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Elitch Gardens Opening Day: May 1, 1890


December 12, 2014 by Pamela Nowak

On May 1, 1890, a brand new enterprise opened to the public in De800px-Elitch_Gardens_1890s_Gatenver, Colorado. Elitch’s Gardens and Zoological Park would grow to become the city’s largest amusement park and would gain renown as the “Coney Island of the West.”

The site featured sixteen acres of cottonwood groves and apple and cherry orchards on the former Chilcott Farm, located in the Highlands area northwest of the city. Owners John and Mary Elitch had added groomed gardens and paths, picnic tables, benches, fountains, and an exotic animal collection. Many of the animals had been gifted to Mary Elitch by the couple’s circus friends, P.T. Barnum and Harry Tammen. Mary’s unique connection to the animals was evident from the start and, by opening day, she had amassed lions, camels, buffalo, deer, elk, bears, and an ostrich. She had trained one of the bears to waltz and the ostrich to pull a small cart which she drove. To complete the grounds, John and Mary added a playground area for children (with swings, slides, and teeter-totters), a restaurant, a soda fountain booth and confectionary pavilion, a gazebo shaped band shell and stage, and a vaudeville tent. Pony rides and carts pulled by goats were highlights for the children.

Opening day brought pouring rain. Still, crowds boarded the Denver Tramway for the five mile journey from downtown Denver. According to Mary’s accounts of the day, she and John nervously waited at the log entrance gate to see if anyone would even come. They were shocked to see carriages, wagons, bicycles, carts, and people on foot arriving with the first trolley (pulled by horse for the last part of the journey because the tracks did not yet reach the Gardens). By afternoon, the rain had cleared and a sunny afternoon ruled.

John, an actor, had invited a number of fellow-performers for the celebration. In addition to a brass band conducted by Peter Satriano, comedian Nat Goodwin and actors May Irwin and James O’Neill (father of playwright Eugene O’Neill) were on hand. Vaudeville performers included the Montgomerys, comedians and banjoists, as well as Miss Minnie Zola, the “Little Athletic Wonder”. Other comedians, singers and dancers were Bailey and Reynolds and Charles W. Goodyear. Gymnasts and trapeze artists included Van Auken and La Van, the “Champion Triple Horizontal Bar Performers of the World” and the Australian Marvels. Charles E. Schilling, the “Quaint, Comical Musical Genius” and Miss Rosa Lee, the “Gifted and Refined Balladist” were also on hand, as were the San Francisco Twins.

After opening speeches by local dignitaries, the day was filled with activity and fun. It was capped by a baseball game on the grounds. John Elitch was already negotiating to expand full trolley service to 38th and Tennyson streets, where the entrance gate was located. By season’s end, on Labor Day, John and Mary had grossed $35,000 and plans were underway for their second season.


Please join me next week as I explore John and Mary’s early life. Each Friday, I will blog about some aspect of Elitch Gardens, early Denver, or other topics related to my next novel, Escaping Yesterday. In between, I will post small factoids on my Facebook page. You can join me there; I love new friends!

Due for release in September 2015, Escaping Yesterday is set in Elitch’s Gardens, in 1905, and follows the story of Lottie Chase. Lottie is willing to take any risk to save her daughter from their abusive uncle. Stranded in Denver, Lottie meets Caleb Hudson, manager at Elitch’s Gardens amusement park, who sees her as a manipulative huckster. Caleb, a veteran suffering from PTSD, craves the tranquility of the park’s gardens. Lottie brings anything but peace as she seeks to convince the owners to add thrill rides so she can collect the sales commission and support her daughter. Neither anticipates their growing passion, common demons, or the dangers they will face as they confront their pasts and free their love.

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  1. How interesting…i’m looking forward to more information! As a child, I loved going to Elitch’s!

    • Pamela Nowak says:

      This book was fascinating to research. I’m going to love sharing all the details that I couldn’t fit into the story!

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