Joe Shoemaker, R.I.P.: Greenway Foundation visionary's passing leaves a river of memories

A river of possibility runs through this city, and we have Joe Shoemaker to thank for that. Decades ago, he looked at the polluted mess that was then the South Platte River and he saw the potential to create an incredible amenity for Denver. From that vision came the Greenway Foundation, the organization Shoemaker founded that changed the landscape of this city.

Joe Shoemaker passed away yesterday, but he left an incredible legacy.

Just take a walk over to Confluence Park -- or any of the parks along the Platte -- on any morning, and you'll see the trickle-down effect of his work, as residents of Denver enjoy a true urban oasis. And in the meantime, see what inspired Shoemaker's vision by reading this excerpt from the beginning of his book, Returning the Platte to the People:

Early one lovely Monday morning in June, I left home in southeast Denver to join several colleagues on an all day river trip in a ten-man inflatable raft. We were certain to get wet because we were headed for a great deal of white water, so I wore a pair of old sneakers, blue jean shorts and a tennis shirt. The Colorado Rockies, dominated by Long's Peak, were beautiful in the morning sun as I drove to my destination. The mountains were brilliantly white, for their snowpack was deep this year. The rising temperatures of late spring were causing a heavy snow­melt, which increased the white water we would navigate during the day. It was to be an exciting, exhilarating trip. I was anxious to get onto the river.

The drive to our launching site took less than fifteen minutes, and I never left the city of Denver. Indeed, during the entire day's boat ride we would remain in the city Limits. We would be floating down the South Platte River, embarking where it enters Denver from the south and following it through the city to where it flows off to the north at Franklin Street. Our voyage would cover some ten miles.

I stopped at Frontier Park, near the city line, and crossed the street to the river where several of my fellow sailors had already inflated our raft. One of them, Joan Mason, came forward to greet me.

"Have you seen this?" she asked, holding out a page clipped from the Rocky Mountain News. The piece titled, "The Greening of the Platte," had been pub­lished while I was out of town, So I hadn't read it. The author was Peter Warren, a professor at the University of Denver and member of Mayor William McNichol's Commission on the Arts.

"Much has been said about what cannot be done about Denver," the long article began. "Yet we have in our backyard one of the most remarkable examples of urban revitalization in the United States. In a brief space of five years, the Platte Greenway Project has transformed a blighted, degraded river-little more than an open sewer-into a major amenity for Denver."

Joan and I were delighted with the piece. Both of us had worked hard at the transformation of the Platte, she as a member of the project's three-person staff, I as Chairman of a nine-member citizens' Committee appointed by Mayor McNichols in 1974 to bring about the river's improvement. Also, knowledge of our experience could be valuable to dozens of communities where disreputable, repulsive rivers could be restored and returned to the people.

Now, I only had time to scan Warren's piece, but I noticed that he had caught onto how our unusual Committee had worked: "...a fascinating prototype... operating outside the creaky city bureaucracy, without mandated powers or limits, the Committee has been able to act quickly and effectively."

At the raft I was greeted by Kenneth R. Wright whose "water-oriented" engineer­ing firm, Wright-McLaughlin, was responsible for designing and supervising construc­tion of a great many of the projects that were turning the blighted Platte into an amenity. Ken was wearing a fabulous straw hat he had brought back from a busi­ness trip to southeast Asia. Behind him, on his knees fitting out the raft, was William C. Taggart, a young Wright-McLaughlin engineer. He had been the firm's man most directly responsible for its work on the river.

"Three thousand c.f.s., ten times the normal flow," said Ken, referring in engi­neering parlance to the cubic feet of water per second rushing down the Platte. I stepped out to the bank and saw a churning torrent of water.

"Hope you're ready for a good ride, Joe," said Bill, who would serve as our helmsman while the rest of us paddled to his commands. "I've checked a number of the roughest spots. We'll have a few portages, but I think we'll do okay."

As I greeted the other passengers who were assembling, I was suddenly dis­tracted by a great white truck lumbering toward us. "Hey, hey, what do we have here?" I asked Ken, well aware that both of us knew the answer.

The vehicle was a large tank truck from Denver's Waste Water Management Di­vision, and I assumed it was full of some potent liquid. Moreover, I guessed that the driver was hoping to discharge his load into the South Platte, probably at our launching site. The truck, as white as it was, made me see pure red. For a half decade we'd enjoyed a lot of success shutting off discharges of pollutants into our river, but still there were those who kept on seeing the Platte as Denver's receptacle for anything they wanted out of sight, out of mind. Most disturbing, this philosophy was still prevalent where it should be found least of all, in certain city agencies. It was lodged there like the instincts of an animal: "If you have something to dump, down to the river it goes!"

The truck driver sensed my perturbation as I hailed him to stop. "What's in there?" I asked.

"Water and 'stuff', vacuum pumped from the city's storm sewers," he explained. The man's discomfort became most evident when I asked where the load was going, but instead of answering he drove on down the street. He stopped in about fifty yards and studied us in his rearview mirror.

"He's waiting for our departure," said Ken.

"Sure and then into the river it'll go," I added. "Let's talk to him."

The driver made a U-turn and crept back toward the city. I stopped him again and asked where his load was going. He admitted the river was in his mind.

"It's just water," he said. "Won't hurt anything."

"Then why don't you dump it right there in Frontier Park?" I said. "The grass can always use water."

"Well, no, it would smell," the driver replied, then demanded to know who I was.

"You'll find out when you hear about this from your boss," I replied. The driver shoved his truck into gear, and it soon disappeared, as I memorized the number stenciled on its side.

Shaking my head I returned to our group of boaters. Our last three passengers had arrived. One was Pat McClearn, a new member of our Committee who is with the University of Colorado at Denver and well known for her work with "Trees for Today and Tomorrow," an organization that distributes and plants trees throughout Denver. Finally, there were the other two of our three-member staff, Rick Lamoreaux and Robert Searns. Both young men are intensely committed to the improvement of the Platte.

As we were about to board the raft, I looked around to see Denver's Manager of Safety, Elvin Caldwell, arrive in his car. He had officially closed the river through the city to boating because of the high water, but had issued a special per­mit for our trip, which was organized to check the impact of the currents on our various projects. Caldwell's visit pleased me, for it seemed symbolic of an ongoing change in the feelings of politicians for the river. Not long ago many had treated the Platte virtually as abandoned territory.

In a few minutes the seven of us had bid Caldwell goodbye and were bobbing on the turbulent water in the large, bulbous raft. Everything that could suffer from getting wet, from wallets to cameras, had been stowed in waterproof pouches lashed to the raft's inflated crossmembers. Bill Taggart was on the stern giving instructions to the rest of us sitting sidesaddle on the gunwales. He quickly defined the orders he would be calling out-to paddle, backpaddle or hold-and immedi­ately began issuing the commands that kept our craft on the course Bill was plotting from his intimate knowledge of the river.

"I can't think of anything I'd rather be doing," I told Ken Wright sitting in front of me. "I really and truly love this!"

And we truly love what Joe Shoemaker did for this city and state.

Three months ago, Westword writers set out to profile the Platte River and all that the Greenway Foundation had created. Read more in our feature "After ignoring the South Platte River for decades, Denver is once again panning for gold."

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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun