Most of us would rather be clocked in the head with a brick than look at another historical monument. Most of those memorials commemorate boring chapters in history or honor pioneer founders who made a pile, then raised a pile to themselves for a little posthumous backslapping. But far from the marble tombs and towers, an alternate history persists. Colorado boasts a quirky patchwork of monuments, memorials and points of historical interest that are actually interesting. Here are ten of our favorites:
10) Don Becker’s arm
3654 Navajo Street
Well-known standup comic Don Becker was an acerbic and articulate force in Denver. He battled debilitating mental illness, though, and on a summer night in 1986, he thrust his arms under a moving train down by the old 15th Street viaduct. One limb was saved, but many years of rehab and treatment didn’t protect Becker from his demons. He moved into poetry and playwriting, and died at the age of 53, in 2008. Bug Theatre program manager Joni Pierce helped look after Becker during his final years; somehow his prosthetic arm wound up in her custody after his death. Now encased in glass, it hangs at the rear of the Bug’s auditorium, a modest shrine to a talent dogged by tragedy.
9) John Wayne’s hat
The Outlaw Restaurant
610 Main Street, Ouray
The original screen version of True Grit was filmed in and around the beautiful mountain town of Ouray on the Western Slope in 1969. During shooting, the Duke stayed in town, and one night ordered dinner over the phone from the Outlaw. “Who is this for?” asked the owner. “John Wayne,” he answered. “Yeah, RIGHT,” she replied, and hung up on him. Soon Wayne himself showed up and grabbed a seat at the bar. The Outlaw became his favorite hangout during filming, and when it was over, he gave the owner his hat in appreciation. It still sits in a place of honor over the bar.
8) Zebulon Pike’s picnic tables
U.S. 285 between Buena Vista and Poncha Springs
Mile marker 132
Poor Zebulon Pike: The famous explorer was a bit of a dunderhead. After failing to climb the peak that bears his name on November 27, 1806, he and his party of fifteen men floundered around the mountains, coming to rest on Christmas at this spot in the wilderness, miserable and cold, without blankets or shoes. They moved on, finally building a stockade near La Jara, where they were promptly arrested by the Spanish as spies and marched to Santa Fe. The depressing Christmas 1806 site is commemorated with a big wooden sign and a few seemingly indestructible picnic tables.
7) Ike’s fishing statue
Fraser fishing ponds
501 Zerex Street, Fraser
Dwight D. Eisenhower, the 34th president of the United States, loved Denver and Colorado. His wife, Mamie, lived at 750 Lafayette Street before they were married, and when he was president, Ike spent time at Denver’s Brown Palace Hotel and the Byers Peak Ranch in Fraser whenever he could. He loved to fish; the Secret Service dammed ponds along St. Louis Creek and stocked them with trout so that Ike could angle to his heart’s content while in secure surroundings. He often made his Cabinet come with him, and there’s a memorable photo of then-VP Richard Nixon glumly peeling potatoes on a cabin porch there. (Ike managed to hook him in the neck as well.) The memorial statue is nine feet tall and the expression is a little grumpy, but this is probably the only statue in the world devoted to a U.S. president having fun.
6) "Wynken, Blynken, and Nod statue
Eugene Field House
715 South Franklin Street
Poet, humorist and journalist Eugene Field was a big deal at the turn of last century – a public library branch is named for him, and his house was preserved and moved from its original site at 315 West Colfax Avenue to its present home in Washington Park. Even though he only lived in Denver for two years, Field caused quite a stir while he was here. A day before the heralded visit of Oscar Wilde to Denver, Field dressed up like the famous wit and paraded from Union Station down 17th Street in a carriage, acting in an affected and offensive parody – and ruining Wilde’s arrival. The night before he left Denver for Chicago, Field held a benefit for himself in a theater, where he entertained the crowd by mocking every prominent person in town. The statue in front of the Eugene Field House commemorates one of the horrible, syrupy, sentimental verses Field could crank out like a vending machine. "Wynken, Blynken, and Nod,” a little bedtime fantasy in which the sleepy title characters sail through the stars in a wooden shoe, is insanely twee, but now we’re stuck with a statue commemorating it.
5) Hunter S. Thompson shrine
Gunner’s View trail
The wild-living father of gonzo journalism killed himself at his Aspen home on February 20, 2005. One year later, a cabal of five calling themselves the Glorious Leaders of the Underground Movement (GLUM) created a shrine to Thompson somewhere off the trails at Snowmass. The clump of trees contains an American flag, photos, bullets, a mirror-encrusted stuffed lizard and booze. The stash is replenished yearly on the anniversary of his death, and pilgrims add their tributes as well.
4) Amelia’s unlikely landing place
County Road 6 South between North River Road and Colorado Highway 17
Famous aviatrix Amelia Earhart was flying east across the country in 1932 when dust storms obscuring eastern Colorado prompted her to turn back. She put her plane down in Lloyd Jones’s field outside Alamosa. Being neighborly, he put her up, guarded her plane, then helped her back on her way, signing the wing as a memento. A plaque memorializes the touchdown site.
3) Richard Pinhorn Memorial statue
Courtyard behind Kettle Arcade
1422 Larimer Street
Good ol' Dick Pinhorn. An early Denver restaurateur, his Manhattan Restaurant at 1635 Larimer Street was a big hit with Colorado's upper crust at the turn of the last century. Pinhorn was a great boss, as well; when he died, he left most of his money and his restaurant to his employees. Before that, though, he reportedly served Denver’s first onion rings — and they must have been pretty damn good, because his grateful customers raised this little cherubic monument to him.
2) Butch Cassidy’s first bank robbery
129/131 West Colorado Avenue, Telluride
This is the site of the original San Miguel County Bank, which Butch Cassidy and three pals robbed on June 24, 1889. The outlaws netted $20,000 — less the $2,200 they paid to the town marshal to look the other way. The quartet of would-be badmen made one crucial mistake: pulling a heist in a town where they all lived and worked. Before Telluride became a jet-set paradise, its connection to Cassidy was its most distinguishing feature.
1) John Breaux statue
Front and Spruce streets, Louisville
John Breaux suffered from paranoid schizophrenia; he didn’t hold down a job and he didn’t have any money. But all day long, he picked up garbage around town and opened doors for people. He was always kind and friendly to both those he knew and to complete strangers. Tragically, in 2009, at the age of 57, he was struck and killed by a car on U.S. Route 287 (an improvised shrine remains at that site). To honor him, residents of Louisville raised $35,000 — mostly through donations made in milk jugs stationed at cash registers all over town — to provide for his funeral and build this statue, which shows John smiling and waving. It’s a perfect tribute to a humble person, without resources, who still made a lasting impact on people’s lives — and to a community that saw fit to raise a statue to him.