An Urban Explorer Gone

For some, the lure of the old Gates factory is undeniable. And it was deadly for one.

About three weeks into the film project, the movie crew arrived on the site one morning and saw that someone had scrawled "Death to the Daywalkers" in red paint across the entrance. The message was clear, Marchiori says: Gates had become its own underground province, and the natives were getting restless.

The movie-crew members were authorized visitors. But Gates also attracted graffiti crews that roamed the upper levels, covering the windows with their work. "Once we got the rooftop spots and the water tower, it sort of turned into a contest to get all the best spots," says ACEE, a leader of RTD, a local crew whose initials were spray-painted on the tower for months. "Once the windows were done, pretty much any kid and their grandma could tell that was the spot to be. Then everybody came down there and started painting."

Cherokee Denver had already hired a security company to periodically patrol the buildings at night, and now it brought in a graffiti-abatement team to cover the work of the crews. But nothing stopped the curious from coming. Particularly the urban explorers.

For eight decades, the Gates factory manufactured all kinds of rubber and synthetic products.
Denver Public Library Western History collection
For eight decades, the Gates factory manufactured all kinds of rubber and synthetic products.
Located in the heart of Denver, Gates attracts explorers — and thieves like Robert Bordas.
Located in the heart of Denver, Gates attracts explorers — and thieves like Robert Bordas.

"Places like Gates — there has been so much traffic through there, it's sort of like a public forum," says Hicks. "There are so many stories to tell. It's what makes it interesting."

Most of the hard-core urban explorers in this town are geeks and hackers looking for an adrenaline kick away from their computers that isn't too illegal. But local law enforcement often doesn't appreciate the distinction. Legend has it that a few years ago, a police dog took a bite out of one Gates adventurer. And in mid-September, shortly after Hicks spent a night exploring the factory, police spotted Zachary Helm and a friend exiting one of the buildings. The 32-year-old Helm runs the Denver Hearse Association, a group devoted to tricked-out funeral cars. This was his seventh time inside Gates, whose impending demolition had induced him to break a cardinal rule of urban exploring: He took souvenirs — a small sign from one of the buildings and a few switch boxes because they looked cool. Police charged Helm with felony burglary, and he spent three days in jail before posting bond.

"You have no idea how large that complex is until you really get in there," says Helm, who was able to plead the charge down to a misdemeanor. "It's absolutely amazing. Just the roof alone is like a small city."

A small city that attracts many strangers.

Though John Polzin liked to explore, he was not an official urban explorer. In fact, he never knew the activity had a name, his friends say. He was more of a nature guy, an all-around vagabond. He scaled fourteeners, hopped freight trains, climbed rainforest canopies in Hawaii and biked through the Nevada desert during Burning Man wearing only a loincloth. He liked to go on long runs with his father in the foothills near where he'd grown up in west Arvada.

Hicks is also a middle-class child of a 'burb, Littleton, where the built environment of chain stores and office parks stands in sharp contrast to an old-school industrial icon like the Gates plant.

"It's got this defined American production feel to it," says Hicks, who researched the factory's history online before starting his exploration. "Even when I was in there, I could kind of imagine the industrial revolution with people clocking in and busting asses on the line. Or during World War II, when they made Jeep tires. I've never really known anything like that, when America still made things. Now everything is outsourced overseas, and there's nothing left except this huge empty thing."

Charles Gates Sr. had a saying: "Throw your hat across the creek!"

He would say it at board meetings, to business associates and in company newsletters. Throw your hat across the creek! It was an Old West expression that had something to do with pioneers tossing their hats to the other side of waterways as incentive for covered wagons to cross. He liked the symbolism of it. Independent men taking risks to forge new frontiers. He thought that the Gates Rubber Company, which he'd built out of nothing along the banks of the South Platte, was an extension of that same entrepreneurial, Western spirit.

A former mine superintendent, in 1911 Gates had paid $3,500 for the Colorado Tire and Leather Company, located at 1025 South Broadway. He came up with the idea of a durable tread, a strip of leather that wrapped around the metal wheels to extend their lifespan, and based on the success of this invention, within a year the company had expanded to seventeen leather cutters and stenographers to handle the mail-order business. But Gates didn't want to waste any leather scraps, so he decided to make horse halters, too, and gave Buffalo Bill Cody a half-dozen to test on his wild mustangs. Cody liked them so much that he agreed to endorse the halters, and Gates soon became the nation's largest horse-halter manufacturer.

The tire business was on a roll, too, and Gates next introduced the half-sole tire cover, which replaced the leather with a rubber tread set in a fabric carcass. This innovation completely changed the industry, not just making tires more durable, but adding traction. The company expanded further down South Broadway. Then in 1915, an employee inadvertently invented the Vulco Flat Belt, with rubber replacing the leather straps of engine belts. Charles Gates's brother John soon improved on this with the rubber V-belt, which replaced the hemp rope then used to run automobile-engine fans and quickly revolutionized the belt business.

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