After ignoring the South Platte River for decades, Denver is once again panning for gold

Video: Take a fast-forward ride down the South Platte River trail

A river runs through the heart of Denver, this city's most liquid asset. But the South Platte River wasn't always regarded that way.    

"We came to the shallow, yellow, muddy South Platte, with its low banks and its scattering of flat sand-bars and pigmy islands — a melancholy stream straggling through the centre of the enormous flat plain, and only saved from being impossible to find with the naked eye by its sentinel rank of scattering trees standing on either bank," wrote Mark Twain in Roughing It, his book that describes his trip across the Great American Desert to the Nevada silver mines, including an encounter with the river in what is now northeastern Colorado. "The Platte was 'up,' they said — which made me wish I could see it when it was down, if it could look any sicker and sorrier."

The Platte didn't look much better a century later. In fact, as a kid growing up in South Denver, Jeff Shoemaker didn't think about it at all — not as a place to explore, not as a place to save — until 1965, when the river overflowed its banks.

The tunnel in Lakewood Gulch where Elsha Guel tried to take shelter in 2007. Video: Take a fast-forward ride down the South Platte River trail
photo Courtesy of RTD, Denver
The tunnel in Lakewood Gulch where Elsha Guel tried to take shelter in 2007. Video: Take a fast-forward ride down the South Platte River trail
The tunnel in Lakewood Gulch in 2011, after improvements were made. Video: Take a fast-forward ride down the South Platte River trail
photo Courtesy of RTD, Denver
The tunnel in Lakewood Gulch in 2011, after improvements were made. Video: Take a fast-forward ride down the South Platte River trail

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Take a fast-forward tour of the South Platte River trail, stopping at points written about in this story. Watch video.

"My dad was in the state Senate in 1965," Jeff remembers. "We were back on the family farm in Iowa when my dad got a phone call — and a long-distance phone call was a heckuva thing back then — and we had to go get our dad out of the field, and he said, 'I have to fly home.'" That was a heckuva thing, too, because the family had driven east to Iowa, with four kids in a '63 station wagon. So almost-eleven-year-old Jeff asked his father why he had to go back to Colorado, leaving the kids to drive home with Mom.

"The river flooded," his father replied.

"And I said, 'What river?'" Jeff remembers. "Meaning, I didn't know there was a river in Denver.  The Platte was so bad and so rejected and such a non-part of the city. It was just a dump site."

But that would soon change.

Joe Shoemaker ran for mayor in 1971, and although he didn't win that office, he found a cause: pushing for the cleanup of the Platte. Jeff was just back from his freshman year in college in June '74 when his father said that Mayor Bill McNichols had asked him to head an effort to restore the river and was giving the Platte River Development Committee $2 million for the cause.

"I just remember thinking my dad was fifty and that was such a cool thing...but what did it mean?" Jeff recalls.

Fifteen months later, he found out when Confluence Park opened, the first of two targeted projects; the other was Globeville Landing Park. Confluence was at the juncture of the Platte and Cherry Creek, close to the very spot where Denver had gotten its start when gold was found just upriver in 1858. And now the Platte, and the park around it, was turning into liquid gold.

By 1982, Jeff was mining that gold. He was looking for something beyond his job as a schoolteacher, and after turning his dad down three times, he finally accepted a spot as executive director of the Greenway Foundation, the nonprofit that evolved from the PRDC, on a six-month trial basis.

Thirty years later, he's still there. So is his almost-88-year-old father, in spirit if not in day-to-day operations. "There's a difference I want to make clear," Jeff makes clear. "This is and this remains my job, but my father has been a volunteer from day one. He's not only never made a nickel off this, he's donated six-figure money to the cause. He's had opportunity after opportunity — but he's avoided any conflicts. It's not that we're purists; it's just that we're realists."

Not just realists, but visionaries. Mark Twain looked at the Platte and saw a melancholy trickle. Jeff Shoemaker looks at it and sees the future. The Greenway Foundation has already poured more than $100 million into environmental and recreational improvements, turning the river from a cesspool into an urban oasis, the focus of more than twenty parks and natural areas, and more than a hundred miles of hiking and biking trails. "I'm pleased and proud of what we've accomplished," he says, "but so much work on this river still needs to be done."

