A grave dilemma

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Libby Rainey

Den­ver’s old­est and most his­toric ceme­tery has an aura of mys­tery about it. Over­run with wild yel­low grasses, River­side Ceme­tery is one of the city’s best-kept se­crets, the rest­ing place of many a fa­mous Coloradan, tucked away in an in­dus­trial area north of the city cen­ter.

Now, that mys­tery might also in­volve find­ing the ceme­tery’s en­trance, as the con­struc­tion of a new Re­gional Trans­porta­tion District com­muter rail threat­ens to dis­place River­side’s only point of en­try.

The new line will run right past River­side’s front door on Brighton Boule­vard, and RTD is propos­ing to close the ceme­tery’s en­trance and build a new one off a side street. But River­side of­fi­cials worry that a new, less ob­vi­ous en­trance will

con­fuse peo­ple and dis­cour­age vis­i­tors.

“It’s cer­tainly go­ing to be a lot more dif­fi­cult to gain ac­cess to River­side,” said Michael Long, di­rec­tor of busi­ness devel­op­ment for Fair­mount Ceme­tery, which owns River­side. “It might de­ter peo­ple from even com­ing to the ceme­tery at all.”

Opened on July 1, 1876, River­side Ceme­tery is older than the state of Colorado. From out­side, the ceme­tery could pass for an un­ruly na­ture pre­serve. Wide fields of yel­low weeds, wild­flow­ers and the oc­ca­sional tree sprawl across the 77-acre prop­erty, fenced in as if to pro­tect it from the ware­houses and thor­ough­fares just beyond its gates. Once past the en­trance — an unas­sum­ing open­ing in a long fence marked by a sign — a sea of head­stones comes into view, some or­nate and grandiose, oth­ers mod­est and nearly ob­scured by tan­gles of grasses.

Among the head­stones, gems of Colorado’s past hide in plain sight. A tall, white statue of a horse marks the grave of Colorado farmer and real es­tate in­vestor Ad­di­son Baker. An in­tri­cate replica of a miner’s cabin, made of con­crete, hon­ors Lester Drake. A stroll of the grounds might re­veal the tomb­stone of for­mer Den­ver Mayor Amos Steck, or for­mer Gov. John Routt. Fresh flow­ers adorn some graves lov­ingly, pro­vid­ing a shock of color in a mostly brown land­scape.

De­spite its rich his­tory, River­side has suf­fered many chal­lenges in re­cent years, most no­tably the loss of its wa­ter rights in 2001. The ceme­tery has since strug­gled to main­tain its beauty amid the sig­nif­i­cant loss of shade, trees and grass. It has fallen into such a state that Colorado Preser­va­tion Inc. named it one of Colorado’s most en­dan­gered places in 2008. The site ac­com­mo­dates only 20 buri­als a year, com­pared with some 1,000 buri­als and cre­ma­tions at Fair­mount Ceme­tery, Long said.

River­side now faces a threat from RTD con­struc­tion. The North Metro Rail Line will run from Union Sta­tion to Colorado 7 in Thorn­ton, passing di­rectly in front of River­side’s en­trance at 5201 Brighton Blvd.

Once the rail line opens, com­muter trains will pass by 86 times a day. RTD ar­gues that build­ing a new en­trance away from train ac­tiv­ity will be safer and pre­vent po­ten­tial col­li­sions. RTD spokesman Scott Reed said con­struc­tion of the en­trance has been de­layed in the ne­go­ti­a­tions.

“A new en­trance to the ceme­tery will pro­vide the most con­ve­nient pos­si­ble en­trance and exit while main­tain­ing that ad­di­tional safety,” Reed said.

The pro­posed en­trance would be off a small side street, Race Court, and through a park­ing lot on the south­west end of the ceme­tery. RTD is propos­ing a ser­vice road of more than 700 feet through the park­ing lot that would lead to a new en­trance, Long said.

A Pub­lic Util­i­ties Com­mis­sion ad­min­is­tra­tive law judge ruled in June that clos­ing the cur­rent en­trance will pro­mote pub­lic safety, and that the Race Court en­trance would be an ac­cept­able al­ter­na­tive. The rul­ing rec­om­mended mov­ing for­ward so long as RTD also pays River­side $100,000 for fu­ture main­te­nance.

Now, both sides are await­ing a rul­ing to de­ter­mine who will pay for the new en­trance’s up­keep. Ken­dra Briggs, vice pres­i­dent of op­er­a­tions and cus­tomer ser­vice for Fair­mount Ceme­tery, said the ceme­tery can’t af­ford to main­tain a new road.

“The city doesn’t want it, and RTD doesn’t want it, and we cer­tainly don’t want it,” Briggs said of the new en­trance. “This is a ceme­tery we have had for 141 years and we’ll have it for another 141 years. We’ll be tak­ing care of it for­ever.”

Trains have been a long­stand­ing fea­ture of a visit to River­side, where 38 trains al­ready pass the ceme­tery daily on a BNSF track. When trains pass, ceme­tery vis­i­tors must wait be­fore ex­it­ing or en­ter­ing. Jim Cavoto, pres­i­dent of the Fair­mount Her­itage Foun­da­tion, said the ceme­tery has a phone num­ber on hand to call when a train sits in front of the en­trance for more than 20 min­utes.

“We jok­ingly call it the River­side ex­pe­ri­ence if the rail­road is lock­ing you in,” Cavoto said.

RTD and BNSF Rail­way Com­pany filed an ap­pli­ca­tion to close the en­trance in De­cem­ber. More than 80 peo­ple wrote let­ters to protest the new en­trance.

“They need to think about the ram­i­fi­ca­tions of chang­ing this his­toric site,” Briggs said. “It’s tak­ing away the grand en­trance of our ceme­tery.”

He­len H. Richard­son, The Den­ver Post

The grave­stone of Richard Whit­sitt, 1830-1881, stands high above other tomb­stones at River­side Ceme­tery in Den­ver. The ceme­tery may have to close its grand en­trance. RTD says it would be safer to move the en­trance be­cause com­muter trains on the North Metro Rail Line will go past the cur­rent en­trance 86 times a day when it de­buts.

He­len H. Richard­son, The Den­ver Post

Train tracks run past the en­trance to River­side Ceme­tery, which opened July 1, 1876. The ceme­tery is older than the state of Colorado.

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