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Before Elitch Gardens–the early lives of John and Mary Elitch


December 19, 2014 by Pamela Nowak

John Elitch, Jr. was a native of Alabama. Born in 1850, some sources say he was a proud descendent of Stephen Hopkins, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence; census and voter registration records indicate his father was an Austrian immigrant. John’s family supported the Confederacy during the Civil War and his father may have been a decorated officer. During Reconstruction, John left for San Francisco, where he worked in restaurants in the theatre district while pursuing his dream of becoming an actor. In 1872, at church, he met sixteen-year-old Mary Elizabeth Hauck.

Mary, called “Lydia” by her family, had been born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on May 10, 1856. She was the eldest of six and claimed she never liked her maiden name. When Mary was three, the family moved to a farm near San Francisco. She attended a Catholic convent school and was, by all accounts, a good-natured but shy child.

John and Mary had a whirlwind courtship. Mary later said his charm, dark curly hair and blue eyes “swept her off her feet”. In many ways, the two appeared opposites. John was tall, athletic, and outgoing while Mary was petite and quiet. His interest was in theatre while Mary was a sheltered farm girl. When Mary’s parents said she was too young to marry, the two eloped to San Jose. While there, John took Mary to her first play, The Streets of New York, starring Frank Mayo.

Back in San Francisco, John returned to his job managing the Mannings Oyster Grotto. Their life was active, filled with theatre and friends, and Mary quickly developed an interest in the arts.

In 1880, they moved to Durango, Colorado where they opened a café. Within four years, they decided to move to Denver. John took a job at the Arcade Restaurant on Larimer Street. A few months later, they purchased their own restaurant at 1541 Arapaho Street and christened it The Elitch Palace Dining Room. The building held one of the longest bars in Denver.

The place seemed to appeal to all. It soon became a favorite of John’s theatre friends as well as travelers, miners, and locals, including many of Denver’s influential citizens. Regular patrons included newspapermen Eugene Fields and Thomas Patterson, Senator H.A.W. Tabor, Mayor Wolff Londoner, railroad magnate David Moffet, and Governors John Evans and John Routt. John was invited to join several of these men in organizing the Denver Athletic Club.

Mary assisted John at the restaurant, amassing her own group of friends, circus owner P.T. Barnum among them. In her spare time, she painted and served as president of the Denver Art Club. Mary loved animals and often adopted strays. The couple had no children.

Eight years later, John and Mary purchased sixteen acres northwest of town. The former Chilcott farm had apple and cherry orchards, a farmhouse, and a cottonwood grove. Upon moving to the estate, located five miles from town, they planted vegetable gardens to supply the restaurant. Mary soon added groomed floral gardens. Barnum and Harry Tammen, the new owner of the Sells-Floto Circus, which wintered near the farm, gifted Mary with surplus baby animals from his circus to complement her collection of strays. Before long, she was raising bears, lions cubs, monkeys, and an ostrich.

In 1889, John and Mary began comparing their property to the famous Woodland Gardens in San Francisco, reasoning that their farm could be just as appealing to Denver’s families. With gardens, a zoo, picnic areas, a playground, the family-friendly environment would draw many seeking to escape the hustle and bustle of daily life. By the spring of 1890, they were ready to open Elitch’s Gardens to the public.


Please join me next week as I explore the multiple early amusement parks in Denver. 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 and 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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