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The Early Denver Zoo


September 4, 2015 by Pamela Nowak

The Denver Zoo was established in 1896, its creation spurred by a decades long love of menageries by local residents. In 1869, crowds gathered to see Dan Castello’s “Circus, Menagerie, and Abyssinnian [sic] Caravan”, which had traveled from the Union Pacific railhead in Cheyenne with tigers, elephants, and other exotic animals. Local zoological parks also sprang up, including Horace Tabor’s small menagerie on Capitol Hill, Baron von Richthofen’s Montclair zoological garden, the animal collection at Manhattan Beach, P.T. Barnum’s winter encampment, and Elitch Garden’s world famous zoological park.

Horace Tabor’s collection of animals lived on the grounds of his mansion. The grounds were populated with peacocks, sculptures of deer, dogs, and marble statues until the silver collapse of 1893 forced the sale of the property. Von Richthofen’s menagerie was created on a two-square block piece of land next to his “castle.” Animals included deer, antelope, flocks of canaries and other songbirds; he even built a pit for bears. The Baron departed Denver before he moved in the bears; instead, they went to the new gardens being created by John and Mary Elitch.

As the turn of the century neared, Americans were becoming more aware of the need to preserve animal species. Natural history museums, filled with taxidermists’ creations, were highly popular. John C. Gallup, who became president of Denver’s Board of Park Commissioners in 1896, promoted the idea of a city zoo. The idea has been suggested before, with the public feeling the various private collections were sufficient. Still, Gallup pushed the concept. With the newly established Bronx Zoo as a model, he went forward. Though his goal was clear, Gallup had no strategic plan for raising funds or developing the project. He turned to Reinhard Schuetze, the board’s landscape architect.

Though the board finally approved the project and created the zoo, early funding was problematic and the zoo advanced very little until the administration of progressive Mayor Robert Speer, elected in 1904. Speer’s election occurred just as the economy recovered, opening the way for park development and coinciding with the availability of the animals from both Manhattan Beach and Elitch Gardens.

Legends surround the first animal exhibit of the Denver Zoo.

The legend goes like this: In 1896, the republican mayor of Denver Thomas McMurray received a gift—an orphaned black bear. The bear was named Billy Bryan, after William Jennings Bryan (the 1896 democratic presidential candidate). The bear was put into the care of Samuel Bowles, who worked as a teamster at City Park. While chained in his farmyard, the bear ate chickens and was banished from his care, thus creating the need to establish the new Denver Zoo. No records survive to indicate whether the bear triggered the zoo or whether it was the first animal ordered to populate it. Newspaper accounts of Dec. 25, 1896 do report the arrival of the bear at Colorado Midland railroad station but say nothing about it being a gift for the mayor.

The Evening Post reported the bear’s arrival was a surprise to General Passenger Agent Bailey and indicated the bear was to be delivered to City Park the following day. The article goes on to say the bear was kept at the Bailey residence overnight where it got loose and broke into Mrs. Bailey’s cellar before escaping into the city. After a city-wide hunt, the bear was reportedly caught and herded into an ambulance wagon with pitchforks, then returned to the Bailey residence where it again made its way to the cellar and wreaked havoc. After struggling with the bear, Bailey finally gave up. The report says the bear escaped over a fence and was later captured near Carbondale. Neighbors reportedly named the bear “Billy Bryan” and suggested Bailey exhibit the bear. The article concludes by saying the bear would be returned to Denver park commissioners and dedicated to the City Park.

The Times relates a bit different story. The report relates nothing of the bear’s arrival but indicates that part superintendent Graham discovered a large number of chicken, turkeys, and other fowl dead, including the one he’d chosen for his Christmas dinner with a trail of blood leading to a nearby barn. Unsure of what was inside, he called for help and workmen discovered the bear. The article states the bear arrived in Denver “last fall” after being captured by a friend of Agent Bailey in the “wilds near Debeque” and gifted to Bailey who had been collecting animals.   The article states that the bear was captured without incident owing to its overstuffed stomach and returned “to his post.”

No one seems to know which version, if any, is the truth. However, Billy Bryan the bear was at some point moved to a spot at the north edge to City Park and was the first bear in the collection of the Denver Zoo.

The early years of the Denver Zoo were complicated by discussions about what, exactly, should be included in the zoo. Since the zoo was established in the corner of City Park, questions were raised about how much of the park itself should be devoted to the zoo and what other features should be included.

As City Park developed, decisions were made to include horticultural exhibits, museums, a lake, and dedicated park land to the space. For a time, a miniature train circled Duck Lake. The “Juvenile Railway” was installed in 1902 but removed a few months later after being declared a nuisance (the waterfowl hated it)—it was replaced in 1948. Tennis courts, playgrounds, a pony track, and refreshment stands were also built. In 1900, an encampment of Native Americans took up residence near the zoo.

Animal collections during the early years included bears, monkeys, pheasants, elk, deer, antelope, buffalo, moose, mountain sheep, wildcats, mountain lions, lynx, raccoons, ducks, swans, ocelot, and peacocks, to name a few. Among the most popular of early exhibits at the zoo were the pheasants and monkeys.

Three Mongolian pheasants were acquired in 1898. In 1904, the exhibit took a jump when W.F. Kendrick, a commercial game breeder, was given permission to bring his exotic pheasant collection to the zoo. Kendrick was based in Littleton and had over 30,000 eggs in incubation in 1908. At one time, 2000 of his birds were housed at the Denver zoo and Denver had the largest collection of Chinese pheasants in the country. The pheasantry exhibit represented a mock farm with buildings, a windmill, and haystacks.

Monkeys were among the few non-native (Rocky Mountain area) animals at the early zoo (allowed as an amusement to the children) and they were highly popular. The first were acquired in 1908 and a new monkey cage was installed in 1911. The exhibit was so popular that wire seats (benches) were added. The monkeys were often featured in the annual municipal parade. Unfortunately, the collection was nearly wiped out by tuberculosis, transmitted to them by humans. In 1914, the park board voted to purchase sixteen new monkeys in varieties more resistant to TB (such as ring-tails and rhesus). The cost was $160 per dozen.

To see more exotic species, Denverites visited Elitch Gardens. Eventually, stock from both Elitch’s and Manhattan Beach were sold to the zoo to expand the original native-species collection.

Elitch’s Gardens opened in 1890 with a small collection of animals. Though the zoo had been John Elitch’s idea, it was Mary who fostered the animals. John died within a year of opening the Gardens and Mary doted on the animals. Within a few short years, she achieved a reputation for her expertise and Elitch Gardens was recognized as the only zoo in the world operated by a woman. The collection included bears, deer, lions, seals, giraffes, camels, elephants, bison, monkeys, kangaroos, and an ostrich (to name just a few). In fact, Mary provided stock animals for many other zoos. As Mary aged, she decided to stop replacing animals as they died and gradually sold the remaining animals. The new Denver Zoo bought many of them, including the last of Mary’s bears in 1930.

Manhattan Beach, though less successful than Elitch Gardens, also hosted a collection of some forty different species of animals, including elephants, sea lions (which once escaped into Sloan’s Lake), ostriches, and kangaroos, among others. The entire collection was sold to the new Denver Zoo when the park closed.


Next week, I’ll revisit Elitch Gardens for a glimpse of the 1920s carousel. 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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1 comment »

  1. James Garcia says:

    Thank you for this article. I wish we would do a history tour at the zoo. Denver Zoo’s Bear Mountain has so much rich history.

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