GHOSTS OF THE PRAIRIE -
Colorado's haunted cheesman park
By troy Taylor
Denver's Cheesman Park seems to be a place of peace and
tranquility. The rolling lawns and stately trees offer an oasis of shade
and quiet among the busy streets of the city. All seems to be well here..
but is it? Are those shadowy forms moving beneath the shade trees merely
the figures of other afternoon sojourners, or something else? Is that
woman in the plain dress who sings quietly to herself just an eccentric
visitor hoping to spend the day alone... or could she be one
Cheesman Park is a place that some say hides a legacy of horror. There is no disputing the fact that it has long been considered haunted and for reasons that few readers will not understand. You see, this beautifully landscaped park was built over the desecration of the old City Cemetery. This was a dark period in Denver history and as with other such sites, ghosts and hauntings were born from it. However, this was not merely a desecration, nor was it just a case of a few buildings being constructed over some old burial sites. This episode was a scandal that rocked the city government, outraged the public and filled with the newspapers with lurid tales! Read on... and you'll soon find why Cheesman Park and the surrounding neighborhood has long been infested with ghosts!
In 1858, a man named William Larimer set aside 320 acres of ground that were to be used as a cemetery in the new and growing city of Denver, Colorado. He named the cemetery Mount Prospect and sites on the crest of the hill were to be set aside for the rich and influential residents of the city. Paupers and criminals were to be buried on the far edges of the graveyard and ordinary people would find burial spots somewhere in the middle.
The first burials to take place here were the victims of crime and violence. A Hungarian immigrant named John Stoefel had come to Denver to settle a dispute with his brother-in-law and ended up murdering him. After a short trial, Stoefel was dragged away by a mob and hanged from a cottonwood tree. He and his brother-in-law were then taken to Mount Prospect and their bodies were unceremoniously dumped into the same grave. Murder victims and those killed in accidents continued to be buried in the lower sections of the cemetery and the name Mount Prospect began to fall out of use. Most people simply referred to the place as the "Old Boneyard" or "Boot Hill". The cemetery failed to gain the respect and reverence that William Larimer intended for it to have.
As time passed though, Denver began to flourish, with large fortunes being made in silver mining and real estate. Embarrassed by the unseemly reputation of the local cemetery (and names like Boot Hill), the city fathers decided to re-name the graveyard the City Cemetery in 1873. Even the new name though couldn't hide the fact that it was becoming an eyesore. Lack of interest and care had caused the cemetery grounds to revert back to nature. Tombstones had fallen over, prairie dogs had burrowed into the hills and cattle were allowed to graze among the graves. Some time before, affluent families had started burying their loved ones at the newer Riverside and Fairlawn Cemeteries and were leaving the City Cemetery to paupers, criminals, transients and unclaimed smallpox and typhus victims from the local pesthouse.
Meanwhile, ownership of the cemetery passed from Larimer to a cabinetmaker named John J. Walley, who soon went into the undertaking business. He did little to improve the situation in the cemetery and with new homes and mansions being built nearby, the city government was being pressured to do something about it. They soon found a way to pull a fast one over on owner John Walley. Out of the blue, someone in the U.S. Government discovered that the cemetery was on land that was part of an Indian treaty that dated back to before 1860. This made the United States the legitimate owner of the property and in 1890, they sold it to the city of Denver for $200.
The city soon went to work. During Walley's ownership, the cemetery had been divided into three sections. The city's portion had deteriorated but the Catholic and Jewish sections continued to be well-maintained. Soon after the city took over the land, the Jewish churches removed their dead from the graveyard and leased the land to the City's Water Department. The Catholic Church purchased their own land and kept the cemetery in excellent condition until 1950.
The following summer, City Hall announced that all interested parties should remove their dead from the City Cemetery for burial elsewhere within 90 days. Some were reburied by concerned family members but more than 5,000 of the dead were forgotten and went unclaimed. In the early spring of 1893, preparations were made to remove these bodies. At that time, Denver's mayor, Platt Rogers, who worried about the health hazards of opening the graves, was out of town. Ordinances were passed to release funds for the removal and an unscrupulous undertaker named E.F. McGovern was awarded the contract. He specified that each body would be dug up and then placed in a new box at the site, but the box was to only be 3 1/2 feet long and one foot wide. Upon delivery of these boxes to Riverside Cemetery, McGovern would be paid $1.90 each.
In March, McGovern's men went to work. Curiosity-seekers and reporters came out to watch and at first, things were orderly and smooth but it didn't take long for the work to become careless. According to the legends, an old woman came down to speak to the men and told them that they should whisper a prayer over every body that was unearthed... or the dead would return. Needless to say, the workmen laughed at her, but they had a hard time concealing their obvious unease. Their haste also allowed souvenir hunters and onlookers to help themselves to items from the caskets. The bodies that had not decayed sufficiently enough to fit into the small wooden boxes were broken apart and shoveled out of the old caskets.
And none of these people (including the workmen) were immune to fear. One workmen, a man named Jim Astor, claimed that he felt a ghost land atop his shoulders. He was so frightened that he threw down a stack of brass nameplates that he had looted from old coffins and ran for his life. He did not return to the site the following day. People who lived in the homes nearby began to report spectral manifestations in their houses and confused spirits who knocked on their doors and windows throughout the night. In the darkness, low moaning sounds could be heard over the field of open graves... a sound that can still sometimes be heard today.
The ghosts from the disturbed graves began to appear in and around the homes near the City Cemetery (now Cheesman Park)
By the time that Mayor Rogers returned to town, the local newspapers were running front page stories about the atrocities being committed at the cemetery and the general state of corruption at City Hall. The stories brought to light that there were discrepancies between the number of re-burials being charged to the city and the actual number of boxes being delivered to Riverside Cemetery. The matter had become a full-blown scandal and with the help of the health commissioner, he brought the project to a halt. An investigation was launched, leaving the gaping holes in the ground unfilled. Eventually, the rest of the bodies would be forgotten... and they are still there, under the surface of the park's grounds and gardens.
In 1907, work was completed to turn the City Cemetery into Cheesman Park. It was named in honor of Walter S. Cheesman, a prominent citizen of Denver. Two years later, the marble pavilion shown in the postcard (top of article) was constructed in his memory. In 1950, the Catholic Church sold its adjacent cemetery and an orderly removal took place. Since then, that portion of the land has become Denver's Botanical Gardens. What was once the Jewish section of the cemetery is now Congress Park.
But despite the passing years of peace, the ghosts who were disturbed more than a century ago have returned, or perhaps have never left at all. Many people who come to the park (and don't know its history) speak of feelings of oppression and sadness, even in these peaceable surroundings. Others still claim to occasionally sight the misty figures, strange shadows and apparitions of the dead. These ghostly images wander in confusion, perhaps wondering what has become of their final resting places. One has to wonder if they will ever find peace?
Sources and Bibliography:
Haunted Places: The National Directory by Dennis William Hauck (1996)
More Haunted Houses by Joan Bingham and Dolores Riccio (1991)
Twilight Dwellers: Ghosts, Ghouls & Goblins of Colorado by Maryjoy Martin (1985)
Personal Interviews & Correspondence
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(C) Copyright 2002 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.