bill Cody to endorse the “Never Break” halters. With this endorsement, the halters became a best-seller, lifting the fledgling company from the brink of bankruptcy. Buoyed by this success, and soon outgrowing their original warehouse, Gates purchased land at 999 South Broadway in 1912. Broadway was an obvious location for an automotive business as the street was known as “Gasoline Alley” for its numerous car dealerships, gas stations and mechanic shops.
By 1914, the Colorado Tire and Leather Co. had pioneered a new tire cover called “Half-Soles” that greatly improved the lifespan of rubber tires. Shortly after, the company debuted the product that would be its flagship for the next 100 years, the V-belt. An invention of John Gates, the V-belt transformed the car industry. As car and industrial engines became more powerful, the flat belts used to transfer motion between the engine and auxiliary mechanical components were highly inefficient. By giving the belt a trapezoidal profile, and creating pulleys that had a corresponding profile, the belt did not slip, thus transferring motion more efficiently. The V-belt was soon used on everything from car engines to industrial motors.
In 1917, the United States entered World War I. Rather than hurting business, rubber rationing helped the company, which was renamed the International Rubber Company. The U.S. Military became one of the company’s largest customers. The company, which had employed 45 workers in 1914, employed 1,000 by 1919. It was in 1919 that the company changed names again, becoming Gates Rubber Company. After the war, as rubber became more readily available, Gates expanded their product line and their research department.
While Gates may have had a large impact on the nation at large, it was at home in Denver where its impact was truly felt. The company was known for its warm relationship with its employees. In 1917, a rooftop garden opened for employees, who could visit the garden during breaks or host events after hours. The Gates Company opened a health clinic and commissary, organized sports teams and hosted annual picnics and a Christmas party. A 1919 article in the Rocky Mountain News noted that “the Gates Rubber Company has long been commended for its splendid conditions, its lighting, ventilation, roof garden, cafeteria … and other advantages for greater efficiency.” Of course, these perks did not smooth over all work-related complaints. Workers went on strike at Gates in the summer of 1919, and again throughout the 20th century. The 1919 Rocky Mountain News article detailed the newly created ‘industrial congress’ at Gates, an organization designed to facilitate conversations between employer and over 1,000 employees. Even through the Great Depression, the company thrived, employing 2,500 workers and expanding its factories beyond Denver. By the 1950s, Gates was the largest employer in Denver, with over 5,500 workers.
The evolution of the Gates industrial complex along South Broadway illustrates its increasingly diverse product line and growing research department. The Gates complex eventually grew to cover 80 acres, stretching from Broadway to Santa Fe Drive. The first set of buildings at the Gates complex were built in the 1910s. These industrial buildings featured large windows, decorative red brick columns and white accent brick. These design details were used on new buildings on the campus through the 1940s. In fact, the Gates campus was one of the few industrial sites in Denver to have a Master Plan, created in 1917, to guide new development across the site for optimal efficiency. Also unusual for the time, many of the early factories at the Gates site were architect-designed. William Bowman, a prominent Denver architect, designed at least two of the factory buildings from 1939-1944. The entire Gates complex was interconnected and well-designed, serving as a testament to the American industrial spirit.
Gates halted manufacturing in Denver in the 1990s. In 2001, the Gates headquarters moved to LoDo, signaling the end of an era. While most industries were pulling out of this area, the City of Denver had ambitious plans for it. In 1994, the I-25 and Broadway light rail station opened and the surrounding industrial areas were identified as a prime location for transit-oriented redevelopment. Due to nearly 100 years of heavy industrial use, the site required intensive environmental remediation. In 2007, part of the complex was demolished for housing. The recession in 2008 halted a $1 billion redevelopment plan and the land returned to Gates’ ownership. In 2012, the last portion of the complex was slated for demolition. Despite a last-ditch preservation attempt by a University of Colorado student, the building came down in 2014. Today, several projects are taking shape that will bring housing, retail and offices to the area, signaling a sea-change for this stretch of Broadway that once supported Denver’s dominant car culture.
Born and raised in Colorado, Becca Dierschow has a degree in history from Lewis & Clark College and a Masters in Building Archaeology from the University of York. Have a topic you would like covered? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
We have noticed you are using an ad blocking plugin in your browser.
The revenue we receive from our advertisers helps make this site possible. We request you whitelist our site.