In Denver, the spirits aren't just penned to the city center. No, even the suburbs and outlying cities have the kind of history that could give quite a fright to the unsuspecting. Folks might be surprised to learn that a house in northwest Denver comes fully equipped with a basement theater--and spectral performers as well--and former phantom residents still roam their old homestead in what is now an Adams County open space. From Westminster's Bowles House Museum, where even the ghosts were involved in renovations, to Littleton's Melting Pot restaurant, a former Carnegie library that offers diners a side of the supernatural, accidental ghost hunter Kevin Pharris explores further tales of supernatural haunts and unexplained phenomena surrounding the Mile-High City.
About the Author
After moving around with his military family, Keven Pharris found Colorado the best place to be and has settled down to pursue the work of growing Denver History Tours, with many joys (most of the tours) and many woes (the ghost parts). It has been a great life so far, and it is his fervent hope that when he goes, he won't end up joining the ghosts he has inadvertently associated with during his time as a guide.
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The Ghosts That Stalk Suburbia
Having grown up a little of everywhere as a military brat, I am frequently befuddled by the attachment people feel to a place. I like Denver, don't misunderstand me, but I also like Pensacola, Chicago, St. Johnsbury and Bird City. Each would have something to offer me if I lived there. The depth of my oddness really came through to me when I was on a cruise in the beautiful Caribbean. We were sitting at a table, making the painful small talk that such events necessitate, and one of the questions that invariably came up for everyone was: "Well, where are you from?" One of the ladies at our table, when this question was directed at her, replied that she was from St. Charles, Missouri. "Oh! Where is that?" came the rejoinder. "It's just outside St. Louis."
Now, I've been to St. Charles, and it's a nice place, but I thought to myself, "Wouldn't it have been easier to reply that you were from the St. Louis metropolitan area in the first place and save the trouble? How inefficient!" It would be the same if she had replied she was from Arvada. Folks in St. Louis and environs are familiar with St. Charles, and folks in Denver and environs are familiar with Arvada, but outside a very limited geographic area, no one is going to know this person's little burb. All the same, I have witnessed it time and time again in my travels. Beyond showing that most folks are just not that interested in efficiency (something anathema to me, of course), it demonstrates a key element involved in this chapter. Most people who don't move as much as I did growing up are quite attached to the places they call home, however small or obscure or overshadowed they might be by larger, better-known neighbors.
Every city, whether large or small, has something to share, and in learning the spooky experiences from people's lives, I came to understand that ghosts don't limit themselves to downtown. Quite the contrary: ghosts may settle anyplace where lives have been led, emotions have been felt and people have died. This includes the entirety of the Denver metropolitan area, which is why we begin our tales today not along the corridors of history trodden by so many in Capitol Hill — and not even in Denver — but in Littleton.
The gold rush into our area brought a lot of people who were not simply intent on gold. Some were determined to make their mints other ways, and one of the most common was in land. Founding a city and having it named after you offers a bit of immortality, you should know. It worked for William Larimer, who founded Denver and placed his name on our main downtown street. As Denver grew, it rapidly became clear that the city needed water. The region was not the "Great American Desert," as was generally believed, but it was still quite dry. "Water," the cry rang out, "we need water!" Water was necessary for homes, businesses and farms. Larimer didn't stick around long enough to take care of the water issue — or plan out irrigation needs for cemeteries, for that matter — but others would take up the call that Larimer left unheeded. Without water, gold would not have sustained Denver for long.
A system of ditches was designed to provide this water to the burgeoning city. Among the people hired to create these ditches was a young gentleman named Richard Sullivan Little, from New Hampshire. While surveying the area south of Denver, he fell in love with a particular stretch of the South Platte River. After filing all the legal paperwork to obtain land and the right to a home, Little brought his wife out to see her new slice of heaven. The year was 1862, and his wife, Angeline, must surely have balked a little at what she saw. Sure, the view of the mountains was gorgeous, but anyone who thought it was civilization had been out in the sun too long. All the same, the Littles set to work with a will and, along with some neighbors, began turning their little section of the High Plains into what would become an agricultural powerhouse. They helped build the Rough and Ready Flour Mill in 1867, which not only helped them process their grain locally, rather than having it (and the funds associated with it) sent elsewhere, but also brought stability and investment to the area. The ditch Mr. Little had helped to create brought water to Denver, as well as to his own little part of the world.
