Ghosts of Cheesman Park

Denver historian details spookier side of the city’s past

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On a cool night in Cheesman Park it can be easy to creep yourself out: Trees lining the sidewalk on the west side shroud the grassy field in the center in darkness. A growing silence weighs down the air.

But Denver historian and author Phil Goodstein points out the reason the hairs on the back of your neck are rising could be because Cheesman Park was actually Denver’s first graveyard. 

“I have personally experienced this numerous times — you’ll be strolling and bicycling around and suddenly there is an icy cold pocket where the temperature seems to drop 10, 15 degrees,” Goodstein said.  

A Denver native who attended East High School, Goodstein, 65, is a walking tour guide of his beloved city — of all its historical elements, but also of its cemeteries and ghosts. Most of the 20 books he’s written focus on Denver’s history, so he knows it well, including its dark and quirky secrets.

He has become an expert on what he calls the “seamy” side of Denver’s past. He has written on ghosts in Capitol Hill and South Broadway as well.

Goodstein a Capitol Hill resident, who holds a doctorate in history and has written in the past for the Washington Park Profile, began offering tours through the Free University of Denver in 1986. While his winter class on the history of Denver was popular, the summer months were quieter, Goodstein said. He decided to take the class outdoors by offering walking tours in the summer. The idea of ghost tours for the fall season came up in the late 1980s. 

So, in September and October, he leads cemetery tours and ghost walks on Saturdays and Sundays. Tours range from an hour to two hours and cost $20-$25. The Cheesman Park tour has been one of the most popular.

Working as an author and giving the tours are what Goodstein does for a living now.

A grisly past

The history behind Cheesman Park as the city’s first graveyard is a grisly one. The two-hour tour includes information on some of the houses near Cheesman Park that also have a ghostly history. 

One house inspired a 1980 horror movie called ‘The Changeling,” about a wealthy family who had a sick son. The couple adopts another child to be the public face of their son, while their biological child is kept locked in a secret closet in the house.

Playwright Russell Hunter supposedly discovered the secret closet after hearing the sound of a bouncing ball throughout his house, Goodstein said. The house was later demolished and became the Summer House, a condo building on East 13th Avenue and North Williams Street. 

The land that the Denver Botanic Gardens is built on, which sits on the western border of Cheesman park, as well as parts of surrounding neighborhoods were all part of the former Mount Prospect Cemetery.

When Denver was established by Gen. William Larimer in 1858, he decided that to be a top-rate city it needed a beautiful graveyard. But death rates in early Denver were high because of disease and the city’s population increased quickly, Goodstein said. And because the city didn’t have money for landscaping, maintenance of Mount Prospect graveyard was not kept up. 

As time went by, the graveyard continued to be an eyesore. Grave robbers would frequently dig up graves. By 1870, the graveyard was a mess, Goodstein said.

“Since miners came out here to dig gold out of the ground, where’s a better place to begin than going and digging the gold out of the cemetery?” Goodstein said. “And they usually leave the bones where they found them.”

The city eventually petitioned Congress to change the land use to a public park. City officials had to speak to Congress because it was found that the land sale in Denver was never official, meaning it was owned by the federal government. But even that took time. When the city finally decided to start converting the land in 1893, removing the bodies became a gruesome problem. At that time, it was estimated 10,000 to 20,000 people were buried there. 

“By 1893, there’s at least 5,000 graves according to the city, probably at least 10,000 that are still in place,” Goodstein said. “To get rid of the bodies the city hired the low bidder for the job.”

Hiring an undertaker to remove the remaining grave sites did not end well for the city, which said any graves still remaining after its deadline to remove them would stay there. Today, Goodstein said, it is estimated that about 2,000 graves are still in the ground throughout the Cheesman Park area.

Goodstein leads the tours with a flash of humor, warning people to watch out for sections of the park that may still contain a grave or to keep an eye out for strange red rubber balls near the Summer House.

Before Cheesman Park and the Denver Botanic Gardens came to be, the graveyard fueled a love of the spooky.

“For years, Denver was this wild, prank-filled Halloween town,” he said. “If you needed some funerary art, coffin handles, even bones, you knew where you could find them for Halloween.”

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