Like many parts of the Colorado Front Range, the first residents of the area were Native Americans. The area was populated by a number of nomadic tribes, including the Ute, Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes. Because it was part of the Mississippi River Drainage Area, it was claimed for France by French explorer René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle and it was named as part of “Louisiana” in 1682. The Spanish gained Louisiana in 1763, and returned it to France in 1801. This area of what is now Northern Douglas County, was in the Louisiana Purchase when it was sold to the United States in 1803. The Stephen Harriman Long Expedition of 1820 entered the area at the beginning of July 1820. That was the first documented exploration of the area by European or United States explorers.
Much of the Denver Metro Area began to be settled as ranch land starting in 1859, but because of a lack of water in the area, it was not permanently settled until around 1870. The first legal settler of the area was Curtis H. Field, who purchased land just on the west side of Santa Fe Drive from the US government on 25 February 1870.
The Highlands Ranch Mansion (or “Castle Isabel”) was built over a period of several years, from 1891 to 1904. The first owner of the house was Samuel Allan Long, who purchased a 40-acre homestead in northern Douglas County in 1884 and later expanded it to a 2,000-acre farm. By 1891 he had built a modest farmhouse on the property and called it Rotherwood after a boyhood farm. The name “Rotherwood”, a reference to a boyhood farm of Long’s, was found etched above the original front door that led experts to believe so. According to the Highlands Ranch Metro District website, Long was a prominent innovator of dry land farming techniques in Colorado during the late 19th century. The mansion underwent a renovation from 2010-2012 that was funded by Shea Homes.
The Colorado Gold Rush brought people to Colorado in droves during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The city of Denver, located approximately 12 miles to the north, grew considerably during this time. However, the area remained a series of farms and ranches, and many residents would visit the town of Littleton, a few miles northward, when they needed to purchase clothing, supplies, or other items.
The Springer land was bought and sold several times throughout the 1920s and 1930s. In 1937 it was bought by Lawrence C. Phipps, Jr., who used it to raise cattle and hunt fox. After Phipps died in 1976, the land was bought by Marvin Davis, the owner of an oil company.
Becoming a Suburb
In 1978, a large parcel of land in unincorporated Douglas County was purchased by The Mission Viejo Company. As the suburbs of Denver expanded, the company desired to build a new planned suburb, called Highlands Ranch, in northern Douglas County, akin to its first planned development of Mission Viejo, California. Initial plans were drawn up, many of which are still being realized. These plans laid out several major streets and called for several schools and recreation centers, as well as a town center and public library. Large parcels of land were sold to private housing developers, such as Richmond Homes. As these developments appeared, they often carried their own names, creating a series of segmented neighborhoods throughout Highlands Ranch. Plans for Highlands Ranch also included a snaking “green belt” which provided for undeveloped land for recreation. The plans also allowed for a large number of public parks and bike paths.
The first homes in Highlands Ranch were built in 1981, near South Broadway Blvd. Simultaneously, the state built a new beltway through the area, SH 470, which opened in 1985. Many of the first residents of Highlands Ranch complained about the initial lack of commercial development. Residents had to drive many miles (usually into Littleton) for groceries, entertainment, or medical care. The first public school, Northridge Elementary, opened in 1982. The same year also saw the completion of the Northridge Recreation Center, an athletic club available to all Highlands Ranch homeowners. The first secondary school, Highlands Ranch Jr/Sr High School, opened in 1987. This institution became solely a high school, named Highlands Ranch High School, in 1991 with the building of nearby Cresthill Middle School. The first Highlands Ranch branch of Douglas County Libraries also opened in 1991, housed in a strip mall off Broadway and Springer Drive.
Over the next 25 years, the population of Highlands Ranch increasingly expanded. Highlands Ranch celebrated its 10th anniversary in 1991 with a population of 17,000 residents. Over the next ten years, Highlands Ranch continued to develop on a large scale. In 1997, The Mission Viejo Company was acquired by Shea Properties, which continued to expand the community. This included bringing a regional office of Lucent Technologies, and later in the same complex Avaya Communication, to the area. The year 2000 saw the opening of a much larger Highlands Ranch Library as well as the establishment of the Highlands Ranch Chamber of Commerce.