With the arrival of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad in 1871, the settlement began to boom. The Littles, deciding to go for the whole enchilada, mapped a village on their own property. As Colorado became the Centennial State in 1876, their successes were numerous. There were churches, schools, businesses and agricultural pursuits springing greenly from the sun-drenched ground. Incorporated in 1890, the city that bore Richard Little's name would eventually become the county seat, which brought more money (government workers, you know, used to drink a lot of liquor) and the continued rise of agriculture. Part of Littleton was once known, somewhat pejoratively, as Pickletown (owing to this agricultural foundation), and overall, the city has made some enormous changes to its landscape. The city moved the South Platte River a little farther west (yep, it moved a river) so it would not be right on the doorstep of downtown, and it even got a library from the Andrew Carnegie Foundation. The building would later serve as a jail, oddly enough. The city survived the disastrous flood on the South Platte River in 1965 (look for the buried train car at the Carson Nature Center — wow!). The city offers an original city hall (complete with a pressed tin roof in one courtroom), the Littleton Museum (home of not one but two 1800s homesteads) and the final resting place of noted epicurean Alfred Packer. (Just in case you don't know, Mr. Packer thought himself an accomplished guide. An expedition through western Colorado turned disastrous, and he was accused of killing and eating those who had hired him. Long story, but for now I think I'll take a break and get some ribs.) All in all, Littleton has a great deal to offer, including some astonishingly stunning and historic buildings and Alfred Packer's final resting place, where he's losing weight.
The Melting Pot restaurant sits in the heart of downtown Littleton. Its feature food is fondue. You and I are not the only type of people who hang out there, though. There are also a number of ghosts. Apparently, even ghosts have a nose for food. This would make sense, after all. The man who, in the opinion of some with a gruesome sense of humor, enjoyed the finest meal ever served in Hinsdale County came to his final resting place, as a vegetarian, in the city. Before I am run away by Alfred Packer jokes, however, let's get back to the Melting Pot.
Started out as a Carnegie library, check. Served as a prison, check. Is that it? Nope! The area has had its share of tragedy, with floods claiming a number of victims whose bodies were never found. Employees hear voices from rooms where no guests or other staff members are to be seen. Since the building used to be a place for carrion and Madame Librarian, staff members hear the roll of ladders moving among long-gone stacks of books. The doors leading to the back of the building have shaken powerfully — heavy doors that would take great strength to budge, moving backward and forward as effortlessly as if they were being tossed about by a child, even as the staff members watched the event in person and on security cameras. They saw no one there. Waiters and waitresses don't like to work the tables in the locations that used to be the maximum-security cells, reporting frequent cold and a feeling of malevolent hatred. One wonders if these people tip poorly as well. Objects have been thrown around, even some weighing twice as much as a person. Don't worry: patrons at the restaurant have generally been left alone. So, if you are looking for a meal with a side dish of zesty spooks, the Melting Pot in downtown Littleton is the place for you. You may choose to eat so much that folks will accuse you of "packering" it in.
Yikes, did I just say that?
Now, we're off to the city of Westminster.
At this point, I know what you are saying.
"Kevin, I am loving the book so far. Really, how do you do it? [It does boggle the mind, I admit.] All the same, I am a little confused. We were in Denver, then we were in Littleton and now we're going to Westminster. Are we playing haunted hopscotch here or something?"
Well, no, though that does sound like a lot of fun.
As I have cast my ghostly net wider, ever wider, I have found (as I mentioned before) that not all ghosts are located in the downtown core of Denver, even though the city is dynamic, interesting and full of extremely good-looking tour guides. With the stories arriving on my doorstep (so to speak) from so many different places, it necessitates a little jumping around geographically. Just keep your eyes focused on the page and you will not get vertigo, dizziness or anything else as we zip around the metropolitan area. Anyway, consider yourself lucky. Just wait till I do my books on the state of Colorado as a whole: Colorado Springs, Durango, Hayden! You'll be in so many places, your head will spin (not literally, as in that movie). For now, however, let's make our way to the wonderful and welcoming city of Westminster.
Westminster is part of the sprawling city nestled by the mountains that, as folks fly overhead as they travel from coast to coast, the captain of the plane might identify as Denver. Indeed, for those driving through the metropolitan area, there is little to indicate that one has passed out of Denver and into any of the myriad cities that surround the giant at the core. All the same, these cities have unique histories all their own and much to share. Westminster (or, as it is frequently stated in a verbal tick common to the inhabitants of the city, "Westminister") was home to bison, antelope, sagebrush and numerous marshes and ponds before it began its move toward urbanization. The first permanent resident bore the name Pleasant DeSpain and settled his farmland in 1870. Others followed, locating in the area known then as DeSpain Junction. One was Edward Bruce Bowles, whom we will discuss a little later. The little grouping of homes and farms around DeSpain Junction grew into a flourishing farming community. With the arrival of the railroad in 1881, things became easier, but the arid climate proved a consistent impediment for many would-be toilers of the land. Many sold their lots to C.J. Harris, another fellow we will discuss in a bit. Steadily building up the community, he rechristened the area Harris (he thought highly of himself, clearly), with DeSpain's blessing. Eventually, the city would attract institutions meant to elevate the whole area, including a Presbyterian school that, according to one of the donors, must be modeled after Princeton University. It was called the Westminster University of Colorado, and it was not long before the area bore the same name as well. In 1911, Harris incorporated as a city, changing its name to reflect the prominent red sandstone structure on the hill. The city of Westminster was born!
With such a diverse background and rich history, it makes sense that the city's ghosts should be equally diverse. So we dive into the other side of Westminster, where ghosts admire art, guard their dirty little secrets and make sure work is done well.
