During the late 1800s, the property of land that now serves as Cheesman Park was a graveyard known as Prospect Hill Cemetery (which opened 1858), located near the land that is now the Denver Botanical Garden and Congress Park.
The U.S. Government found out that the property on which Prospect Hill Cemetery sat on federal land, as it had been deeded to the government in 1860 by a treaty with the Arapaho. The City of Denver purchased the deed for $200, and the cemetery’s name was changed to the Denver City Cemetery.
Over time, the cemetery began to have designated areas for different religions, ethnic groups, and fraternal organizations. Some of the sections were taken care of by the family descendants or their groups, while others stood in a completely neglected mess.
The northeastern part of the cemetery was sold to the Hebrew Burial Society in 1875. This region was kept up in good repair, while the rest gradually fell into ruin. Denver City Cemetery was becoming even more neglected during the 1880s, and was considered an eyesore in the rapidly-growing city.
Colorado Senator Henry Moore Teller had convinced the U.S. Congress to allow the graveyard to be turned into a public park, and, on January 25th, 1890, the Congress permitted the city to proceed with the conversion into a park. Teller named the area Congress Park in recognition of their permission.
The families of those buried in the cemetery were given 90 days to exhume the bodies of their relatives and loved ones and relocate them to other locations. Those who couldn’t afford to move the bodies the bodies sent them to other local cemeteries within the city.
Since there were so many Roman Catholic graves in the eastern section, the 40-acre area was sold by Mayor Joseph E. Bates to the archdiocese, where it was renamed Mount Cavalry Cemetery. The Chinese section of the cemetery was handed over to the Chinese population of Denver who lived in the “Hop Alley” district. However, most of the bodies were shipped to China to be reburied.
Even despite the three-month time limit, the city waited for years for the citizens to claim the bodies of their families, though few did so. More than 5,000 bodies remained unclaimed, as a good portion of the buried were criminals, vagrants, and paupers.
The City of Denver hired E.P. McGovern, an undertaker, in 1893 to remove the remaining bodies. He was contracted to make a coffin for each body, and have them transferred to the Riverside Cemetery, all the while being paid $1.90 for each coffin. McGovern soon realized that he could make more money by using smaller child-sized coffins, which were only 1′ by 3 1/2′ in size.
He soon began to make multiple “bodies” out of each cadaver, taking a few bones and throwing them in, for example, three caskets rather than just the one. All the while, he took valuables that were on the the bodies for himself.
On March 19th, 1893, the Denver Republican ran a story with a headline “The Work of Ghouls!”, describing McGovern’s disturbed method of sick need for profit. Mayor Rogers fired the undertaker, and the Health Commissioner began to investigate the scene. Even despite the fact not all of the graves had been exhumed, no further contracts for removing the bodies were ever made.
A temporary wooden fence was put up around the cemetery, and preparation for the park began in 1894, with land leveling. Shrubs were planted in the holes where the coffins once were. The park was finally completed, and opened the same year, with thousands of bodies remaining beneath the ground’s surface. The park, which was later renamed Cheesman Park in honor of funds donor Walter Cheesman, provided a place for the inhabitants of Denver to go to.
In 1923, all of the graves from the Hebrew Burial Ground were removed and placed in other cemeteries. The Catholic Church portion of the land moved its dead and sold the land back to the city in 1950. Most of what is Cheesman Park today is the Protestant portion of the old cemetery.
Today, there are around 2,000 bodies remaining beneath the grounds of the park. Not to surprisingly, Cheesman Park is haunted by the ghosts of the bodies who were looted, forgotten, and desecrated. Reports of ghosts began as early as 1893, when a grave digger named Jim Astor felt a spirit land on his shoulders. At the time, Astor was looting the graves, and ran immediately from the graveyard when this occurred.
Nowadays, those who visit the park have reported feeling unexplainable sadness or dread, hearing the sounds of voices, and moaning sounds. The apparitions of children can be seen playing in the park at night, only to mysteriously disappear. A woman’s ghost is believed to sing to herself before she vanishes. The surrounding homes also have paranormal activity.
Allegedly, the outlines of graves can be seen on moonlit nights. Those who decide to lay down and relax at the park claim that it is difficult to get up, as if someone is holding them down against their will. Strange shadows and misty figures have also been seen.
In Popular Culture
- Cheesman Park was featured on Most Terrifying Places in America 2.
- In 1980, writer/playwright Russel Hunter said he based parts of The Changeling on experiences he had while living in Denver in 1968.
- Legends of America. “Colorado – Cheeseman Park,” www.LegendsofAmerica.com
- Wikipedia. “Cheeseman Park,” www.Wikipedia.org
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