Creepy Colorado: Cheesman Park
A well-known nickname for our state is, “Colorful Colorado”. It can be seen on signs when crossing the border into our state welcoming visitors. This nickname is derived from the state’s magnificent scenery of mountains, rivers, and plains. While the state may be colorful in its scenery, it has also had a colorful history. Mining operations, Plutonium warhead plants, and other unique spikes on our states timeline set us aside from any other state. This unique history is not the sort of stories you would find in your high school text book. My goal for this article is to touch on the bizarre and obscure history that our state has to offer in this new monthly article called Creepy Colorado. In this article we will uncover the haunting past of one of Denver’s beautiful parks.
Spring of 1859, Abraham Kay became the first of soon to be many to be buried in Mt. Prospect Cemetery. The Cemetery soon became an infamous location for Denver outlaws, vagrants, and paupers to be tossed in the clay outside of the cities limits. As the cemetery began to fill with Denver society’s grit, citizens began to call the cemetery the “Old Boneyard” and “Boot Hill”. After a dispute over a game of cards ended with popular professional gambler Jack O’Neil being gunned down outside of the Western Saloon, the Rocky Mountain News referred to the cemetery as Jack O’Neils Ranch, a nickname so popular that many locals began referring to the property as such.
With so many nicknames the cemetery lost respect amongst the citizens leaving the graveyard to fall into despair and limiting burials to the poor, criminal and diseased. The graveyard soon began to change a variety of hands. The upkeep of the cemetery fell into a terrible state tombstones were destroyed, records were lost, and even cattle were allowed to graze upon the land. It was estimated that by 1866 over 626 people were buried within the cemetery grounds although their exact locations were unknown. In 1872 the city of Denver purchased the cemetery and the name was changed to Denver City Cemetery.
As the cemetery grew in size it became more segregated. Various religious organizations and other groups purchased plots as to segregate their dead from the less notable members of society. By 1881 a small pox epidemic hit, for health concerns a hospital was constructed on the outskirts of the cemetery to bury the dead immediately upon their pronunciation of death as to prevent the spread of the disease. Elderly, disabled, and sick were taken to the hospital in a quarantine effort to die and then placed in mass graves behind the hospital into the Denver Cemetery.
Ten years later in 1891 as the city began to stretch out the prestigious and elite of Denver Society began to take residence within close proximity of the Denver Cemetery. Real estate developers in hopes to continue developing the land began lobbying to have the cemetery converted to a park. On January 25th Congress authorized the park to be constructed on the unused cemetery grounds. Family members were given 90 days to remover their loved ones to other locations and cemetery’s within the city. Due to the cemetery being filled with “unwanted” members of society it was estimated that thousands of bodies still remained after the 90 day period.
With the majority of the bodies laying unclaimed the city awarded a contract to undertaker E.P. McGovern to remove the remains in 1893. Under contract McGovern would remove each body providing a new coffin and burial at the cost of $1.90 each. Looking for an opportunity to make a larger profit McGovern began using child size coffins due to the price of the coffin being significantly less. Hacking up bodies as he removed them from the ground McGovern sometimes used as many as three caskets for just one body. At night souvenir hunters and grave robbers would stalk the grounds searching for anything they could find looting the open graves. After the Denver Republican unveiled the story to the people of Denver an investigation was opened by the Health Commission. As a result of the findings Mayor Rogers terminated the contract leaving the cemetery in shambles with open holes still displayed as well as carcasses strung about. With a new contract never being awarded the city began to prepare the land for the park.
Bodies were tossed in exposed holes and plants were placed in the former gravesites. Finally in 1907 the park was complete. Two years later Gladys Cheesman-Evans and her mother, Mrs. Walter S. Cheesman donated a marble pavilion in memory of Denver Pioneer, Walter Cheesman. The donation finally sealed the name of the land as Cheesman Park.
Today the park is still open to the public from dawn until 11 pm. It is estimated that over 2,000 bodies still remain buried under the park and its surrounding properties including the Denver Botanic Gardens. Those living in residence surrounding the park for the past 100 years report sightings of sad and confused spirits wandering the grounds. These tales of paranormal activity continue today branding Cheesman Park as one of the most haunted places in Denver.