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Wild, wild Denver

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[Times photo: Robert N. Jenkins]
Blazing away, C.G. Campbell — a house-remodeler by trade — displays his sharpshooting during the Buffalo Bill Birthday festivities in Denver last month. Campbell’s alter ego is James B. “Wild Bill” Hickock.

By ROBERT N. JENKINS, Times Travel editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 26, 2000


The Mile High City has been a rough-riding city from the start, a place full of fun-loving adventurers.

DENVER -- You almost knew this city by the name Auraria, or by St. Charles. What happened was, the speculators who had tagged those names onto their shanty settlements were bought out by the sharper who rolled a barrel of whiskey into their meeting that decided the name.

Then again, none of those clapboard communities might even have made it to the present, if not for the determination that some romantically call pioneer spirit, others, bull-headed stubbornness.

What the historians agree on is that at the close of the 1850s, gold-mining efforts -- the reason anyone came here in the first place -- failed on the South Platte River and Cherry Creek, which meet about where "Denver City" had been founded. Instead, major strikes in the hills a few dozen miles away lured the prospectors.

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[Photo: Denver Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau]
The occasion of Buffalo Bill Cody’s birthday is celebrated with look-alike contests, sharpshooting demonstrations and mock bank robberies by costumed locals. Taking part in the festivities last month were Jim Westrich and his 8-month-old buffalo, Thunder.
Then, during the Civil War, Confederate troops set out from Texas to seize all the Colorado gold fields and anything else in their way. The rebels were stopped, but that was hardly the end to Denver's fitful beginning: In 1863, a fire roared through the village of wooden structures.

Hardly had the fur trappers and traders rebuilt when, the next year, Cherry Creek flooded. Twenty died in that flash flood, and Denver seemed ruined again.

The people who settled here, just 12 miles east of the Rocky Mountains foothills, persevered. They rebuilt after fire and flood. They rationed food when battles with the Plains Indians to the east cut supply lines.

They even overcame the snub by the Union Pacific Railroad, which decided to run its transcontinental, steel-veined lifeline through Cheyenne, 100 tough miles due north. Denver folks built their own rail line to Cheyenne.

Meanwhile, so much of the precious ore being mined nearby flowed into Denver that the federal government bought out a private facility to smelt gold into bullion. To keep the ore coming, Denver built foundries to fashion the awesome machinery that dug fortunes from the mountains at nearby places named Central City, Silver Plume, Georgetown.

A capital place

Remarkably, in 1867 -- just three years after the deadly flood -- the hardscrabble village of Denver was designated Colorado's capital. A small capital, true: The census for 1870 counted just 4,759 residents tramping its dirt streets, stopping by its saloons and assay offices. But gold and especially silver production continued, farming and livestock ranching picked up, and by 1890, the population had soared to 106,713.

Among residents and regular visitors as the town grew and smoothed its rough edges were such frontier celebrities as Col. William F. Cody (known to everyone as "Buffalo Bill") and gunmen/gamblers "Doc" Holliday and "Bat" Masterson. Masterson worked in saloons and ran gambling houses here for about 15 years until he provoked reformers intent on cleaning up the city's image at the turn of the 20th century.

By then, some of the luckier prospectors and industrialists had hired architects to design impressive homes and commercial buildings out of brick and granite, not just wood planks. One of the largest and finest buildings is still a landmark -- and not any old museum, either.

The Brown Palace Hotel, which likes to boast that it has been open for business every minute since its debut Aug. 12, 1892, is still a four-star hotel. It also serves as a tangible link to Denver's heritage: Buffalo Bill and "the unsinkable" Molly Brown were regularly seen here, but the hotel coyly demurs as to whether there is a tunnel from the Brown's basement to the former brothel across the street.

The legendary Buckhorn

Several other Denver buildings date to the late 19th century, including Molly Brown's antique-filled home, but few of the others serve their original function. Squatting by the railroad yards is a prime exception, a two-story restaurant made out of brick and legend.

Inside the Buckhorn Exchange Restaurant, the walls are lined with a taxidermist's dream, or an animal-lover's nightmare: a reported 500 heads of wild animals, from antelope to Cape Buffalo. Any available space on the dark walls is covered with antique guns or framed photos of the celebrities who drank and ate here.

Special tribute is paid to then-President Theodore Roosevelt, who became hunting partners with Buckhorn founder Henry H. Zeitz. As much as Zeitz enjoyed his friendship with Roosevelt (first of four presidents to dine at the Buckhorn), Zeitz was equally proud of his nickname, "Shorty Scout," bestowed by the legendary Chief Sitting Bull.

Zeitz founded his saloon in 1893 -- after he had spent 16 years as a scout and performer with Buffalo Bill Cody's touring Wild West Show. Cody was noted for drinking the unlikely cocktail of bourbon and apple juice at the Buckhorn, and Zietz, Cody and Roosevelt were hunting pals. The restaurant displays a poster autographed by Buffalo Bill and a lariat presented to Zeitz by the Indian chief.

