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Congress Park

Congress Park is located at 9th Ave. and Elizabeth Street. Amenities include an outdoor swimming pool with children’s wading pool and bathhouse, 8 tennis courts, 2 informal softball fields, 1 soccer field, 1 playground, 2 parking lots, 1 covered picnic area by playground, basketball court, several picnic benches throughout the park, and restroom facilities. Artworks in Congress Park include: Parked Perspectives, 1991 Susan Cooper; Water Friends at Play, 1991 Julie Burrington; and Flame of Compassion, 1994 Ross Barrable.

Congress and Cheesman were once one park known as Congress Park. The name came from the Act of Congress that converted Denver’s former cemeteries from Federal to City ownership. The main western part of the park would be renamed in honor of Denver water baron Walter S. Cheesman. In 1858, General William Larimer jumped the claim of the St. Charles Town Company and established his own town he called Denver. (Claim jumping was a socially acceptable means of acquiring property at the time; especially since the land in question legally belonged to the Arapaho Indians.) While Larimer promoted his town by claiming it had the world’s healthiest climate, he realized his claim had limits, and it would eventually need a cemetery. One November morning, he and his son staked out a cemetery on the site of the present Cheesman and Congress Parks.

The first burial was likely that of a quiet man who died a natural death. Most prefer the story of John Stoefel, a German immigrant who pursued his brother-in-law from the east to avenge an unknown act. On April 7, 1859, the pursued’s body was found near present day Arvada. After confessing, Stoefel was tried and convicted by a “people’s jury”. A cottonwood located near the present Tenth Street and Cherry Creek facilitated the traditional penalty of the day. Cemetery owner Larimer used the wagon that had provided Stoefel with his last earthly support to transport him to his final resting place.

Larimer named the site Prospect Hill Cemetery, although he often referred to it as Mount Prospect. It was informally known as Bone Yard, Boot Hill and after an incident occurring in March of 1860, Jack O’Neil’s Ranch.

Professional gambler Jack O’Neil was popular, handsome and very Irish. In a billiard saloon, he quarreled with a less than creditable Mormon named Rooker. O’Neil suggested the argument be settled by both being locked in a dark room with bowie knives. Rooker refused, so O’Neil questioned his pedigree and that of several of his family members. Several days later, O’Neil was walking down Ferry Street. A door of the Western Saloon provided cover for Rooker as he used a shotgun to settle the argument in his favor. Fleeing, but eventually returning; he was tried and acquitted. The Rocky Mountain News publicized the injustice. O’Neil being buried in Larimer’s cemetery, led it to being called Jack O’Neil’s Ranch.

Larimer eventually left Denver for other pursuits; and Prospect Hill was claimed by an undertaker named Walley. A report claims he buried 626 persons by 1866; including “12 Hebrew and 67 Roman Catholics”.

In 1872, the legal ownership of the cemetery was determined by the United States Congress to be the United States of America; by right of an 1860 treaty with the Arapaho. They offered to sell the land for $1.25 per acre. Denver’s Mayor Bates produced the money; and the city was legally in the cemetery business.

The present day Cheesman Park was the Protestant portion of the cemetery. After legally acquiring title, Mayor Bates sold forty acres in what is now the middle of Congress Park to the founder of Denver’s archdiocese, Father Machebeuf, in behalf of the Roman Catholic Church. Named Mount Calvary Cemetery, it was eventually sold back for the present Congress Park in 1950.

In 1875, the north twenty acres were sold to the Hebrew Burial Society. A portion was leased “forever” to the Denver Water Company for use as a reservoir site. The reservoirs remain, and the rest of the site was returned to Denver in 1910.

Just south of the Hebrew Cemetery, was Denver’s 1881 pest house. Here, Denver’s victims of small pox were quarantined and unattended until nearly 1900.

A small section was allotted to Denver’s early Chinese population; a sizable group living in an area called “Hop Alley”, on the west of downtown Denver. They had been the early railroad crews. When the cemetery was abandoned, and disinterring became necessary, the Chinese community went about the task with much ceremony. Their remains were cleaned, packed in sawdust and shipped back to China.

The remaining south twenty acres was used as the city tree and shrub nursery until 1930; when a WPA project converted it to an addition for Congress Park.

By 1890, the cemetery was falling into disuse. As the town grew east, real estate developers determined a park would add more to property values than an unused cemetery. Senator Teller persuaded the United States Congress to allow the cemetery use be converted to a park. In recognition, Denver named it Congress Park.

Families were asked to remove the remains of their departed to other cemeteries. For those unclaimed, a contract was given to a local undertaker named McGovern. He was paid $1.90 for each box he delivered to Riverside Cemetery. In the enterprising spirit of early Denver, he often found it necessary to use up to three boxes for each grave. The Denver Republican became upset at this practice; resulting in his contract being terminated. Although the work was not complete, the contract was never replaced.

In 1894, a three-board fence partially encircled the park site, and grading and leveling were underway. By 1898, German landscape architect and civil engineer Reinhard Scheutze completed the plan for what is now Cheesman Park. Eventually completed after his 1910 death, the completion fell to Denver’s landscape architect S.R. DeBoer. The plan essentially remains intact today; the only changes being to meet changing traffic patterns. It is an essential component of Denver’s Park and Parkways Historic Nomination.

In Scheutze’s plan were provisions for a pavilion. In 1909, Gladys Cheesman-Evans, and her mother, Mrs. Walter S Cheesman, donated a pavilion in memory of Mrs. Cheesman’s late husband; Denver pioneer and water baron, Walter Cheesman. The donation was conditional that the park’s name be changed from Congress to Cheesman.

Cheesman, the Congress Park of yesterday, is separated from today’s Congress Park by a residential community. The selling of this area by the city in the late 19th century prompted a City Council Ordinance which has prevented Denver from selling park land since.