Thomas Jefferson, author of our Declaration of Independence, had been horrified at the poverty, squalor, and congestion which he observed in European cities. He could not have been any clearer about open space and living in cities. “When we get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, we shall become as corrupt as Europe.”
Like Jefferson, Denver residents and city leaders have always been solicitous to create park space and open space.
Ruth Wiberg in her axial history of North Denver, “Rediscovering Northwest Denver,” reminds us that many of the parks around Denver started out as small irrigation lakes and drainage ponds. One such pond was at West 22nd Avenue and Clay. My mother remembers the pond fondly, as her family, the Flahertys, lived nearby on historic River Drive. She enjoyed wading with her brothers and sister in the watering pond which was later named Jefferson Park. Democratic members of an early city council took umbrage that the city could name a city park on the east side Washington Park, our first president. They wanted Jefferson included on the list of parks as author of the Declaration of Independence and one of the founders of the Democratic Party. The recent renaming of Columbus Park to La Raza Park shows how political naming of parks can be.
Residents around Jefferson Park enjoyed the watering hole until a son of Frederick Neef, an early German Denver beer brewer, fell through the ice at Jefferson Park pond and drowned. In his sorrow at his son’s death, Neef successfully lobbied the city to fill in the watering pond, but the indentation in the middle of the park can still be seen where the pond once was.
The same story of the origin of Sloan’s (yes, with an apostrophe “s”) Lake reflects a similar aquatic history. Thank you, Roger Oram, Sloan’s neighbor and North High graduate who got the city to add the apostrophe when I was on council. The Orams always paid attention to civic grammar. Farmer Thomas M. Sloan was merrily digging a well for his 200 acre farm. He hit an artesian geyser and had to move his farmstead down towards Colfax since the lake got so big.
Next door, Isaac Cooper dug for his well for his farm and also hit another geyser. The city eventually dug out the earth separating Cooper’s Lake from Sloan’s Lake. The small island formed in between by the dredging was lovingly referred to as “Duck Island,” as the ducks always rambunctiously congregated there. Wonderfully, herons recently have graced the lake with their presence, a blessing for North Denver.
In 1874, two years before Colorado statehood, the enterprising owners of the Grandview Hotel at West 17th and Federal got the idea to dig a canal along 17th Avenue to Sloan’s Lake. The city allowed a steam boat to carry folks from the Grandview to Sloan’s and pretend they were back east along one of the glorious canals. The steam boat is lost to memory, and, later, Sloan’s boasted its own paddle wheel which broke up in the freeze of 1918. The old dance hall boat is believed to be slumbering on the soggy, sandy bottoms of Sloan’s Lake. Any archeologists interested in dredging up the old paddle wheel?
Inspiration Point Park, west of Sheridan, 48th to 50th was originally a farm owned by a Mr. Ryan which later became another park. The city gradually annexed the land to Denver in the 1940’s through the 1960’s. I remember riding my bicycle up to the point with neighborhood chums looking for arrowheads. We never found any historic artifacts, but we loved the view of Jefferson County and environs all the way from Pike’s Peak on the south to Long’s Peak on the north. And I figure Native Americans may have used the point as a lookout at various times throughout the year.
Rocky Piro, North Denver native and former director of Denver’s Planning Office, reports that by Denver’s own calculation in the 2019 planning document “Game Plan”, the city has a parks and open space deficit of 1,350 acres. The deficit is calculated on a minimum of 13 acres of park and open space for every 1,000 residents as figured by the Trust for Public Lands. TFPL is a national watchdog group monitoring open space and parks in American cities. Rocky cautions that if Denver only covers the 1,350 deficit, that will only bring the city up to “average.” Are you satisfied with Denver just being “average” on anything?
Mayor Robert Speer, our 1900’s city beautiful mayor, shared the grand vision of parks and open space as intoned by Daniel Burnham, an early parks planner. His vision was not a Vision Zero. His plan called for shaded parkways, lots of parks, and grand monuments for blossoming Denver. Bernham boasted: “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die.”
Former Mayor Wellington Webb followed faithfully in Mayor Speer’s big shoes. He aimed high and added more park space and open space to Denver’s mile high profile than even the legendary Speer. Webb once told me, “Nobody will remember I added more park space than Mayor Speer.” I laughed and told him, “I will always remember what you did for park space in Denver. And I will always remind people what obstacles you overcame and I always add: ‘Thank you, Mayor Webb, for all you did for parks and open space.’” Mayor Webb kept us from piling on top of each other.
We need a mayor like Webb and parks planners like Rocky Piro who will aim for more than just the “average” amount of open and park space for the old Denver town we all love.
The Honorable Dennis Gallagher is a former city auditor, city councilman, state senator, and state representative. He’ll be sharing thoughts and stories from North Denver’s past and future in his monthly column in The Denver North Star.