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Early Attractions at Elitch’s Gardens

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January 16, 2015 by Pamela Nowak

Between 1890 and the first decade of the 1900s, Elitch’s Gardens continued to grow and expand its attractions. Many of these were atypical of what most of us would, today, consider as amusement park features. These early attractions formed the base for the growth to come, becoming part and parcel of what has made Elitch Gardens popular for so long.

The gardens were front and center at the park from the start. After John’s death in 1891, Mary found solace in the gardens. She added to the fruit trees that were part of the original grounds. Groomed gardens bloomed in rotation and often attracted large numbers of bees. Some visitors told Mary they could “smell honey.” Mary later discovered what she called a “solid wall of honey” under the siding of her house at the Gardens.

During the 1890s, Mary further developed the grounds of Elitch’s Gardens by building stone zoo enclosures and more landscaped areas. She opened a penny arcade and game booths with ring toss and target shooting–with prizes for winners. The park also included a baseball field, available for use by anyone. Mary’s focus was on assuring that the Gardens were a safe and proper place. No intoxicants were allowed on the grounds and she reserved the right to eject anyone who displayed evidence of drinking or obnoxious behavior. The attractions were chosen with care, to support the wholesome environment. She was proud of the moral character of the park and that children and young people were always safe there. Toward the end of the decade, she added electric lights and her own power plant.

In 1896, the park made history when the theatre showed the first moving pictures in the American West with the Edison “Vitascope” which projected images onto a large screen. During the Spanish American War, the “Warograph” showed battleship scenes. The first pictures of The Passion Play to be shown in the West were at Elitch Gardens, previously shown only in New York.

The orchestra, Denver’s first symphony orchestra, was a popular attraction at Elitch’s Gardens. Signor Rafaello Carvello (called a brilliant young violinist by Mary Eltich) was hired as conductor in 1897. His Friday afternoon concerts were considered high society events. He conducted for 15 years, until illness forced him to retire. Throughout his tenure, many notable musicians made appearances at Elitch’s.

One of the earliest “amusement rides” at was a miniature train. It took two years to build. The eight-car train ran on a 12-inch narrow-gauge track and was powered by a coal-burning engine weighing 450 pounds. Each car measured 42 inches in length and 14 inches wide and held up to four children or two slender adults. It could be operated either forward or in reverse. On its best day, 15,000 passengers were served by the train.

Another popular early attraction was Ivy Baldwin’s hydrogen-filled balloon. The 65-foot-diameter balloon measured 200 feet in circumference. The bag was constructed of 8840 yards of silk, covered with a netting of rope. Twenty tons of scrap iron and twenty tons of sulfuric acid were required to make the hydrogen that filled the bag. For that reason, the balloon was attached to a 1500 foot cable and reeled in by an 18 horsepower engine instead of releasing the hydrogen to lower the balloon. Tom and Mary Long were the first passengers in 1902. That day, more than 200 people ascended. On July 4, nearly 14,000 waited in line. Baldwin performed a fireworks act, dangling from the basket with the fireworks strapped to his back! (Ivy’s balloon intrigued me so much that I added it into the storyline for Escaping Yesterday.)

In 1905, one of the featured attractions at Elitch’s Gardens was Dr. Carver and his diving horses. Powderface and Cupid leapt from a 35-foot tower into a deep pool of water.

A figure-eight toboggan roller coaster and a carousel were soon added.  I’ll talk about them in future blogs.

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Please join me next week as I explore the early Coney Island parks that inspired Mary Elitch Long as she expanded Elitch Gardens. 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 (https://www.facebook.com/pamela.nowak.142).

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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