Cheesman Park. Spacious. Green. Relaxing. Former cemetery.
Probably still a cemetery.
You read that correctly. The history of Denver’s Cheesman Park is unsettling. Potentially thousands of bodies remain buried below the park’s pretty lawns.
We visited on a warm-for-winter late afternoon and found a pastoral setting. A stunning white marble pavilion graced the hill above the park, framing wide expanses of gently rolling green grass, people jogging or sunning themselves, a view to die for…
And stories of ghosts.
The land that became Cheesman Park originally belonged to the Arapahoe Indians and was possibly a sacred burial ground.
General William Larimer didn’t care much about that when he jumped a claim and founded the city of Denver. In 1858 he created the 320-acre Mount Prospect Cemetery. This would later become Congress Park, Cheesman Park, and the Denver Botanic Gardens.
There is some debate about who had the dubious honor of being buried first in Mount Prospect.
One story claims that a gentleman named Abraham Kay, who died from a sudden lung infection in 1859, was the first buried in Mount Prospect.
Another, more colorful story, declares that the first person interred in the new cemetery was Hungarian immigrant John Stoefel. He was accused of murdering his brother-in-law and was hanged at the crossroads of 10th and Cherry Street (or Wazee Street, depending on source you read). Both he and his victim were buried in the same grave. Not an auspicious start for a new cemetery.
This second version, being a little more gruesome, has become the popular story and really did set the stage for Mount Prospect’s sketchy reputation.
Handsome gambler Jack O’ Neal (alternately found spelled “O’Neil”) is buried there as well. Some sources say he was Stoefel’s victim, others say O’Neal got into a gambling dispute with a man named Rooker who later ambushed O’Neal and shot him to death. Regardless, O’Neal was buried in Mount Prospect and the cemetery earned the infamous nickname “Jack O’Neal’s Ranch.”
The cemetery was segregated by religion and ethnicity. Paupers and criminals took up the southwest corner. There was a section for Chinese immigrants, Catholics and Jewish people. The wealthy were interred up on top of the hill.
Unfortunately, the increasing number of criminals, undesirables, and paupers being buried in Mount Prospect helped it earn some other nicknames as well such as “Old Boneyard” and “Boot Hill.”
The U.S. Government discovered that the cemetery was actually on federal land based on an 1860 treaty with the Arapahoe Indians, and sold the land back to the City of Denver for $200 in 1872. Mount Prospect changed its name to City Cemetery.
By this time, the cemetery was in disrepair: headstones were toppled in places and cattle grazed among the graves. Some families and groups maintained their sections of the cemetery, but other parts became increasingly dilapidated.
In 1881, a hospital for small pox victims – nicknamed the “Pest House” – went up where the community gardens section of the Denver Botanic Gardens now stands. This hospital also housed elderly and handicapped people who essentially went there to die. A section of the graveyard behind the building held mass graves for these unfortunates.
By 1890 the City Cemetery was an eyesore and Denver received permission from Congress to use land as a park. City Cemetery was promptly renamed Congress Park. Families had just 90 days to move their loved one’s remains to another cemetery; usually Riverside (see my Riverside post) or Fairmount. There were so many Roman Catholic folks buried in the Catholic section, however, that the mayor sold that land to the Denver Diocese. It became Mt. Calvary Cemetery, and later the Denver Botanic Gardens.
Because so many bodies were left unclaimed in City Cemetery – probably due to the fact that many were criminals, vagrants, and unknowns – Denver hired an undertaker to start digging them up and moving them to Riverside. E.P McGovern would earn $1.90 for each body he boxed. In 1893 McGovern started removing the corpses. And tales of hauntings began. People living in the palatial houses nearby reported seeing ghostly figures that would knock on their windows and doors and then vanish. Moaning sounds rose up from the excavated cemetery at night. One gravedigger, who was also allegedly looting the graves, felt a hand touch him on the shoulder while he was working. He ran away in fright and never came back to the job.
The worst was yet to come. McGovern realized he could make a bigger profit by using child-sized caskets instead of full-sized adult ones. He hacked up the bodies, often mixing the bones of multiple bodies together and using as many as three caskets for one body. Onlookers watching the exhumation swooped in for a little discreet – or not so discreet – grave robbing. Body parts lay everywhere.
Fortunately, a local newspaper, the Denver Republican, got wind of the story and its headline of March 19, 1893 ran “The Work of Ghouls!” An excerpt from the story reads:
“The line of desecrated graves at the southern boundary of the cemetery sickened and horrified everybody … Around their edges were piled broken coffins, rent and tattered shrouds and fragments of clothing that had been torn from the dead bodies … All were trampled into the ground by the footsteps of the gravediggers like rejected junk.”