Our first ghost rendezvous in Westminster will be the Rodeo Market Community Arts Center at 3915 West Seventy-third Avenue. This was also the first Westminster ghost venue I came upon during my explorations of the city, so starting with it now is quite symmetrical. Within the stucco-covered walls of the gallery, I met Carol C., a three on the psychic scale (which is the highest level of awareness, as you know), who has not only had a lifetime in association with ghosts but also gets the fun of their presence in her work life. As with Ivy, whom I interviewed for The Haunted Heart of Denver, Carol's visitations by the spooky set began when she was young:
I grew up in Boulder and would see ghosts as early as when I was three years old. They would talk to me, and I was not afraid. One man asked for my grandmother. He had a strange accent. He would say, "Where's Anna?" I would go and tell my grandmother that someone was upstairs asking for her. She would freak out because no one called her Anna anymore. That was a name that they had used back in the old country, before they immigrated to the United States. We all knew her as Katerina. She never saw what I had seen, and the ghost never stuck around long enough for me to show him to her, but he came many times looking for her. I was only three, but she let me know that it was just a friend from the old country looking her up, and I should not be afraid.
It was during her youth in Boulder that a ghost, named Jack, attached to her:
I hear him sometimes. He followed me as I grew up, moving from place to place. From Boulder, we moved to Broomfield and now here, and he has come along every step of the way. He is not allowed in the house anymore because, once I got married, he did not like my husband. He would get kind of aggressive with my husband and even pushed him once, so I told Jack he had to stay outside; he was no longer allowed in the house.
We could wish that all ghosts were so obedient! Though they had been dating for a while, Carol felt it necessary to tell her husband about her spectral connections before they got married rather than springing such news on him after the deal was done. To his credit, he took the news stoically enough. The ghosts made their presence known to Frank, her husband, within the first few weeks of their marriage — rapping on the headboard of the bed while they were getting ready for sleep and moving the furniture. The ghosts have not always been so nice to Frank, but in interviewing him, he reported making his way with fair equanimity: "I think part of the time with all their pushing, knocking and even the one ghost that smothered me a little in my bed, they are just trying to get me to believe in them, go easier on Carol. They really take care of her."
Attached to her bloodline long before Carol was born, it was one ghost in particular that turned her on to the world of art:
William has been around ever since I was a little kid. He encouraged me in art, writing, everything. My teachers didn't like it, my confidence in my work, but William said I should not listen to them and their detractions. I see him, I hear him, a guy in his seventies with a British accent. When he talks to me, I am just able to let myself open up, let the art flow through me. It's as if I am the pen, almost, and someone else is doing the writing or moving the paintbrush. The muse of art just takes over. When I see William and other ghosts, it's usually in mirrors, but not always. I usually hear from William, hear his voice, nothing more.
Far from being simply a passive vessel for art to pour through, she has tried to initiate the connection, pushing through toward the source of these gifts and inspirations. There's a whole world of possibility out there that may be expressed in her art, so she sometimes strives to contact the ghosts around her rather than waiting for them:
I have tried to speak to those who've died, ask them how they are, if they have any messages for the living. It's worked, sometimes, but other times I get stopped. There's a guardian at the door between our world and theirs. He lets me get in sometimes, other times not at all. I think many people would believe that he is the Grim Reaper, but I don't see a ghost with a hood and scythe or anything like that. It's more the feeling of a really strong presence, a voice and a touch. Once, when I had made my way through the door to talk to the ghosts around me, he stepped in and told me that I did not belong there.
The movement through that doorway of death is supposed to happen just the one way, when a person dies, so Carol thought it might be uncomfortable for this presence to let people with psychic gifts through the doorway separating the world of lives and the interims expressed in death: "He actually poked me with his finger once, and it did feel like bone. Sometimes I would get to speak with the ghosts a while, but he'd cut it short after a little bit. He said, 'Sometimes people have to die to respect life.'"
Perhaps death makes you a little more appreciative the next time you come around for a go.
Interactive ghosts do not limit themselves to protecting Carol and occasionally getting physical with her husband. The world of art and the creative energies that surround it are as appealing to some ghosts as Carol's psychic presence itself. The gallery where she works, filled with an eclectic mix of artistic expression, from cast iron to paintings and more, is a stopping-over place for some ghosts making their way through the spectral highways and byways of Westminster. On a number of occasions, the ghosts have paused to admire the art, stopping in to browse just as the beautiful neighborhood's fleshy clients do:
I remember one instance in particular. The front door opened, and a little woman in a lavender dress came in, looking as solid as anyone. I said something or other, and she smiled, saying she wanted to look around, and she did. I watched her a little, moving here and there, and then she was gone, just not there at all. This place is full of all kinds of energy, not just art.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Historic Haunts Around Denver"
Copyright © 2012 Kevin Pharris.
Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
I. The Ghosts That Stalk Suburbia,
II. Seeking the Things That Sound in Darkness,
III. The Ghosts Through the Doorway,
About the Author,