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Preserving Riverside: Denver's Historic Pioneer Cemetery

There’s something about cemeteries – especially when they are old. Denver’s Riverside Cemetery is 136 years old and has been hosting a handful of brave souls to tour the cemetery at night.

But not for the reason you may think.

Other than a few hints of moonlight peering through the clouds, a flashlight is the only source of light that we have on this tour of Denver’s Riverside Cemetery. As our eyes adjust to the dark, statues of angels and obelisks that seem perfectly normal during the day take on an unworldly quality in this setting.

“If there’s a mean nasty ghost in this cemetery… it’s right here...”

Credit Jim Hill / KUNC
The grave of Lester Drake

Tour guide Raymond Thal takes us to the grave of Lester Drake. Drake was a pioneer of the early mining settlement that would eventually become Blackhawk. He died in 1889. His headstone is a massive, hand-carved limestone replica of a mining cabin.

“When they were unloading this, they brought it out on a wagon. But it evidently fell on the sculptor and he was injured to a degree that he didn’t survive it. "

The group gasps when they learn of the sculptor's untimely death from Raymond.

Lester Drake is just one of the 67,000 people buried in an industrial neighborhood of east Denver. Other names may sound a bit more familiar for history buffs. Names like Tabor, Evans, Elitch, Routt and Elbert.

The Book of Records

Credit Jim Hill / KUNC

“Sometimes it will give you a reason why they died…”

Inside the cemetery’s quaint one room chapel, Patricia Carmody pages through one of a dozen massive leather bound books. The books hold the record of each person buried at Riverside.

Carmody narrates the trip though the pages of Riverside history. "It might say gunshot, or appendicitis an accident… Several right here in a row, typhoid in November of 1890. Diphtheria, bronchitis, convulsion, consumption, heart disease, paralysis."

As the director of the Fairmount Heritage Foundation, a non-profit preservation group, Carmody and other volunteers have been working for the last 9 years to preserve the diminishing legacy of Riverside.

“So it’s very interesting to see the things they’ve recorded. But they have different notations in here that really make you wonder what that person’s life was like… what brought them here,” says Carmody.

Encroaching Industry

Over time, this once prestigious Denver cemetery has largely been forgotten. The grass has long since died away. Many gravestones are dilapidated and some neglected. Train tracks were built very close to the cemetery in the 1890's as the Burlington Railroad followed expansion in industry.

Trains pass by every 30 minutes. It's loud enough to literally wake the dead.

For Raymond Thal, it all comes down to location, location, location. "I mean unless you're lost or a truck driver, you don’t come by here. Or maybe if you were going to the stock show you might end up by here looking for a parking place," says the Riverside volunteer and Denver historian.

Credit Jim Hill / KUNC

Riverside was designated a National Historic District in 1994 for its significance to Colorado’s pioneer history. The Fairmount Heritage Foundation is operating the site as an educational center with programs designed to highlight the areas ongoing historical research.

Touring The Cemetery To Preserve It

Which brings us back to why there’s a group of 20 people who paid $15 dollars to tour Riverside in the dark. Beverly Graveinsky is another volunteer tour guide. She considers herself a lover of cemeteries, a self called 'taphophile.'

Credit Jim Hill / KUNC
Barb Gravinsky, a Riverside volunteer and tour guide.

Wearing an orange witches hat, Gravinsky has an animated way of telling of the history of Riverside. It's infectious, especially when she’s explaining one of the many mysterious gravestones.

“Our beloved mother, born August 7th 1827, died May 22nd 1889. It’s huge, it’s expensive. There’s nobody in it. There’s no record of this plot being sold! They don’t know how it got here, why there’s nobody in it. But what they thought was… Mary Elitch was quite the prankster and she had an ostrich and it is believed the ostrich’s name was Holden and that she came out and put her ostrich inside…”

It’s stories like this are what brought out Denver native Jenna Gilbert and her friends on her birthday. “Of course we’re close to Halloween, but also the historical preservation of cemeteries especially on this side of town.”

On the path back to the chapel, tour guide Raymond Thal is quick to point out that while there’s a lot of history at Riverside, there’s also a few spooky stories as well.

“The guy that’s worked here and has worked here for 30 years, he has many tales of hearing things, like babies crying on certain nights. Often times people see a woman in a white dress, but again… I think every cemetery in the country has a woman in a white dress…”

Riverside cemetery is open daily from 8 a.m. - 5 p.m.. The Visitors Center is open Thursday and the 1st Wednesday of the month from 10 a.m. - 3 p.m., and during Fairmount Heritage Foundation events. If this has piqued the interest of your inner 'taphophile' you can learn more about interesting and historical cemeteries in the series Dead Stop.

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