Whether you’ve been in Denver for three days or three decades, sooner or later curiosity sets in about the roots of this city, the Queen City of the Plains as it was once called. Why not take a day to scratch that itch and get to know a bit about how the city took shape, back in the late 1800’s? Leave Netflix to those late night sessions when you can’t sleep, and bring your significant other or your kiddos downtown to see how the early days in Denver have been integrated into the 21st century for a weekend Denver staycation, exploring Denver on foot!
Set your sights on the stretch of Colfax Avenue in the center of downtown Denver to start your Denver staycation exploration. Wear your comfy walking shoes and dress in our bring layers – just in case.
#1 The Official Centerpoint of Denver
At the intersection of Colfax Avenue and 14th Street, on the northeast corner, or as close to northeast as the slanty streets of Denver allow, find yourself in front of the Wellington Webb Municipal Building. Wellington Webb is a former mayor of Denver, and his namesake building now houses multiple offices serving the city and county of Denver.
But it’s what’s out front of the building entrance that quite literally points to the exact spot on the world’s maps as the center of town. The giant gold colored plumb bob between the two marble human profiles points to what you might call the city’s belly button: the exact intersection of the lines of latitude and longitude that mark where world travelers and local residents alike can say they stood at the crossroads of western America. One marble face looks eastward, where the city founders hail from, and the other looks wistfully to the west, marking their quest to continue their exploration.
#2 A Cornerstone of Civilization
Two blocks north and west from our centerpoint, at 1326 Tremont Place, you’ll find what was once Fire Station #1, serving the booming young city of Denver beginning in the year 1909. Notice the stone construction. Due to a devastating fire sweeping through the city in the early 1860’s, a volunteer fire department was formally organized in 1866. In conjunction, the city leaders passed what was called a “brick ordinance,” requiring all new city buildings to be made of brick or stone – materials considered to be fireproof – at least more fire-proof than the 70 or so resin-rich pine buildings that burned to the ground in 1863.
To spend time in what is now the Denver Firefighters Museum, check out their website to reserve a time to visit. Meantime, peak in the doorway and to your right, to see some of the early firetrucks that served the growing city. Fun trivia: since the early 1900’s, when firefighting apparatus were still pulled by horse, all Denver equipment has been painted white versus the traditional red – because white was considered easier to see at night!
#3 The Very Beginning
A bit longer hike will lead you west to 5th St. and Curtis St. on what is now known as the Auraria campus, on the west side of downtown Denver. But the reason to make this a stop on your exploration is not to enroll in a continuing education class or two. It’s because this is where our city began, in 1858, when the Auraria Town Company was founded, based on the discovery of gold along Cherry Creek.
Head specifically to the 9th Street Historic neighborhood, just north of Colfax Avenue, has been preserved. In the early days, before the city of Auraria voted to merge into Denver City which had been formed a year later on the east side of Cherry Creek, Auraria was bursting with rapid growth, as residents built houses and businesses. The oldest house you’ll see here dates to 1872.
With the advent of urban renewal in the 1960’s, motivated in large part due to historic flooding from the South Platte River in 1965, sadly, this diverse neighborhood housing families from German, Irish, Russian, Cuban and Mexican descent – among others – was ended, and the families forced to relocate. Thankfully, the houses on this block were preserved as a critical part of the historical legacy of the city.
#4 The Shiny Part
Denver City dropped the word City and simply became Denver, and when the territory of Colorado was formed, stole the crown of territorial capital from Golden, Colorado, which had acquired that title five years earlier from the little town of Colorado City. But we’re all friends now!
Head to the west-facing side of the Capitol building, and gaze up to that shiny gold dome. That’s real gold, applied on top of the original copper dome. We all know what happens to nice shiny copper after it’s been exposed to the elements – it becomes not so shiny. The first coating of gold came along in 1908.
If you wonder who that guy is in the stained glass window, below the dome and in the main part of the Capitol, that’s none other than Barney Ford, who, as a former slave and now successful hotelier and restaurateur, lobbied Congress in 1865 not to let the territory of Colorado become a state until it changed its state constitution to allow African Americans to vote.
#5 The Best Burger in the City
If you’re hungry now, head east a block on Colfax Avenue, to the City Grille (hopefully open after a temporary closure due to COVID-19). Voted the best burger in Denver several times, this is where legislators and power brokers head for lunch or a beer to haggle out deals, or to take a break from haggling out deals. A nice place, with a wide variety of menu choices, as well as beer choices. Most importantly, quick and friendly service.
While you’re enjoying lunch, or if you choose a take-out lunch from this or some other establishment along Colfax Avenue, think on the history of this 26 mile street itself. Named for Schuyler Colfax, the vice president during President Ulysses S. Grant’s first term in office, known as the longest commercial street in North America.
#6 The Final Resting Place
For the last stop, if you’re following this list of stops in order, you’ll want to retrieve your vehicle, and head east of the City Grille about 15 blocks or so, to Franklin Street. Turn south and in two blocks you’ll be at the corner of Cheesman Park. A great place to rest after your earlier stops, or a relaxing way to mellow out if you’ve decided to begin your staycation here.
Lie down on the grass and gaze at the sky, and see if it’s hard to get up after a few moments. Why? Because, you’re lying on what was once the city’s first cemetery. It’s been said that the spirits of the earliest “residents” don’t like to let latter-day visitors get up and move on with their lives!
As the city grew in the early 1900’s, the call came from the office of Mayor Robert Speer to create more public parks, to go hand-in-hand with what was known as the City Beautiful movement sweeping the country. The cemetery’s dead were eventually relocated, when that plan came to fruition. Not before some scandal by the way: the city in its early days made the mistake of hiring one overseer of the movement of graves with a payment to be based on the number of caskets moved. The unscrupulous overseer took it upon himself to divide one set of bones among several caskets to pad his paycheck.
Named for Walter Cheesman, not a popular guy in Denver, but since his widow ponied up the $100,000 for the memorial pavilion, the city named the park for him.
After taking in the park, if your appetite has been whetted, check out Denver Walking Tours for lots more guided and Audio Adventure self-guided Denver tours, which you can take at your leisure. There are also ghost tours to be had, if you particularly enjoyed the tale of Cheesman Park. All are fun, family-friendly routes and will entertain and inform, as well as give you some fresh air and exercise. So, leave the television streaming to late-night, and get out to see the beautiful city of Denver!