Across Colorado cemeteries dot the landscape and they are as intriguing as the souls buried there. This time of year, as Halloween approaches graveyards become more prevalent in our social landscape featuring as macabre settings for haunted houses or horror movies. But cemeteries house more than corpses, they store pieces of our history and contribute to the story of Colorado.
From pioneer cemeteries hidden amongst the pines of the Rocky Mountains to a Denver cemetery that doubles as the state’s largest arboretum, a trip to any one of these top Colorado cemeteries is a step into the history of Colorado (and if you go at night it can be a spooky step too).
Colorado’s oldest cemetery: Founded in 1876, the same year Colorado became a state, Riverside Cemetery in Denver is the oldest operating cemetery in Colorado. Among the 67,000 people buried here are some of Colorado’s most notable figures including Augusta Tabor, Barney and Julia Ford, Silas Soule as well as numerous governors, mayors, sports figures, and businessmen who help forge Colorado in its early days. There is also a military section where 1000 veterans were laid to rest along with three Civil War Medal of Honor recipients. The site is listed on the National Register of Historic Places not only for the historical people buried on its 77 acres, but also for its numerous unique features like the nation’s largest collection of zinc monuments and Lester Drake’s log cabin tombstone. However due to the loss of its water rights in the 1970s Riverside has slowly deteriorated and is now largely unkempt and overrun. Currently the non-profit group Friends of Historic Riverside Cemetery is working toward preserving one of Colorado’s most significant burial grounds; if interested in helping please visit their website for more information.
Colorado’s most famous cemetery: Colorado’s most famous grave arguably belongs to one of its most notorious residents, Buffalo Bill. Born William F. Cody in 1846, Buffalo Bill earned his nickname in the wild west were his skills as a buffalo hunter were legendary. Later in life his Wild West show toured the world (including 35 shows in Colorado from 1886-1916) creating a lasting picture of life in the American west. While visiting his sister’s home in Denver in 1917 Buffalo Bill passed away at the age of if 71. His wife chose to have him buried on Lookout Mountain according to his final wishes. His grave today attracts 400,000 visitors annually who come to pay their respects to the legendary man, learn about the history of the west and enjoy the breathtaking views. From his grave you can see both Denver and the Great Plains to the east as well as expanses of Rocky Mountains to the west. There is also a museum on site.
Colorado’s most visible cemetery: Anyone who’s driven down Highway 285 at night has surely seen the giant, glowing cross on the foothills west of Denver which marks one of Colorado’s most visible cemeteries, Mount Lindo. Today the Mount Lindo lighted cross is the largest in the USA measuring 393 feet high and 254 feet across. The cemetery’s owner, Francis S. Van Derbur, erected the cross in 1964 to mark his father’s grave in a way that his aged mother Pearl could easily see it from her home in Denver’s Park Hill neighborhood. Today the cross shines over Denver’s southern suburbs as a nightly vigil to those who have passed on.
Colorado’s top mountain cemetery: Colorado’s Rocky Mountains are dotted with picturesque pioneer cemeteries. Many started as family plots or served mining towns that popped up during the state’s gold rush days. And while some are still in use, others have fallen into disuse and nature has slowly started taking them back. A great many of these sites are undocumented and found only by random wanderings in the backcountry; yet others have become popular destinations and unique markers of Colorado’s Wild West days. One of my favorite mountain cemeteries is the Grand Lake Cemetery in Grand Lake, Colorado. It has the honor of being one of the few cemeteries in the nation that operates inside a national park. The cemetery is not only set in the beautiful expanses of Rocky Mountain National Park, but it is also a link to the town’s pioneer days. John Baker is buried here (nearby Baker Mountain is named for him) as are the Gregg family children whose brutal death at the hands of their mother Mary is the basis for one of Grand Lake’s most infamous ghost stories.
Colorado’s most beautiful cemetery: One of the most beautiful cemeteries in Colorado is also one of the largest arboretums in the state; Fairmount Cemetery in Denver was designed by landscape architect Reinhard Schuetze (who also designed the Denver city park system) to be more like a park than a graveyard. As a result the grounds are covered in rolling trails, trees and well maintained shrubbery. Fairmount Cemetery was built in 1890 to be the premiere cemetery for Denver residents taking the responsibility over from the dilapidated and neglected City Cemetery (located in what is now the Cheesman Park area). At the time of construction it was the largest landscape project west of the Mississippi. Over 120 years of history rest within Fairmount’s 300 acres and numerous walking tours conducted by the Fairmount Heritage Foundation introduce visitors to the many unique attractions on the grounds. In addition to the historical figures who now call Fairmount their final resting place, including Emily Griffith and William Byers, Fairmount also boasts the largest collection of Heritage Roses in North America and the state’s largest collection of stained glass art at the Fairmount Mausoleum. The Colorado Division of Wildlife has also dubbed Fairmount an Urban Wildlife Watching area.
Colorado’s most haunted cemetery: Located in the Wet Mountain Valley west of Pueblo, Silver Cliff Cemetery has a long and documented history of hauntings. Stories have appeared in local newspapers and National Geographic (August 1969) about the mysterious white and blue balls of light that are seen hovering over the graves on moonless nights. There are many theories circulating about the origin of these surreal orbs. Some say they are reflections from the nearby town or phosphorous from decaying wooden gravestones, but no conclusive proof of origin has ever been found and many locals believe the lights are simply a supernatural result of the sites rich and colorful history.