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