The Dark History of Cheesman Park


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Today, hundreds flock to Cheesman Park to relax and exercise but Cheesman was not always a park. At one time it used to be a cemetery and, much like the move Poltergeist, the tombstones were removed but the bodies remain. This presentation documents the transformation of Cheesman from cemetery to park.

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The Dark History of Cheesman Park

  1. 1. The Dark History of Cheesman Park By Amanda H. King
  2. 2. Since the late 1800‟s, the area of Cheesman Park has been a place for the citizens of Denver to come and relax in peace. Its sprawling lawns and elegant pavilion act as a reprieve from the hustle and bustle of Colfax Avenue and the surrounding city. But, as visitors to the park sun themselves on the grassy knoll, many of them are blissfully unaware of what lies beneath the well manicured grass.
  3. 3. Today, Cheesman Park has many uses. Some people come here to exercise, play frisbee or tan themselves under a Denver sun. It is not uncommon to see dogs playing fetch with their owners or chasing squirrels. On the surface, Cheesman Park is an ideal escape from the stresses of everyday life. But this land has taken many forms in the past and the history of what Cheesman Park used to be is not widely known. There are no plaques to commemorate what was here before and, when mention of the past does surface, it is usually in the form of urban legend or myth. Many of the stories that have been told about this land seem almost too extraordinary to be true. However, as far fetched as many of these stories appear, they are closer to the truth than some may realize.
  4. 4. Prior to 1860, the land that is now known as Cheesman Park acted as an Arapaho Indian burial ground. It is unlikely, however, that the Arapaho Indians would have buried their dead in the soil. Like most Indians of the plains, they would have built scaffolds to honor their dead. While most „scaffold burials‟ actually took place in trees, the plains Indians built teepee structures in which they would place their loved ones who were usually wrapped in buffalo hides to protect against the elements. According to tradition, the wrapping of the body was performed by the women of the tribe and food and water were often included at the burial site for the soul of the deceased to have enough food and drink for their journey. “The Plains Indians and certain Indians of the Pacific Northwest commonly practiced above-ground burials using trees, scaffolds, canoes, and boxes on stilts, which decayed over time.” – National Park Service
  5. 5. On November 18, 1858, an eighteen year old William Larimer and his father arrived at the Auraria settlement in St. Charles (Denver was originally known as St. Charles until Larimer claimed the town site across Cherry Creek and named it Denver City). As Denver‟s founder, young William Larimer wanted to ensure the city‟s longevity by including a cemetery in his plans to build the community. He knew that every prominent city in America was in possession of a quality park cemetery and by building a fine cemetery, Denver might be considered a prominent city as well. Despite the fact that the Arapaho Indians had been using that land for years, Larimer claimed the area to build Mount Prospect Cemetery in “We knew it was a healthy country; nevertheless there was likely to be a 1859. death now and then…So Father and I had slipped away by ourselves one day and staked one off on the hill along the road up Cherry Creek.” – William Larimer
  6. 6. In the nineteenth century, cemeteries were not only resting places for the dead, but for the living as well. Known as “breathing spaces,” cemeteries acted as parks were one could stroll peacefully among the trees and greenery. Cities were often judged by the quality of their cemetery and William Larimer wanted Mount Prospect Cemetery to reflect the beauty of the “Queen City of the Plains.” He acquired 160 acres of land for Mount Prospect Cemetery and, in 1860, the first burial took place. By the 1870‟s, the cemetery was sectioned off into different areas to reflect the diverse group of people residing in Denver. The Catholic and Jewish sections of the cemetery were laid out where the Botanic Gardens stand today. There were sections for distinct organizations such as the Masons and Odd Fellows and there was also a small portion of the cemetery dedicated for the use of Chinese burials. A good portion of the cemetery, however, contained the prostitutes, vagabonds and criminals of Denver.
  7. 7. Over time, the cemetery fell into disuse. Tombstones cracked and crumbled due to neglect and weeds soon became the dominant feature. Wildlife was often seen running rampant on the cemetery grounds and within the span of only 30 years, the graveyard became an eyesore and an embarrassment to the city of Denver. The new Riverside and Fairmount cemeteries were flourishing and many of Denver‟s most prominent citizens chose to be interred in these more modern and well cared for facilities rather than the deteriorated Mount Prospect cemetery. The future of Mount Prospect cemetery would soon lay in the hands of Denver‟s most influential Mayor, Robert Speer.
