Archive for July, 2017

 

CHEESMAN PARK

     THE TALE

“I’m enjoying this picnic very much,” Tom said to Mary, after she finally accepted his invitation to a date. “But may I ask why you chose a picnic? We could be sitting in a movie theater eating popcorn, looking forward a romantic dinner. And picnics usually take place on a sunny Saturday afternoon.” He cinched his windbreaker, and then looked at the sky as dusk settled. Looking back at Mary, he shrugged. “This is everything a picnic is not.”

Mary looked at Tom and smiled, although Tom sensed her eyes were looking through him instead of at him. Her mind and focus seemed a million miles away, anywhere but on Denver’s Cheesman Park.

She raised her finger towards no place in particular, as though she fancied herself a professor preparing to argue a point.

“Can’t you feel it, Tom?” she asked. “They’re all around us.”

Creases formed on Tom’s forehead and his mouth slackened. “Don’t tell me you believe that crap about ghosts and spirits?”

Now it was Mary’s turn to frown. “I thought you’re an educated man, Tom. Don’t you know the history behind the park?”

“Educated, yes, but I’m also skeptical. If I don’t see it, or someone shows me proof, I’m not buying what they’re selling.”

“But, all those bodies . . .,”

“Yes, I know all about it,” Tom interrupted. “They converted a cemetery into a park but didn’t remove all the bodies.”

Without answering, Mary slid her palms on the moist grass next to the blanket, and then looked around the park as though examining the treetops. “We might be sitting on the grave of Abraham Kay.”

“Who the hell is Abraham Kay?”

“He’s the first one buried on these grounds in 1859, after dying from a lung infection. Oh, sure, they’ll tell you the first body was a man hanged for murder, but Abraham, he was the first. Most of the bodies were outlaws and paupers. Imagine, directly under us might be the restless ghost of a murderer.”

Tom shook his head. “And to think, I asked you out six times before you accepted. If I’d known you were so obsessed with the supernatural . . .,”

Mary sat back and folded her arms across her chest, narrowing her eyes to slits. “Tom Evans, wasn’t it you who said you like living on the edge, taking risks? Where’s your sense of adventure? You come across as macho, yet the presence of spirits scares you?”

“Hey,” Tom said, putting a hand to his chest, “I’m not scared. I just don’t believe in that stuff. No matter how you slice it, dead is dead. And yes, I know, I probably read the same things you read. There are still two thousand bodies buried here. People report spirits knocking at their doors at night, and moans coming from the park. People walking around the park at night and suddenly feel as though someone is watching, and feelings of sadness come over them for no reason; strange shadows floating among the trees.” He waved his hand. “So then, tell me, given your bizarre choice and time for a date, why don’t I see any shadows? Why don’t I feel a hand on my shoulder? Why don’t I feel sad or hear moaning or strange voices beckoning me to enter another world? I’ll tell you why, Mary, because it’s all hogwash.”

He stopped and stared at her, expecting a number of possible reactions, none good, but she simply widened her eyes and smiled.

“You’re forgetting about the singing woman.”

“Singing woman?”

“Yes, people reported seeing a woman singing to herself while walking through the park. When they approach, she disappears. Do you know she is the daughter of John Astor?”

“Okay, I’ll bite. Who’s John Astor?”

“He was a gravedigger. In 1893, he was stealing from the open graves when he felt a ghost land upon his shoulders. He took off and never returned.”

Tom’s mouth curled into a smile. “Astor, huh? That’s your last name. Any relation?” he asked, and chuckled.

Mary straightened her back and beamed. “He’s my father.”

Tom burst into laughter and turned away. “Yeah, right, of course, your father. That would make you, what . . .,” he counted on his fingers, “about one-hundred twenty years old.” He turned back and said, “I must say, Mary Astor, you’ve really taken care of yourself. You don’t look over . . .,” He stopped when she started softly singing a tune with words he didn’t recognize. With every note, her form grew dimmer, until eventually she vanished from sight.

Tom put his hands on the blanket and inched back, sliding on the ground onto the moist grass, soiling his pants. He looked around the park and swallowed, unable to move for several moments.

Finally, he scrambled to his feet and dashed away from the park, without stopping to gather up the blanket or leftover food. He never returned to Cheesman Park.


CHEESMAN PARK

                                                                     THE FACTS         

Cheesman Park was once Prospect Hill Cemetery, converted to a park in 1907, named such in 1908 for Walter Cheesman, a Denver pioneer.

The cemetery opened in 1858, with the first “customer” the following year. In 1872, the U.S. Government determined the property was federal land, deeded in 1860 by a treaty with the Arapaho.

The cemetery was split into various areas to represent different religions, ethnic groups, and fraternal organizations. Eventually the cemetery fell into a state of disrepair, rarely used by the late 1880’s, becoming more of an eyesore. Before it became Cheesman Park, in 1890, named Congress Park.

To prepare for the park, families had 90 days to remove the bodies of their loved one. The Roman Catholic area was sold to the Archdiocese and named Mount Calvary Cemetery, although the Catholic Church eventually sold the land back to the city in 1950. The Chinese section was handed to the large population of Chinese living in a Denver district known as “Hop Alley.” Eventually, most of the bodies were shipped to their homeland China.

The majority of the bodies were vagrants, criminals, and paupers, the main reason why more than 5,000 bodies remained unclaimed. In 1893, the City of Denver paid undertaker E.P. McGovern $1.90 per body to remove the remains, provide a new coffin, and then transfer to the Riverside Cemetery. McGovern, an unscrupulous sort, saw an opportunity to increase his profits by using child-sized caskets one foot by 3 ½ fee long for the adults. Naturally, due to “space constraints,” McGovern needed to hack up the bodies, often using as many as three caskets for one body. Sloppy and hurried work resulted in body parts and bones strewn in a disorganized mess, enticing souvenir hunters to steal items from the caskets.

Once the city learned of McGovern’s travesties, they canceled the contract and launched an investigation, although a new contract to finish the removal was never awarded.

In 1894, work started to prepare for the park, completed in 2007, although a number of bodies remained. In November, 2008, while building a parking structure to serve the Denver Botanic Gardens, human bones and coffins were unearthed and moved to another cemetery.

Today, Cheesman Park is considered a gathering spot for Denver’s gay community.

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