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Prior to the development of local coal fields in the 1870s settlers living along Colorado's Coal Creek earned their living as farmers or merchants. The Overland Stage traveled daily along much the same route as present day U.S. Highway 287, carrying passengers between Denver and Laramie past the site of the future town of Erie. The Union Pacific Railroad arrived in 1871 when Union Pacific extended a spur from its Denver-Cheyenne line westward from Brighton in order to access newly-discovered Erie coal deposits for its locomotives, and the first commercial coal mine in Weld County, the Briggs Mine, was opened. Passengers on the Boulder Valley Railroad (as the spur came to be known) bound for Boulder or Longmont had to detrain at the Erie terminal and continue on by stagecoach or wagon. Soon Erie coal was headed in the opposite direction, being shipped as far east as Kansas City.
The original plat (town plan) for Erie was filed in the same year of 1871. The town was named Erie by Reverend Richard Van Valkenburg (one of Erie's founders) after Erie, Pennsylvania, another coal mining community, and in 1874 the Town of Erie, Colorado was incorporated. After the town's coal boom passed, agriculture replaced mining as the main local industry.
Erie remained a small rural town almost until the 21st century. With its views of the Rocky Mountains' Front Range and its proximity to both Boulder and Denver as well as Broomfield's high-tech corridor, the town's population has mushroomed in recent years (city planners expect Erie's population to more than triple to 38,000 by the year 2020).