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The history behind Colorado's welcome signs

It's the first thing you see when you cross state lines: "Welcome to Colorful Colorado". But, did you know the signs were almost forever replaced with... colorful signs? It's just one of the interesting facts we uncovered about the iconic piece of Colorado history.

DENVER — They're not just greeting you when you enter Colorado. They're everywhere.

There are T-shirts, keychains and coffee mugs all designed after the "Welcome to Colorful Colorado" sign that welcomes visitors and residents arriving in our great state.

The iconic signs have been up for decades, but they haven’t always been the same. Before we get to that, let’s start at the beginning, when the signs were first created in 1950.

World War II had recently ended, and auto travel exploded across the United States. The State Publicity Director decided Colorado needed a sign to welcome the growing number of people crossing state lines.

"They're very representative of a period in our state's history,” said Lisa Schoch, the senior historian with the Colorado Department of Transportation. “It was before we kind of politically became more important on the map. We were kind of just one of those rural western states, so [the sign] kind of represents that searching for identity and trying to establish identity as a state."

The State Publicity Director tapped the Colorado State Penitentiary to create the signs. Shortly after, the first one was installed at Raton Pass.

Credit: Colorado Department of Transportation
The first welcome sign installed at Raton Pass in Feb. 1950. at U.S. 85-87 at N.M.-Colo. state line.

No one knew how iconic the signs would become, until the state tourism board and CDOT tried to replace them.

In 1989, the agencies held a contest open to students attending Colorado colleges. The best design would take the place of the simple, rustic style signs that had been up for nearly 40 years.

A sign covered in bright colors won. Blue and purple mountains appeared below an orange sky and marigold sun.

Credit: Colorado Dept. of Transportation
Winning design created by a Colorado college student, and chosen by the State Tourism Board and CDOT to replace the older signs.

In 1991, the new signs went up, but they didn't last long.

“That created quite an outrage among people,” remembered Bob Wilson, CDOT’s Communication Manager. “We were replacing these iconic signs with this newfangled sign as people saw it, and trying to modernize it, people liked the old iconic signs."

CDOT listened. The new signs were up for about eight years until the “Old West” signs made their glorious return. They're the signs you see today at 41 entry points to Colorado.

There are actually 42 signs, if you count the one in History Colorado's lobby.

Credit: History Colorado