  8. 8. Mayor Robert Speer Since 1901, Speer had been promoting the need for parks and parkways in Denver. While working as president of the Board of Public Works, he encouraged the preservation of Denver‟s limited water sources by beautifying Cherry Creek. The Creek went from being a “sandy and miserable waste” to a sparkling waterway lined with trees and shrubbery. A boulevard was built alongside it and in Speer‟s honor, the City Council renamed Cherry Creek Drive as Speer Boulevard in 1910. Speer ordered the removal of all “Keep off the grass” signs because he felt as though people deserved to enjoy what little green space Denver had to offer. Being without children of his own, he also took a special interest in the children of Denver. Playgrounds were a priority and “The Mayoral post looked tailor-made for Robert Speer, who first ran for that office in 1904. He won with the support of an Speer even supervised the placement of the estimated 10,000 fraudulent votes. Such ugly means to a City Beautiful would make Speer the most criticized, as well as the beautiful Children‟s Fountain in City Park. most praised, of all Denver mayors.” – Dr. Thomas Noel (AKA Dr. Colorado)
  9. 9. Prior to becoming Mayor of Denver, Robert Speer visited the 1893 World‟s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The fair was not only a celebration of the 400th anniversary of Columbus‟ voyages but it was also a blueprint for modern America. Speer became inspired by many of the attractions there, especially The White City. The World‟s Columbian Exposition Arch, as shown in 1893, was an entrance into the fair. It also shares many of the same characteristics as the Cheesman Memorial Pavilion. The White City, a collection of buildings in neoclassical style architecture, was erected at the Exposition by Daniel Hudson Burnham, founder of the City Beautiful Movement. The idea behind the City Beautiful Movement was to beautify cities across America and, in doing so, the citizens of those cities might become beautiful as well. It was an attempt at social reform during a time when prostitution and crime were products of overcrowded settlement houses and polluted streets.
  10. 10. Close-up pictures of the Walter Cheesman Memorial Pavilion at Cheesman Park show the neoclassical architecture that is indicative of buildings erected during the City Beautiful Movement.
  11. 11. According to Dr. Thomas Noel, Professor of History and Director of the Public History and Preservation Program at the University of Colorado Denver, Robert Speer developed a four stage plan for transforming Denver into a City Beautiful.  Start with the heart of the city - Speer organized the construction of Civic Center Park. Surrounding government buildings and cultural institutions would serve as the heart of the city. Develop a series of parkways and boulevards - Radiating outward from Civic Center Park, these would provide both transportation and open space. Build Neighborhood Parks - These were constructed with the intention to bring the community together. Mountain Park Development – Made the “On evenings and on Sunday mornings, Speer could be found in his office studying plans and reports on city beautification. The first step mountains available to the people. was a city functional.” – Dr. Thomas Noel.
  12. 12. Denver, A City Not So Beautiful? Upon becoming Mayor of Denver, Speer immediately set his sights on beautifying Denver. He improved the city‟s primitive transportation system by installing cable cars. Public baths were built around Denver to improve hygiene and, in order to better promote the temperance movement, drinking fountains were strategically located around town to entice people to drink water instead of alcohol. Most importantly, Mayor Speer focused his efforts on parks and gardens. After hearing complaints from residents living near the now dilapidated cemetery, Mayor Speer was determined to turn the area into a beautiful park befitting the elegant and prosperous city that Denver was in the process of becoming. Notices were sent out to family members of those buried at the cemetery advising them to move their loved ones elsewhere. While some family members were quick to remove the bodies of their loved ones (especially the Chinese), there were still plenty of bodies left in the ground that needed to be moved before a park could be built.
  13. 13. E.P. McGovern: Undertaker Edward P. McGovern was hired by the city of Denver to relocate the remaining bodies. He was to be paid $1.90 for every casket he moved to Denver‟s surrounding cemeteries. In an attempt to profit more from the macabre task of digging up corpses, McGovern ordered the use of small, child sized caskets and instructed his workers to hack a single body into several pieces – each part being placed in its own casket. By separating a single body into many caskets, McGovern was making triple, sometimes quadruple the amount he would normally receive. There were even reports that McGovern and his workers filled empty caskets with soil and rocks to give the appearance of it being full.
