"Secret Denver" dives into Denver's bizarre, obscure history

With travel drastically curtailed and tourism down, the last few months have turned many Denver-area residents into amateur city-sleuthers.

That’s because waves of Colorado- and Denver-centric travel books, and programs such as History Colorado’s “The Lost Book of Astrid Lee” scavenger hunt, have taken advantage of the pandemic (sometimes unintentionally) and spurred countless people to learn more about Colorado’s capital city.

So what’s left to uncover?

Plenty, according to Eric Peterson and David Lewis, co-authors of “Secret Denver: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful and Obscure.” The book, published Sept. 15, is getting another bump with in-person author events. (Next up: a free signing at Covered Treasures Bookstore in Monument on Nov. 7.)

Given the newly restrictive mandates announced last week, it will be relevant for many months to come.

“The thin air seems to catalyze the pace of peculiar happenings,” the authors write in the introduction of the 200-page, image-driven paperback. “Or maybe it’s the fact that Denver is the most isolated major city in the United States.”

I’m partial to the latter theory, given that Denver’s geographic isolation has driven many of its cultural and economic wins, as well as our boom-and-bust cycle. But it’s also generally made Colorado a place where national trends tend to disintegrate once they slam into the state’s borders.

“Secret Denver’s” authors realize this, expanding their focus well beyond the capital city and interpreting “Denver history” somewhat liberally. As noted, Denver has always been the biggest metro area for 600 miles in any direction. So there’s plenty that falls under “Denver history” that didn’t technically take place within city and county limits.

The trick is finding the right balance. Some tales sound well-worn to locals (Frozen Dead Guy Days, ghost stories, weapons arsenals-turned-wildlife refuges) but revelatory to outsiders. Peterson, a veteran travel writer with a dozen-plus books to his credit, and Lewis, another veteran Denver author and freelancer, take a journalistic approach to their research, but a magazine-style approach to the writing.

The “chapters” (all two pages) are practical-minded: Readers can find tips for visiting these haunted, historic buildings, eating at these restaurants, and camping at these former missile silos, with phone numbers, websites and addresses in handy breakout boxes. A lot of them are practically hidden in plain sight, paved over or marked by tiny plaques that are now surrounded by stories-high developments.

The tales are driven by photographs (some new, some old) and the format confers “Secret Denver” a handy, bite-sized appeal — something you can pick up and put down at leisure. The design feels a bit clunky at times, more befitting a mid-2000s condo newsletter than this expertly researched tome, and the largely black-and-white photos look like they’ve been through one too many photocopiers.

But this is a book, not a TV series, so words matter most. I moved to Denver 20 years ago from Ohio and have written constantly about the city since then, including its history. Here are five of the most surprising things I read (although there are many more):

“Denver’s False Start.” 

The first pioneer settlement in Denver was not, as most people think, at the confluence of the South Platte River and Cherry Creek. Now known as Grant-Pioneer Park (at 2300 S. Platte River Drive), the site was almost comically short-lived. In 1858, when the area was part of the Kansas Territory, prospectors built three rows of cabins on the east bank of the South Platte River near its confluence with Little Dry Creek. Montana City, as they called it, became the first permanent structure inside what are now Denver city limits.
So what happened? “The search for gold … proved fruitless, and the population quickly dwindled. The cabins were dismantled by winter and rebuilt downstream in Auraria as that settlement gained steam before it merged with Denver in 1860.” Little remains of the original site, except for a wagon, cabin replica, a plaque and your upcoming Instagram post.

“Shhh … Here’s a Guide to Denver’s Secret Bars.” 

Along with Denver’s robust drinking culture (including dozens of craft breweries and distilleries), there are a number of Denver-area watering holes that make it intentionally difficult for people to find them. Many of us know of high-end, faux-speakeasies like Green Russell and Williams & Graham, which are hidden behind pie shops and bookcases. But what about Retrograde (inside an ice cream shop, Frozen Matter, at 530 E. 19th Ave.), or G&GC, in the basement of the Halcyon Hotel (245 Columbine St.)?

Even the Cooper Lounge (1701 Wynkoop St., at Union Station) goes out of its way to hide itself, with an entrance located behind a single velvet rope on the south side of the station. There, would-be patrons must specifically ask for admittance to enjoy the 28-foot-high windows and views of downtown.

“Radioactive Streets.” 

During a short-lived boom in radium mining, south Denver’s Shattuck Chemical Company met a national demand for the element in the early 1900s. But in the late 1970s, a Superfund cleanup of radioactive sites began that included 65 different sites in and around Denver. That covered several city streets, as “leftover ore was used to pave streets, leaving them notably radioactive.”

Yikes. While many of the streets were excavated entirely and rebuilt, with the rubble shipped out of state, the radioactivity was not contained. Another round of cleanup was completed in 2006 — the last one, officials said — and the former Shattuck site is now an apartment complex. Pack your Geiger counter.

“Lost and Found Missile Silos.” 

As of earlier this year, a former federal missile silo on the Eastern Plains (near Bennet, about 30 miles east of Denver) was on sale for $4.2 million, offering 500,000 square feet on 210 acres — with a half-mile of underground tunnels, the authors write. In some states, wealthy investors have turned these decommissioned sites (there are 11 total complexes east of Denver) into subterranean castles. Here, they’re being marketed as potential hemp farms. Missile Site Park in Greeley even offers camping and free tours of the old Atlas E facility.

“A Dubious Culinary Landmark.” 

As Denver’s food culture has exploded in recent years, historical food claims have gotten more scrutiny. That’s the case here, as the authors note a plaque at 2776 Speer Blvd., now located in a bank parking lot, that claims barrel-shaped former Denver restaurant Humpty Dumpty (also the city’s first “car-oriented eatery”) invented the cheeseburger. Officials in Pasadena, Calif., and Louisville, Ky., have also claimed that, and the authors point out the lack of evidence that Denverites have proffered.

There’s some good news, though: “While naysayers are quick to point out the fact that many other chefs slapped a slice of cheese on a hunk of beef long before (Humpty Dumpty owner Louis Ballast) did, they didn’t have the marketing mojo … . No matter where the cheeseburger was really born, Ballast was definitely the first alleged inventor to get ‘cheeseburger’ trademarked” in 1935.

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