They came to Denver with nothing but their expectations -- people like Wheelbarrow McGraw, who was a very good reporter and an even bigger drunk, or Market Street madam Jenny Rogers or huckster supreme Soapy Smith. Gold-boom opportunists? Well, yes...but the same could be said of Dee Chandler and Beaux Blakemore, a couple of dreamers who've led their Gunslingers, Ghosts and Gold walking tours through downtown Denver since last spring. Not unlike the characters they attempt to bring to life during the two-hour excursions, Chandler, a disenchanted small-town barrister, and her entrepreneurial partner Blakemore came here from Liberal, Kansas, with little more than four months' worth of solid research and an adventurous spirit, hoping to strike it rich in the Rockies.
Spirit is the key word where these intrepid Kansans are concerned: A major part of their informative sally -- the only tour of its kind, they note, that's offered in downtown Denver on a daily basis -- centers around the occult, as well as some of early Denver's gorier hatchet stories. Walk with Chandler and Blakemore, and your head will swim with images of bloody duels, slit throats, scalpings and acts of cannibalism, along with the floating-heads-in-jars and hollow-eyed specters inevitably left behind in the wake of such incidents. They'll regale you with stories of Dick's Tavern in Auraria, above which teetotaler William Byers set up an early office of the Rocky Mountain News, editorializing rampantly against the drinking going on below, and gunslinger Doc Halliday, who once used a Bowie knife to outduel a gun-packing adversary and often remarked that he was "always amazed to wake up and find himself alive."
The tours are a natural for the two, who cut -- or sharpened -- their teeth as tourists themselves, booking similar excursions wherever they traveled. Their favorite tour of all time is the Vampire Tour in New Orleans led by a Lugosi wannabe with filed teeth and an engorgement of bloodsucking lore -- much of it made up -- lurking under his cape. Denver, they sadly note, doesn't have that kind of tradition.
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How does Denver rate on the ghost-o-meter? "Medium," says Blakemore, with an authoritative note. This town's not old enough, it seems, to compete with such cities as Chicago, Boston, New Orleans and, of course, London. They're all far more decrepit (and therefore creepier), but, Chandler assures, Denver's Wild West background stokes a pretty good ectoplasmic fire, perhaps due to the predomination of untimely deaths it generated. All you have to do is ask the bartenders -- perennial keepers of ghostly lore who delight in telling tales of rattling cupboards, flushing toilets and pale apparitions in Victorian dress (or are they just taking too many nips behind the counter?). The tour's de rigueur watering-hole stop is made at the Denver Press Club, which they call one of Denver's prime haunts, and where they can even show off the saloon's framed photo of some ghostly material allegedly caught in the act of scaring up some business.
Tour-guiding, however, isn't all fun and games, and they've put their serious research to good use: Chandler and Blakemore seem to have a good yarn rehearsed for nearly every street corner they pass -- from true stories about lawsuits made against squirrels to the sad demise of the once-magnificent (and now demolished) Windsor Hotel, where President Taft became stuck in a bathtub, where Denver's most famous rags-to-riches-to-rags story, Horace Tabor, ended his life and where, in later days, a trapeze net had to be hung across the rotunda due to the number of suicide leaps made from the balconies by skid-row inmates. Detail man Blakemore can quote historical facts with the best of them, right down to the exact number of lightbulbs that once adorned Union Station's defunct Mizpah arch, but humor also looms large in their anecdotal delivery, as do the slumber-party-worthy ghost stories that Chandler, in particular, loves to spin. People like the supernatural bent of the tours, they say, because they're attracted to the unexplainable -- after all, says Blakemore, "Everyone wants to know where you go after you die, but you don't actually know what happens until you're dead."
Chandler's been giving thought to conducting tours in period costume, though the hot summer weather put a crimp in her relish for donning Victorian petticoats -- even if hoop skirts do allow plenty of air to circulate. But for now, shorts and a Gunslingers, Ghosts and Gold T-shirt do this corn-fed Kansas gal just fine. During a stop at the Wells Fargo Bank on Seventeenth Street, where the restored stagecoach in the lobby gives tour-goers a feel for just how rough life in the olden days could be, she admits she'd have failed miserably as a Wild Westerner, and not just because of the complicated fashions: "I'm not a pioneer lady. I get upset if the room service is late." Still, winter's around the corner, offering fine opportunities to don itchy woolens beneath and a fox boa on the outside. Time will tell. The duo hopes to expand its repertoire in the future to cover various routes through old Denver, and also has plans to write a book based on the tours.
Chandler and Blakemore share no regrets about taking a giant leap into Denver's tourism market. And it doesn't matter, you'll agree, if their greenhorn Kansas roots sometimes shine through the formidable wall of Denver trivia they've mastered. It's simply part of their enthusiastic charm. "It all depends on how you look at it," Chandler explains. "This used to be part of Kansas Territory."