(The Zeitz family owns a remarkable souvenir not on display: In 1938, Sitting Bull's nephew, Chief Red Cloud, and about 30 other Sioux and Blackfeet Indians, in battle dress, recalled another era when they rode horses up to the Buckhorn. They presented to Zeitz, then 73, an Army sabre -- the one taken by Sitting Bull's warriors from the body of Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer after the Battle of Little Bighorn.)

A buffalo of a birthday bash

If you want to immerse yourself in this kind of lore, show up during the late February weekend when the Buckhorn celebrates Buffalo Bill's birthday.

The flamboyant Cody was remarkable for both the reality of his life and the falsehoods he allowed to be spread. He did fight in nine battles against Indians and was awarded the Medal of Honor. He earned his nickname for his sharpshooting accomplishments while riding amid buffalo herds, killing the animals to provide food for workers laying the railroad west.

For a few decades at the end of his life, Cody might have been the best-known person on the planet: His acclaimed Wild West show toured the world for more than three decades, starting in 1883.

In this role, he and his troupe displayed amazing horse-riding and shooting abilities, showed Americans and foreigners alike a real herd of buffalo (by then nearly extinct in the wild), and through feats of cowboy derring-do, ignited the idea of the modern-day rodeo. (Denver is credited with holding the first rodeo for paying spectators, in October 1887.)

Buffalo Bill also earned a fortune and lost it. He came to Denver frequently, visiting his sister and hanging out with Shorty Scout Zeitz and other range-rider pals. Cody had retired from his show-biz days when he died here in January 1917.

He was buried atop Lookout Mountain, several miles from the urban spread that is now Denver. A museum by the grave site holds its own Cody birthday bash, the day after a lookalike contest takes place at the Buckhorn. At the two locations, it is possible to see grown men and women playing cowboys and Indians and saloon girls. They dress and act as they think appropriate for frontier figures such as Cody, Holliday, Wild Bill Hickock, gunman Johnny Ringo, Annie Oakley and Molly Brown, as well as nameless, fameless cavalry troopers, "pistoleers," fur trappers and cowpokes.

These re-enactors hold sharpshooting contests (the bullets have minimal powder loads and fire paper wads), stage bank robberies, strut, pose, keep watch over a young buffalo, and generally have a fine time -- especially if they hang out around the original bar inside the Buckhorn.

Spectators have a pretty good time, too, talking to the re-enactors about how they got their costumes (most are handmade) and whether the specific clothing represents a certain time or event.

Lance Michaels' outfit does. This year's Buffalo Bill lookalike winner, Michaels, of Colorado Springs, wore thigh-high black boots and a brilliant purple shirt, embroidered with numerous floral clusters.

The shirt alone took four months to make, he said, because it had to be an exact copy of one Cody wore in a famous poster. Michaels also made his large knife, and friends made other parts of his costume.

Why dress as Buffalo Bill? "I've been doing Western re-enactments for seven years," said Michaels, whose brothers Keith and Mike live in Tampa. "I used to do Wild Bill Hickock, but Bill was a much more wholesome character."

A gold mine of museums

As lively as the re-enactments are, Denver's Old West heritage can also be found in far more sedate surroundings.

The imaginative Denver Public Library, full of warm woods on the inside, boasts a Western History and Geology Department consisting of about 85,000 books, manuscripts and catalogs, 6,000 maps and an astonishing 500,000 photographs, all relating America's move past the Mississippi.

There are journals, newspapers and family scrapbooks, special collections of railroad materials and Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, Native Americans and the conservation movement. The Library also displays a fraction of its Western art collection, including works by Frederic Remington, Thomas Moran and Albert Bierstadt.

Nearby, the Colorado History Museum has mounted an intriguing exhibit titled "Then and Now, 1870-2000: The Jackson/Fielder Photos." On display are 60 pairs of photos of places in Colorado.

Pioneer Western photographer William Henry Jackson took his bulky camera and heavy glass photographic plates throughout Colorado starting in 1869; on display are a tiny selection of his immense volume of work, paired with current photos taken from the same viewpoints by John Fielder.

In many of the landscapes, the view is surprisingly the same. In photos of developed areas, some late 19th-century mining towns appear to be stable settlements, but the corresponding contemporary shots show not even a wooden shack left, a hundred years or more after the ore ran out.

Several miles from Denver, in the college town of Boulder, the Leanin' Tree Museum houses a collection of about 280 Western paintings and bronzes. The scenes of everyday life, romantic landscapes and animals were gathered by Ed Trumble, who founded the Leanin' Tree greeting card and publishing firm.

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[Denver Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau photo]
Paul Stewart founded the Black American West Museum to honor the thousands of African-American cowboys and the Army’s “Buffalo Soldiers.” Since, the museum has broadened its collection to include World War II’s famed Tuskegee Airmen.
As grand as these exhibits and buildings are, the Black American West Museum & Heritage Center seems an afterthought. It is anything but, representing more than three decades of volunteer work by founder Paul Stewart.

Stewart, an African American, recalls that as a child growing up in the Midwest, he was always relegated to playing the Indian. His friends would say, "There were no black cowboys." But there were -- about one-third of all of America's cowboys were black, many of them former slaves. There were whole regiments of black cavalry, named Buffalo Soldiers by the Indians, who said the troopers' hair reminded them of buffalo fur.

