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 dips. But Cheesman neighborhood also has the most density per square mile in Denver, and it’s also home to the wonderful Denver Botanic Gardens. Here’s the story of our Cheesman Park Neighborhood urban hike.
So let’s get the ghastly, ghostly history out of the way. First we had a cemetery, whose first body was that of John Stoefel followed by his murderer, Jack O’Neal. Folks referred to the area as Jack O’Neal’s Ranch. It soon became Denver City Cemetery, home to dead scoundrels, misfits, and outlaws. The rich folks were buried over in Fairmount or Riverside. Eventually, the Feds said the land belonged to them via an Arapahoe Indian Treaty, ultimately selling the land to the City of Denver for $200.
Growth came quickly, and the well-to-do wanted a nice place to put their mansions. Thus, the City petitioned the US Congress to turn the cemetery into a park. Congress agreed, and thus, Denver named the area after its namesake, Congress Park. A notice went out to the family of the dead to move their graves within 90 days. Most didn’t.
A gravedigger was hired who, unscrupulously, cut up the skeletons and put them in child-sized coffins and reburied them in Riverside Cemetery. A scandel 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.
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. See below for the map, route and turn-by-turn directions.
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.