What's next? ­ — Patricia Calhoun

Video: Take a fast-forward ride down the South Platte River trail

******

Johnson-Habitat Park

I-25 and South Santa Fe Drive

It's 7:37 a.m., and a somewhat grizzled man is peeing through the hole in his tattered cut-offs — directly into the middle of the South Platte River. The fact that he's being watched doesn't seem to bother him. When you have to go, you have to go.

Behind him, a few steps away on the concrete trail that cuts through the center of Johnson-Habitat Park, a mostly full can of Busch Classic is still cold. It wasn't his, he insists, but it is now. He takes a sip.

Johnson-Habitat, located near the intersection of I-25 and South Santa Fe Drive between rows of west Denver warehouses, is used mostly for foot traffic between other parks, says Jolon Clark, associate director of the Greenway Foundation. Most of its visitors ignore the park's steep river slopes and half-gravel trail in favor of Vanderbilt Park's fish ponds just to the southeast. Here the green water grows narrow and shallow, drawing attention to the algae in the river bed and the weeds surrounding it. For most of the stretch, the bottom of the river lies, at most, a couple feet below the muck.

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8 comments
KevinInCentennial
KevinInCentennial

Lots of people also have fun gold panning in the river. I would love to see that mentioned along with the running, fishing, boating,etc. sometimes at Grant Frontier Park on the weekends there are more than 10 gold prospectors and most days at least one or two.

sifted1
sifted1

I love the path...I do not like the degrading comment about the homeless. This whole city is becoming a yuppie tourist trap. I hope all those "plans' for the Globeville part of the path do not go through. It is a nice area but real. Homeless people share the area with the yups all done up in thier cute little spandex bike suits and helmets. Yet the park itself is quiet and peaceful. If the plans for the area go through it will become a tourist trap like Confluence Park all clogged with people and very little wildlife. Did the evil fat cats REALLY ban homeless camping in the whole city? It is obvious they were never homeless. I laugh and laugh at the yups who pay a million dollars to live a block away from the rescue mission. I guess the REAL reason they are here is to drive the poor away to the degrading suburbs so they can have a REEL urban experience. I felt the article was really just thinly disguised boosterism.

MARGYVER
MARGYVER

I grew up in Swansea near globeville and the Platte....it used to be so horrible back in the day. Im always glad to see all the improvements. If I ever hit the lottery......im gonna give back to my old neighborhood to make sure that future generations never see it as crappy as I did!!!

Skotl
Skotl

Trying to make some improvements upstream as well - South Suburban Parks and Recreation partnering with Littleton, Urban Drainage, Trout Unlimited to enhance the river through South Platte Park in Littleton. The plan should help concentrate extremely low flows to create better fish survival and more varied aquatic habitat. Phase 1 to be constructed hopefully this fall, still seeking funding for the full plan, but the entire plan can be viewed (large file) on Littleton's website here: http://www.littletongov.org/pa...

calhounp
calhounp

I'd like to publish some of these comments in our print edition, ideally with your full name/town. If that's okay, e-mail me at patricia.calhoun@westword.com

Miles
Miles

Great article! I've been documenting unsanctioned use of the Lakewood gulch area for several years for a street-art project WeDUPT (West Denver Urban Preserve and Trail) http://www.sociometry.com/wpsb... It's interesting to see the greenway renewals effect on the homeless (and day-drinker) population. There are already new unsanctioned paths being trampled to and from clandestine camping spots in area – taking advantage of the new light-rail tracks segmenting off one side of the creek into barely accessible enclaves. It has however shifted a lot of homeless people away. Not so much up by the Taxi building, on a recent bike ride up there I saw easily 40 to 50 homeless people and several quasi-permanent camp spots. The recent ban on urban camping initiative will undoubtedly bring more people into the corridor hiding out from sweeps on the 16th St. Mall and Civic Center Park areas.

Whatajoke
Whatajoke

The improvements are great, but allowing Suncor to get away with decades of environmental degradation is shameful.

guest
guest

I commute by bike from Thornton to Denver on the Platte River Trail, and this trail is an urban treasure. While biking it I have seen abundant wildlife including Bald Eagles, Beavers, Owls, Coyotes, Deer, Snakes, White Pelicans, and countless other bird species. Major kudos to the Shoemakers for their dedication to this great river and its inhibitants.

 
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