Denver Mayor Rogers quickly terminated McGovern’s contract after the Health Commissioner investigated the debacle, and the city put up a wooden fence around the cemetery. In 1894, grading started for the park even though the rest of the bodies hadn’t been removed and some graves still stood open; left that way from McGovern’s hack job. The park was finally finished in 1907, leaving as many as 2,000 corpses still buried beneath its grounds.
And how did Cheesman Park get its name? In 1909 Mrs. Cheesman and her daughter offered to donate funds for a show-stopping marble pavilion if the city agreed to rename part of the park after her late husband. Walter Cheesman had been prominent in Denver’s history as a railroad entrepreneur and a water baron. The city agreed, and the pavilion, designed by Willis A. Marean and Albert Julius Norton, was finished in 1910.
In the meantime, the Roman Catholic cemetery, Mount Cavalry, was sold back to the city and its bodies moved to Mount Olivet Cemetery in nearby Wheat Ridge.
Despite its gruesome history, on our sunny afternoon visit it was hard to believe that Cheesman Park is haunted. But unclaimed graves and spooky stories abound.
I personally only felt a sense of calm at Cheesman Park, but some visitors report feeling either a sense of terrible sadness or anxiety there. Small wonder, given the desecration of so many graves and displacement of so many bodies.
Others claim that when they lay down on the park-like grounds, they feel as if they are being held down by an unseen force, and are almost unable to get up.
At night, apparitions of a singing woman and those of small children playing are said to wander the park, vanishing on approach. The outlines of old gravestones eerily appear to frighten other nighttime visitors. Some people say they heard a terrifying susurration of ghostly voices coming from the fields where graves once stood open.
Cheesman Park was apparently also the inspiration of the 1980 movie The Changeling. (Great film!) Writer Russell Hunter lived in a haunted house at the northern end of Cheesman Park in the 1960’s. There he claims he experienced bizarre paranormal phenomena including doors opening and closing by themselves, pictures falling off walls, and contact from the spirit of a little boy. Whether his story is true or not, the home in the movie is in fact called the Cheesman House.
If any place meets criteria for being haunted, Cheesman Park certainly does. Native American land. A cemetery filled with many who died alone and unknown. Bodies disrespectfully disinterred helter-skelter. Graves desecrated. It is no wonder that shadowy figures are reported walking the grassy fields after dark.
And the story doesn’t quite end there. As recently as November 2010, irrigation work around the pavilion in the park unearthed four skeletons (actually five skeletons; the bones had been mixed together) that were over 100 years old.
In 2008, construction on a new, below-ground parking structure across the street from the Botanic gardens came to an abrupt halt when bones were discovered, to no one’s surprise.
Cheesman Park during the day is an expansive park with a sobering background. It is a beautiful place to walk and reflect. Take a seat on the pavilion steps. Relax and look at the mountains soaring up miles away and contemplate the history – haunted or not – that still remains beneath your feet.
Ferri, Jessica. “The Haunting History Buried Beneath Colorado’s Cheesman Park.” The Line Up.
“Four Preserved Skeletons Unearthed at Denver’s Cheesman Park Once a Cemetery.” Denver Post, 1 November 2010. Web 1 April 2017.
Pankratz, Howard. “Old Grave Halts Work at Denver Botanic Gardens.” Denver Post 7 Nov. 2008. Web. 1 April 2017.
Riccio, Dolores and Bingham, Joan. More Haunted Houses. New York: Simon & Schuster Inc., 1991. Google Books. Web 1 April 2017.
Rocky Mountain Paranormal Research Society. “Cheesman Park: The History of the Park that Was Once a Cemetery.”
Rudolph, Katie. “A Denver House that Inspired a Horror Film.” Denver Public Library, 22 October 2013. Web 1 April 2017.
“Skeletons from Old Cemetery Unearthed in Cheesman Park.” The Denver Channel, 2 November 2010. Web. 1 April 2017.
Taylor, Troy. “Rest in Peace? Colorado’s Haunted Cheesman Park.” Prairie Ghosts, 2002.
Weiser, Kathy. “Colorado Legends: Ghosts of Cheesman Park in Denver.” Legends of America. 2016.
Zimmer, Amy B. Denver’s Capitol Hill Neighborhood. San Francisco: Arcadia Publishing, 2009. Google Books Web 1 April 2017.
Historic photographs included with permission from the Denver Public Library, Western History Photographic Collections.