Discovering new old places: Denver metro area offers lesser-known historical sites

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While the Denver metro area is dotted with well-known aging ranches and charming historical homesteads, some history lovers of the area may be in search of a different kind of site — one they either haven’t heard of before or that they must romp through the woods to access.

In search of these types of unusual history sites, one place to look is the National Register of Historic Places.

For each of the counties that surround Denver — not to mention all the counties in the United States — this register provides a list of historically significant sites, some of which are unique or little-known sites.

Some of these sites, like an abandoned, rattlesnake-ridden military amphitheater in Golden, aren’t available for public access. Others, like Native American shelters in Douglas County, have a restricted location to protect them from being disturbed. 

But some on the list are simply often-overlooked historical sites in the area.

The list includes bridges, farms, schools, archaeological sites and more and offers new discoveries for residents curious about all the nooks and crannies of their community’s history.

Here are a few of the Denver area’s hidden history gems from the National Register of Historic Places and beyond.

Pioneer graves in Commerce City

Did you know that Denver’s oldest cemetery is mostly in Commerce City?

Riverside Cemetery, located a half-mile north of I-70 at 5201 Brighton Boulevard, was built in 1876 and registered with the national register in 1994.

While the 77-acre cemetery is surrounded by industrial properties, the cemetery itself serves as a peaceful resting place for many of Colorado’s pioneers. One afternoon in August, the giant cemetery stood mostly quiet and empty save for a few birds.

The gravesite serves as the final resting place for three of Colorado’s governors — John Evans, Samuel Elbert and John Routt. Pioneers buried there include Augusta Tabor, a Gold Rush pioneer; Barney Ford, who escaped from slavery; and Silas Soule, an abolitionist and soldier who testified against Col. John Chivington and the Colorado Cavalry after the Sand Creek Massacre and was then assassinated in the streets of Denver.

Throughout the cemetery there are dozens of unique headstones, including a log cabin replica, a giant horse sculpture, several large angel figures and a statue of a man buried there.

An online tour brochure of the cemetery guides drivers and walkers through the historic site, which is still open for new burials. The brochure tells the stories of several of the people buried there and provides general information about the cemetery. The informational pamphlet is available at www.FriendsofRiversideCemetery.org/visit-riverside.

A nonprofit that helps preserve the cemetery, Friends of Historic Riverside Cemetery, accepts donations to help maintain the property, which they say is “in a state of rapid decline.” Some may notice that many of the trees on the property have died and the ground cover is mostly weeds and native grass.

“Over the fall and winter of 2008-2009, several dead trees fell and damaged nearby monuments and a historic private mausoleum,” according to the nonprofit’s website. “Many more were taken down to manage this risk, but additional trees are in danger of falling during future storms or periods of strong winds.”

The driveable and walkable cemetery is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.

Walking among mammoths in Douglas County

While many have heard of Dinosaur Ridge near Morrison, there’s more than one significant archaeological site in the area. 

Lamb Spring Archaeological Preserve in Douglas County is a less well-known site but it has the highest concentration of mammoth remains in the state. It also offers free tours.

“You can go on the site and see where they were,” said Cameron Randolph, vice chair of the preserve’s board of directors.

In 1960, Charles Lamb was expanding a pond fed by a natural spring on his property when he came upon several large bones that were later identified as Columbian Mammoth remains. 

After several excavations of the site, archaeologists found the remains of at least five mammoths but there could be up to 30 mammoths that died at the site. 

During its life, an adult male Columbian Mammoth could grow up to 14 feet high at its shoulder. Other remains found on the site include Ice Age horses, camels, sloths and bison. 

There’s also evidence that the site was used by prehistoric people in the area as a hunting site. If confirmed with more research, that would put humans in that area 2,000 years earlier than previously thought, Randolph said.

Today, the site is 35 acres of protected land between Roxborough Park and Sterling Ranch. It was added to the national register in 1997.

Free tours of the site are available on the first Saturday of each month during much of spring, summer and fall. Visitors can see where the remains were discovered, see a cast of one of the mammoth skulls found there and learn more about the region from the preserve’s docents. This year, the last organized tour will be Oct. 2. The site also offers private tours. 

Eventually, the organization hopes to have a museum on the site of the excavation, Randolph said. 

The preserve will also host tours and demonstrations as part of International Archaeological Day on Oct. 16 in coordination with Roxborough State Park. 

Donations to the organization are welcome during tours. Residents interested in learning more about the preserve or signing up for a tour can do so by visiting www.LambSpring.org or their Facebook page at www.Facebook.com/LambSpringAP.

Visit a castle near Morrison

For those history lovers who yearn for a workout before their history lesson, there’s Castle Trail in Morrison’s Mount Falcon Park.

The 6.7-mile, nearly 2,000-foot elevation gain loop trail leads hikers to the castle ruins of one of Denver’s early settlers and one of the area’s interesting historical characters: John Brisben Walker.

In the park are both Walker’s stone mansion, destroyed by a fire, and the cornerstone of a never-completed home that Walker hoped would be a summer White House for the U.S. presidents.

Born in 1847, Walker ended up in Denver 32 years later after having served as a general in the Chinese army, running for Congress, winning and losing a fortune and managing two newspapers, according to Morrison Historical Society.

Once in Denver, he dabbled in agriculture and made himself a new fortune before going on to develop River Front Park, an amusement park that also held Denver’s first rodeo. He made a series of other purchases including Governor Evans’ “Swiss Cottage” in Morrison and all of what is now Red Rocks Park and Mount Falcon. 

After a few years away from Colorado — during which time he bought the then-failing Cosmopolitan magazine, later sold it to William Randolph Hearst and also sponsored the first automobile race in the United States — Walker returned to Morrison in the early 20th century.

From there, Walker began working on developing the area, building a road into town, adding a tea house and constructing hiking trails. He also built a railway to the top of Mount Morrison, making it the longest cog railway in the world at the time.

During this “period of enthusiasm” Walker also dreamed up the idea of a permanent summer home for U.S. presidents, according to the historical society. Construction began on top of Mount Falcon and the cornerstone was laid, but before it could be completed, the finances dried up and the project fizzled. Nearby, Walker built his home, a stone mansion that was destroyed by fire in 1918. 

Walker, by then a widower with a son, moved to Brooklyn and then died in 1931. Today, the remains of his home and his dream of a summer White House remain for visitors to see in Mount Falcon Park. 

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