Threats to Historic Denver Cemeteries in Run-Up to Halloween

Fairmount Cemetery, where History Colorado’s 29th Annual Cemetery Crawl will take place on Saturday.
Fairmount Cemetery, where History Colorado’s 29th Annual Cemetery Crawl will take place on Saturday.
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History Colorado's 29th Annual Cemetery Crawl will take place tomorrow, Saturday, October 28, at Fairmount Cemetery in Denver, and while it's officially sold out, there may still be a chance to attend. (Get details below.) But former Denver auditor Dennis Gallagher, who'll accompany historian and host Tom Noel, also known as Dr. Colorado, during the event, notes that threats against two historic cemeteries in the city may be scarier than any pre-Halloween meander through the tombstones.

Specifically, Gallagher points to a graveyard at the former Teikyo Loretto Heighs University campus where 62 nuns are buried; Colorado Heights University, the most recent iteration of the college there, has closed, and the land it's on is being sold for redevelopment. In addition, the historic entrance to Riverside Cemetery, which has struggled in recent years after losing its water rights, is expected to be eliminated as a result of RTD construction.

"It's a heartbreaker to go out there and see all the stones at Riverside," Gallagher says. "Because they can't water the cemetery, the trees are dying. It's really a cause that somebody should get active about."

Gallagher has been sharing his fascination with Denver history "for about forty years," he estimates. "I used to give neighborhood tours when I was in the state Senate, and I went into the Senate in 1974. Tom came on one, and he says I got him into the neighborhood tour business. We've been doing them ever since, and we don't just get into architecture. We also get into the history and spirit of the neighborhoods. And then, somewhere along the line, we branched off into cemeteries."

For the Cemetery Crawls, Gallagher continues, "Tom has his students at CU Denver research the characters who are buried there and they give a little report about them. It really works out quite well, because the history of these cemeteries is really interesting."

Dennis Gallagher and Tom Noel.
Dennis Gallagher and Tom Noel.

The first cemetery in Denver "was called Jack O'Neill's ranch," Gallagher points out. "He was either shot or hung in the early days, and when Denver put the cemetery at what is now Cheesman Park, people said, 'It's so far out in the country!' In the 1950s, Denver decided to move all the graves there, mostly to Fairmount. By then, it was called City Cemetery, and every time the guy who got the contract to move the graves would find a bone, he'd put it in a box and charge the city five dollars. It was a little early graft; they needed a good auditor to check that out."

There's also a question about the thoroughness of the grave relocation, Gallagher allows. "There was a Catholic cemetery where the Botanical Gardens is today, and those graves were relocated, too. But when they dig up some ground for a tree or something they're going to plant, they often hit a grave — and at Cheesman, they say that on summer nights, you can see what look like little indentations in the earth, which could be some of the early graves still left over."

Among the Denver notables whose remains were moved from City Cemetery was Horace Tabor, "and Tom tells a great story about when they exhumed him," Gallagher points out. "They opened up the grave and were going to transfer him to Mount Olivet," Denver's current main Catholic cemetery, "even though the bishop didn't want to, because Horace had been divorced. Everybody was crowding around, because they wanted to see Mr. Tabor, and when they opened up the coffin, he was pretty much dust. But then a dog jumped in and grabbed Tabor's tibia and ran off — and nobody could catch him. So poor Horace Tabor is at Mount Olivet, tibia-less."

Riverside Cemetery provides a home for lots of other famous Denverites, Gallagher reveals: "Silas Soule is buried there. He's the one who refused to fire on the women and children at Sand Creek. You've got Governor and Mrs. Evans, you've got Baker of the Baker neighborhood. Augusta Tabor is buried there alone: She had a simple stone, but the Historical Society thought she should have another one, because there may have been the wrong date on it. A lot of women did that; my own grandmother knocked a few years off on her stone. And also buried there is Clara Brown, a former slave who was a pioneer in Central City."

Emily Griffith is among the Denver notables buried at Fairmount Cemetery.EXPAND
Emily Griffith is among the Denver notables buried at Fairmount Cemetery.

Nonetheless, Riverside "became the wrong side of the tracks," Gallagher goes on, "because the train went right by, and it often blocked the entrance. I'll never forget one time Tom and I were doing a tour out there, and the train stopped and blocked the way out for everybody. I had to call the headquarters of the railroad and say, 'We've got a pregnant lady here. I don't think the papers are going to be too happy if she gives birth in the cemetery.' Now they're going to move the entrance around to the north or northwest so that doesn't happen."

During that process, access to Riverside won't be easy — and those who are able to get inside will definitely see the effect the lack of water has had on the grounds, Gallagher says.

Meanwhile, at Loretto Heights, there's the matter of the 62 nuns' plots. In recent months, debate has arisen over whether the cemetery will be retained or if the sisters' remains will be relocated to Mount Olivet — an expensive proposition, since, as Gallagher stresses, "it costs a lot to move a grave. That's why it's my hope that they'll leave it there and work it into a development somehow. I think it's only right for the developers and the city to maintain a cemetery for these women, who dedicated their whole lives to teaching. They should be able to rest quiet there — and I think it's a blessing to have all these saints buried on the campus. It's good karma."

And with Halloween approaching, that's more important than ever.

The Cemetery Crawl runs from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. on Saturday. Although it's sold out, the History Colorado event page states that "we often add second tours based on demand. We also often have cancellations. Please contact our reservation coordinator to add your name to the waiting list at 303-866-2394 or email reservations@state.co.us." Click for more details or to visit Tom Noel's Dr. Colorado website.

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