  14. 14. As entertainment was scarce in these days, people flocked to the cemetery by the hundreds to witness the exhumation of the bodies on Capitol Hill. It would not be long before rumors began to spread about McGovern‟s unsavory business practices. When word reached area newspapers, outrage ensued. An issue of The Denver Republican reported in horrifying detail the scene of scattered bones and parts laying haphazardly on cemetery grounds. Reports of McGovern‟s workers stealing jewelry from many of the bodies sickened citizens and government officials alike. McGovern and his men were promptly dismissed from their jobs and the city issued a statement to family members that if they did not remove their loved ones who still remained in the cemetery within ninety days, the bodies would be doomed to remain there while the park was built over them.
  15. 15. For several years after the McGovern scandal, the cemetery lay dormant. The city of Denver ran out of funds for the transformation of the cemetery into a park and fences were built around the area to keep people from falling through half dug holes. The erection of a fence did not, however, deter children from playing within cemetery grounds. As this picture shows, neighborhood children often climbed on toppling tombstones and played hide-and- seek within the confines of the now defunct cemetery.
  16. 16. “Give While You Live” Work on the cemetery resumed in the early 1900‟s. Holes where graves had been were filled in and grass was put on top of graves that still remained. Speer was particularly influential in appealing to private citizens to “Give while you live” in order to fund the construction of the Park. To generate money for a pavilion to be erected on the grounds, Mayor Speer put the park up for sale. The highest bidder would have the park named in their honor and the money collected would go directly towards the construction of the new pavilion. Walter Cheesman, known across Denver as a corrupt business man, had recently passed away and, in 1907, his widow gave Speer $100,000 for the pavilion to be built in his name. This generous donation was an attempt to improve Walter Cheesman‟s reputation posthumously.
  17. 17. Although it has been over a hundred years since the cemetery began its transformation into a park, bones are still being discovered in the surrounding area. In November 2008, work began on the new parking structure for the Denver Botanic Gardens. Construction workers were well aware what they might find when they started to dig the foundation as this land once belonged to the Hebrew section of the cemetery. They were not surprised when they uncovered bones and casket fragments in the soil. As many as fifty bones along with several caskets were discovered and work on the parking garage was suspended until all bodies were removed and relocated to Denver‟s Mt. Olivet Cemetery. “We did find bones at the site – multiple caskets were found, many of which were empty. Some had a few bones in them, some more than a few, and some bones were found in the soil.” – Michelle Weiss-Samaras, Denver chief deputy coroner
  18. 18. But is Cheesman Park Haunted? There is no way to say for certain whether or not Cheesman Park is haunted. There have been reports of people feeling “cold spots” or hearing noises such as crying or moans. There has even been a picture taken at Cheesman that shows a possible apparition. However, these things can all be explained.
  19. 19. Meet Bryan Bonner and Matthew Baxter! According to Bryan Bonner, founder of the Rocky Mountain Paranormal Research Society and his partner, Matthew Baxter, there are no tools that are capable of detecting ghosts – only tools to document the presence of paranormal activity versus normal conditions. Items such as digital cameras, digital recorders, electromagnetic field (EMF) detectors and hand-held video devices are all typical tools of the trade for many ghost hunters. However, these tools are not without their faults.
  20. 20. One popular instrument used by ghost hunters is the EMF detector. Some theories suggest that a ghost will either disrupt a magnetic field or emit their own form of magnetic energy causing the detector to go off. However, Bryan Bonner explains that this type of device is only capable of detecting “man made energy.” If it is pointed towards a living being, it will not go off so it does not make sense that it would go off when pointed towards an entity. Bryan and Baxter further explain that in cases where there are high electromagnetic fields, there can be certain side effects on the human body that may produce hallucinations (both visual and auditory), feelings of paranoia and a general sense of uneasiness. These side effects are often misinterpreted as paranormal activity.
  21. 21. Digital cameras are also popular with most ghost hunters. Many people claim that they have pictures of paranormal activity taken by their digital cameras. Most of these pictures include orbs, streaks of light known as ectoplasm or even full body apparitions. But are these pictures proof of paranormal activity? Bryan Bonner explains that much of the phenomena caught by digital cameras can be logically explained. For instance, orb activity in an indoor environment is most likely attributed to dust while orb activity in an outdoor environment can be caused by moisture droplets such as mist, rain or snow particles. Sometimes cigarette smoke or condensation from ones breath is caught by digital cameras giving the illusion of a ghostly presence.
  22. 22. Our Brain‟s Reaction Do you see a face in this old photograph?