Visiting in Denver in the 1960s, Stewart learned some of this history from a cousin, and he felt inspired. A barber, he moved to Denver and would pump his black clientele for anecdotes and, eventually, for artifacts.

On display in the small museum are a fraction of the thousands of pieces Stewart and other volunteers have collected -- saddles, clothing, uniforms, faded photographs, handbills advertising famous black rodeo cowboys. The museum is housed, snugly if fittingly, in the former home of Dr. Justina Ford, the first African-American woman doctor in Denver.

The 'Unsinkable' Molly Brown

In a far fancier house a few miles away, tourists and locals parade through what would have been just another Victorian beauty had it not been for the sinking of the Titanic.

Margaret Tobin had moved from Hannibal, Mo., to the frontier mining town of Leadville, Colo., late in the 19th century to work with one of her married sisters. There, the girl known as Molly met and married mine foreman J.J. Brown. Brown soon was to strike it rich with his Little Johnny Mine, which had veins of both gold and silver.

The Browns moved to Denver, where they bought the fancy, three-story home several blocks from the state capitol. The couple had two children but became estranged, with Molly and the kids staying in the house. Molly, who once took singing lessons in the Brown Palace Hotel, loved fancy clothes and exotic travel. After touring Egypt in 1912, she was returning to America aboard the Titanic.

Legend, probably based in fact, has Molly pulling her ever-present lady's pistol to force the men rowing the lifeboat to tend to their task before that boatload was rescued. The event made her more of a celebrity than her husband's millions had. (The Browns could have been considered merely upper middle class compared with Denver's truly rich.)

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[Denver Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau photo]
Less than 45 miles west of Denver, Georgetown in the 1880s led the world in silver production. The town draws tourists now to see its 200-plus Victorian-style structures and to ride its excursion train.
Molly also cared for three children of one of her sisters, but she was not wholly altruistic: When her husband died without leaving a will, the courts decided to split his remaining fortune equally among his widow and two children. Molly challenged that in court, to assure herself of more than a third of the estate. She died at age 65, in 1936.

Just a couple of years later the Indians rode down Osage Street to the Buckhorn, to present that famous sabre. Those were the last notes of the frontier serenade echoing through Denver. But if you listen closely, or show up in the right place at the right time, the Old West is still alive here on the high plains.

If you go

Getting there: Several airlines provide service between the Tampa Bay area and Denver's handsome International Airport, just celebrating its fifth anniversary. The major car-rental firms are on site in the terminal, and there are shuttle services to area hotels. There is also Amtrak service to Denver.

Staying there: The Brown Palace Hotel is the queen of the Mile High City, an experience in itself. I cannot remember having better service than during a breakfast by myself in the Brown's main dining room.

Water comes from the hotel's artesian wells, and the Brown has a historian who leads regular tours of the building, pointing out the dented woodwork blamed on a golf swing by guest Dwight Eisenhower, president of the United States.

Standard rates start at $265 a night, plus 11.8-percent state tax, but the hotel regularly offers discounted specials that may include a meal, city tour, etc. Call (800) 321-2599 or (303) 297-3111. The city's other venerable hotel is the Oxford, designed by the Brown's architect and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. A four-year renovation in the early 1980s included reproduction of original features and re-positioning of Art Deco panels, etc.

The Oxford's Cruise Room bar may be the place to sip that martini while waiting to be noticed. That seems right, considering the Oxford's location amid the bustling nightlife of Lower Downtown -- LoDo, to all.

Standard rates begin at $169; call (800) 228-5838 or (303) 628-5400. Just about every hotel and motel chain is available in Denver; the paperback City-Smart Guidebook/Denver area has 36 pages of recommendations, anecdotes and maps. That book also lists a few handsomely renovated, 1880s mansions now serving as B&Bs.

Eating there: To sample Old West Denver, you must visit the Buckhorn Exchange Restaurant; to sample new Denver, join the throng at the Wynkoop Brewing Co.

Amid all the western trappings and animal heads, the Buckhorn serves a meat-lover's menu featuring such game items as elk and several preparations of buffalo meat.

The Wynkoop is the city's first and foremost brew-pub. It has progressed to a 230-seat restaurant whose menu is well beyond tavern food. Wynkoop founder and managing director John Hickenlooper is credited with reviving the decrepit industrial area that was LoDo. Despite the new competition, his place draws its share of night-time crowds -- many of whom head to the upstairs game room, so vast that its 26 pool tables don't fill the space.

For more information: Check these guidebooks:

City-Smart Guidebook/Denver, by Georgia and Hilary Garnsey ; John Muir Publications, $14.95. Frommer's Denver, Boulder & Colorado Springs, by Don and Barbara Laine; Macmillan Traavel, $13.95. Hidden Colorado, by Richard Harris; Ulysses Press, $14.95.

The Denver Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau can supply a free, 152-page, color guide to the city and area, as well as information on the museums and accommodations mentioned here and events this year. Call (800) 393-8559, or visit the Web site at http://www.denver.org.

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