“Secret Denver” dives into Denver’s weird, obscure historical past

Did you know that the circus mogul Phineas T. Barnum used to own 760 acres near Lowell Boulevard and Alameda Avenue? That’s why it’s called Barnum. But no, he doesn’t “overwinter his elephants” there. (Provided by Reedy Press)

In recent months, many Denver area residents have become amateur city dwellers as travel has been drastically reduced and tourism has declined.

That’s because waves of travel books focused on Colorado and Denver, and programs like History Colorado’s The Lost Book of Astrid Lee scavenger hunt, took advantage of the pandemic (sometimes unintentionally) and led countless people to learn more about Colorado Capital to learn city.

So what is left to uncover?

There are plenty, according to Eric Peterson and David Lewis, co-authors of Secret Denver: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Dark. The book, which was released on September 15, is getting another bump with personal authoring events. (Next up: a free signature on the Covered Treasures Bookstore in Monument on November 7th.)

Given the new restrictive mandates announced last week, this will be relevant for many months.

“The thin air seems to catalyze the pace of special events,” write the authors in the introduction to the 200-page, image-guided paperback. “Or maybe it’s the fact that Denver is the most isolated big city in the United States.”

I’m part of the latter theory because Denver’s geographical isolation has fueled much of its cultural and economic achievements, as well as our boom-and-bust cycle. But it has also generally made Colorado a place where national trends dissolve once they invade state lines.

The authors of “Secret Denver’s” recognize this by expanding their focus far beyond the capital and interpreting the “Denver story” somewhat generously. As mentioned earlier, Denver has always been the largest subway area for 600 miles in each direction. So there are a lot that fall under the “Denver story” that technically didn’t take place within the city and county limits.

The trick is to find the right balance. Some stories sound worn out to locals (Frozen Dead Guy Days, ghost stories, arsenals – wildlife sanctuaries), but enlightening to outsiders. Peterson, a veteran travel writer with more than a dozen books, and Lewis, another veteran Denver writer and freelancer, take a journalistic approach to their research, but a magazine-like approach to writing.

The “chapters” (every two pages) are practical: Readers can find tips for visiting these haunted, historic buildings, eating in these restaurants and camping in these former missile silos with phone numbers, websites and addresses in handy breakout boxes. Many of them are practically hidden from the public, paved or marked by tiny plaques that are now surrounded by developments steeped in history.

The Denver Botanic Gardens and the adjacent Cheeseman and Congress parks are located in a former cemetery. Graves were only uncovered in 2008. (Provided by Reedy Press)

The stories are driven by photos (some new, some old), and the format gives Secret Denver a practical, bite-sized appeal – something you can pick up and drop off at will. The design feels a bit clunky at times, which fits a mid-2000s Condo newsletter more than this expertly researched volume, and the mostly black and white photos look like they’ve gone through one too many photocopiers.

But this is a book, not a TV series, so words matter most. I moved to Denver from Ohio 20 years ago and have written about the city, including its history, constantly since then. Here are five of the most surprising things I’ve read (although there are many more):

“Denver’s false start.”

The first pioneer settlement in Denver was not, as most people think, at the confluence of the South Platte River and Cherry Creek. Known today as Grant-Pioneer Park (2300 S. Platte River Drive), the place was almost comically short-lived. In 1858, when the area was part of the Kansas Territory, prospectors built three rows of huts on the east bank of the South Platte River near its confluence with Little Dry Creek. Montana City, as they called it, became the first permanent structure within what is now Denver’s city limits.
So what happened “The search for gold… proved unsuccessful and the population quickly dwindled. The smelters were dismantled and rebuilt downriver in Auraria in the winter when that settlement was steaming before it merged with Denver in 1860. “There are only a few remains of the original website, other than a car, a cabin replica, a badge and your upcoming Instagram post.

Contrary to popular belief, Montana City, now called Grant-Frontier Park, was the first permanent pioneer settlement in present-day Denver. (Provided by Reedy Press)

“Shhh … here’s a guide to Denver’s Secret Bars.”

In addition to the rugged drinking culture in Denver (including dozens of craft breweries and distilleries), there are a number of watering holes in the Denver area that purposely make it difficult for people to find. Many of us are familiar with high-end faux-speakeasies like Green Russell and Williams & Graham who hide behind cake shops and bookcases. But what about Retrograde (in an ice cream parlor, Frozen Matter, 530 E. 19th Ave.) or B & GC in the basement of the Halcyon Hotel (245 Columbine St.)?

Even the Cooper Lounge (1701 Wynkoop St., Union Station) does everything it can to hide. An entrance is behind a single velvet rope on the south side of the station. There, prospective guests must expressly ask for entry in order to be able to enjoy the 28-foot-high windows and the view of the city center.

“Radioactive Roads.”

During a short-lived boom in radium mining, the Shattuck Chemical Company in southern Denver was able to meet national demand for the element in the early 20th century. In the late 1970s, a Superfund radioactive site cleanup began that included 65 different locations in and around Denver. This included several streets in the city, as “leftover ore was used to pave streets and make them particularly radioactive”.

Yikes While many of the roads were fully excavated and rebuilt and the debris was shipped out of the state, the radioactivity was not included. Another round of cleanups was completed in 2006 – the last, officials said – and the former Shattuck site is now an apartment complex. Pack your Geiger counter.

“Lost and Found Missile Silos.”

Earlier this year, a former federal missile silo in the Eastern Plains (near Bennet, about 30 miles east of Denver) went up for sale for $ 4.2 million. The authors write. In some states, wealthy investors have turned these disused sites (there are a total of 11 complexes east of Denver) into underground castles. Here they are marketed as potential hemp farms. Missile Site Park in Greeley even offers camping and free tours of the old Atlas E facility.

(Provided by Reedy Press)

“A dubious culinary landmark.”

As Denver food culture has exploded in recent years, historical food claims have been scrutinized. This is the case here, as the authors put a plaque on 2776 Speer Blvd. now in a bank parking lot, claiming the barrel-shaped former Denver restaurant Humpty Dumpty (also the city’s first “car-oriented restaurant”) invented the cheeseburger. Officials in Pasadena, California and Louisville, Kentucky have also claimed so, and the authors point out the lack of evidence that Denverites have produced.

There is some good news, however: “Although the naysayers are quick to point out that many other chefs had whipped a slice of cheese on a piece of beef long before (Humpty Dumpty owner Louis Ballast), they didn’t have the marketing mojo…. No matter where the cheeseburger was really born, Ballast was definitely the first alleged inventor to receive the “cheeseburger” trademark in 1935.

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