  23. 23. Look Again! Once the photograph has been colorized, we can see that the face is actually a baby sitting with her family. Bryan and Baxter explain that our brain is constantly looking for human faces in objects. It is a psychological phenomenon known as “pareidolia.” As human beings, we are conditioned to not only see faces in objects and pictures but our brain also tricks our ears into hearing voices or sounds that may not be there.
  24. 24. Some examples of pareidolia.
  25. 25. Look closely at this picture. What do you see? This picture was taken at Cheesman Park at night. The person who took this picture claims that it is an apparition of a man, possibly a disturbed spirit from the days when McGovern was digging up corpses. There seems to also be some orb activity in the picture as well. Could this be a ghost or just the effects of pareidolia and dust?
  26. 26. What do visitors of the park have to say about all of this? Who me?
  27. 27. Nadine and Walt “We come to the park almost everyday, sometimes more than once a day. Mostly we come because our dogs like it here so much. We heard that this place used to be a cemetery a long time ago and that they dug up some bodies but left a lot of them here. The fact that there are still bodies here doesn‟t bother us nearly as much as the all the homeless people that are here. But no matter what, we always come back. We always will.”
  28. 28. Caitlin “Hmmmm….I probably come here about four times a week. I spend a lot of time here because I live so close. I usually come to exercise but sometimes I come just to relax and read a book. It‟s very peaceful and quiet here. It feels like home and it‟s very comforting. I always feel more calm and grounded after spending time here. The only thing that scares me about the park is that I heard there are men hiding in the trees at night. I would probably be more scared of them then the ghosts”!
  29. 29. “Treetop” “Oh, I come here everyday! It‟s a habit really. Besides, I don‟t really have anywhere else to go. I feel happy while I‟m here except for when the cops come and hang out. I don‟t like them. They are always trying to get you in trouble for something. Especially for drinking – they don‟t like drinking in the park. I did hear that this place used to be an old Indian burial ground and that there is a lady in white who has been seen in the park at night. I don‟t mind. That kind of stuff doesn‟t bother a guy like me. I keep coming back don‟t I?”
  30. 30. Angela and Jason We come here about once a week. Twice a week in the Summer. It‟s a nice place to sit and stare at the mountains and we like that it‟s part of the gay community. It‟s so peaceful and relaxing here. Are we scared here? No way! We think the history of the park gives it character. If anything, the fact that it‟s haunted would make us want to come back even more”! “It would take a lot for us not to come back. Yeah the drug dealers and homeless guys make us a little uncomfortable sometimes but as long as we don‟t come here late at night we‟re cool. We haven‟t noticed anything paranormal here but sometimes when it rains you‟ll see it rain all around the park but never in it. I guess that‟s sort of weird.”
  31. 31. Richard “I play a little guitar” “Let‟s see….I come here maybe three or four times a week because I work with mentally disabled men and I take them here sometimes. I think this is a happy place. I guess I‟ve heard stories of Cheesman being haunted but I don‟t believe any of them. Even if they were true it wouldn‟t affect me coming here or not. This is a great park. I mean, look around you. It‟s beautiful.”
  32. 32. Although Cheesman Park has a dark history, that does not seem to deter the hundreds of people who visit here on a daily basis. This land started out as a resting place and continues to be so today. It‟s peace and tranquility is unrivaled and it exudes beauty in so many ways. Perhaps the best way one can honor this land is by spending time here and remembering its history.
  33. 33. Bibliography Goodstein, Phil. The Ghosts of Denver: Capitol Hill. Denver: New Social Publications, 1996 Josephy, Alvin M. Jr. The Indian Heritage of America. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1991. Larimer, W.H.H. Reminiscences of General William Larimer and of his son…compiled by Herman S. Davis. Lancaster, PA.: privately printed, 1918. Noel, Thomas J., and Barbara S. Norgren. Denver: The City Beautiful and its Architects 1893-1941. Denver: Historic Denver Inc., 1987. Peterson, Bernice E. Cemetery to Conservatory: A History of the Land Around Denver Botanic Gardens 1859-1978. Denver: Denver Botanic Gardens Inc., 1980. National Park Service: Denver Republican, Issues for March 1893. Denver Post, Issues for November 2008 Historic Photos courtesy of the Denver Public Library; Western History Collection. Special Thanks to Dr. Thomas Noel, Bryan Bonner and Matthew Baxter for contributing their expertise to this project.