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

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.

"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.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.