Ghastly and Ghostly Cheesman Park Neighborhood
Most Denverites have at least a vague glimpse of Cheesman Park’s history. Dead bodies. Moved bones. Missing skeletons. It’s a ghastly story of ghosts, the dead, and grass dents.
But Cheesman neighborhood also has the most density per square mile in Denver, and it’s home to the wonderful Denver Botanic Gardens. Here’s the story of a great Cheesman Park Neighborhood urban hike.
Jack’s Ranch Started It
Let’s get the ghastly, ghostly history out of the way. First Denver had a cemetery, whose first body was that of John Stoefel followed by his murderer, Jack O’Neal. Stoefel killed O’Neal in a duel, so they say. Folks referred to the “cemetery” as Jack O’Neal’s Ranch.
It soon became Denver City Cemetery, home to dead scoundrels, misfits, and outlaws. Some folks decided to call it Mt Prospect or Prospect Hill. The problem was, good places to live that weren’t smokey and polluted were becoming rare.
So our Senator Teller turned to Congress for a solution. It seems we needed Congress’ approval to turn a cemetery into a park with housing surrounding it. (You can read the whole story in my book, Discovering Denver Parks. See below.)
The Feds said the land belonged to the US via an Arapahoe Indian Treaty, and ultimately agreed to sell the federal land to the City of Denver for $200. The City jumped at the deal.
Thus, the City got its much-needed space and named it after its founder, Congress Park. A notice went out to the family of the dead to move their graves within 90 days.
A gravedigger was hired who, unscrupulously, cut up the skeletons and put them in child-sized coffins and reburied them in Riverside Cemetery. A scandal broke out. From the Denver Republic, 1893:
“The line of desecrated graves at the southern boundary of the cemetery sickened and horrified everybody by the appearance they presented. Around their edges were piled broken coffins, rent and tattered shrouds and fragments of clothing that had been torn from the dead bodies…All were trampled into the ground by the footsteps of the gravediggers like rejected junk.”
The scoundrel was fired, another hired, and the job was never completed. It’s estimated there are still up to 4000 skeletons still buried under the newly named Cheesman Park (after Walter Cheesman, spring-water seller turned real-estate developer). The Cheesman Pavilion and other landmarks within Denver all bear his name.
Density Pops Up
Thus, what was once Denver Cemetery became Congress Park. It split into Cheesman Park, the Botanic Gardens, and the smaller Congress Park. The first two are within the Cheesman neighborhood boundaries of Josephine, Colfax, 8th Ave, and Downing Streets–the most highly dense neighborhood in Denver of 12,000 people per square mile versus 3600 people as the average.
The Non-Ghostly Side of Cheesman Park
This walk takes you through the park and the accompanying Cheesman neighborhood. After learning the ghastly history of the park, turn your attention to its forest and its landmarks. Cheesman has some of the best examples of 57 montane tree species in the city. Many of the trees are some of the city’s oldest as well, being planted at the turn of the century.
The Cheesman Pavilion, built in the park to honor the its benefactor who donated $100,000 to formalize the park, stands as sentry to the view. From within, you can look through the columns to the west. Use the historic plaque from the Colorado Mountain Club to identify the peaks of our front range Rocky Mountains.
The on other park in Cheesman Park Neighborhood is the Denver Botanic Gardens, which actually originated in City Park. The Gardens are owned by the City of Denver and operated by the nonp-profit. It requires an admission fee to get in. The free version of the botanic gardens is Centennial Park on the Platte River. This paid version is one of the most diverse in North America with seven major collections identified.
The Cheesman Park Neighborhood Stands Tall
The Cheesman neighborhood, abutting the park and gardens, contains three of Denver’s residential historic districts: Wyman’s which stretches from Franklin to York, 13th to 17th Avenue, Morgan’s Addition along 8th & 9th Blocks of Race, Vine, Gaylord and the west side of York, and Humboldt Island along 10th and 11th blocks of Humboldt Street.
All three historic districts hold giant mansions of some of Denver’s famous and not-so-famous residents. Watch for plaques and historic markers as you walk in these iconic areas of Cheesman neighborhood.
Whether you’re hunting ghosts or just enjoying a beautiful walk of parks, trees, mansions or turn-of-the century apartment/condos, an urban hike through Cheesman will be entertaining, if nothing else.
The route (click for interactive map):
Park at the Denver Botanic Gardens, 1007 York St, Denver, CO, making sure you save time after your walk to visit this wonderful facility. Head north on York and take a left on 11th Ave, entering Cheesman Park.
When you enter the park, look to the left and venture into the Cheesman Pavilion, made from Colorado Yule. Notice the mountain range plaque. Continue around to the north along the paths within the park.
Exit north of the park crossing 13th. At 14th, take a left to Humboldt and then head south on Humboldt. There are several older apartment buildings from the 30s and 40s in the first block or two, eventually giving way back to the gorgeous mansions that once dotted Humboldt.
Crossing 11th, you’ll be on “Humboldt Island,” an historic district of mansions that hail from the turn of the 20th century. Be sure to pay attention to 1075 S Humboldt which was once a Governor’s House with Teddy Roosevelt and William Taft stayed and 1022 Humboldt which has 46 rooms and a basement pool.
Take a left back into park at 9th Ave. If you are a Denver Botanic Gardens member, you can enter the rear of the Gardens through the gate behind the Cheesman Pavilion with your membership card. Or, continue on 9th to York. Take a left and return back to the Botanic Gardens.
Chasing Ghosts in Cheesman and Supporting Denver By Foot
If you’ve enjoyed this walk, maybe you’ll enjoy some other walks curated by Denver By Foot. Get the 52 Hikes 52 Weeks Denver Calendar, which recommends a hike a week, subscribe to the YouTube Channel to hear about weekly hiking suggestions in Denver, and buy access to the Denver By Foot Challenge. The Challenge is 30 activities in Denver to do by foot where you’ll uncover treasures throughout Denver. It’s a great thing to do with friends and family.
Finally, please support Denver By Foot by purchasing Chris Englert’s books, The Best Urban Hikes: Denver and Discovering Denver Parks. Thank you so much!
Wasn’t this a fun walk?
See you on the trail