It’s a weird and wonderful place we live here in the altitude.
If you’ve been here for any time at all, “what the hell is that about” can be a common refrain. Whether you were born in ski boots or moved here recently to see what that’s all about, Colorado has some strange stuff.
Here are 10 things we get asked about more than others. You may have seen or heard about these and wondered, or you might need to seek them out for yourself.
What the hell, you’ll find out, works as a question and a declaration in Colorado.
THE TOWER OF AURORA CITY PLACE
Near I-225 and East Alameda Avenue, a beige, three-story tower marks your arrival at Aurora City Place, a shopping complex centered around the Super Target. Get closer, and you may notice that the windows are opaque. An even closer look will reveal a waterfall cascading out of two sides near the base of the tower. What’s in that thing?
The facts: The tower was built in 2002 by Weingarten Realty, which owns Aurora City Place. The tower dwarfs the nearby restaurants, salons and beauty supply store of Aurora City Place – as it is intended to, said Meagan Froehlich, a spokesperson for Weingarten Realty. On a recent sunny afternoon, the waterfall drowned out the Tina Turner song blasting from speakers at the nearby salon, Hair Fetish. A couple sat nearby enjoying their lunch. The tower’s locked doors obscured any clues as to what’s inside, but Froehlich said it houses machinery, pumps, and plumbing for the closed-loop fountain system that recycles water. Plus, there’s wiring for the spotlights that illuminate the suburban monolith each night, drawing shoppers to Super Target like moths to a flame.
The Fiction: We have yet to hear any rumors of the tower’s true purpose. However, in an afternoon of dozing to the sound of the only vertical babbling brook in Aurora, we noticed that water poured ceaselessly from the tower. Perhaps the water source is the regional aquifer, drained from the supply to Highlands Ranch for those distinguished best of metro suburbanites. Aurora developers saw the potential to attract the next generation of Highlands Ranch residents, who will no doubt be looking for a place to go when the water runs out. It is also easy to imagine the tower housing a suburban Quasimodo, isolated behind the faux windows of the tower’s Notre Dame facade. Perhaps Tom Tancredo, the former Congressman shunned by his party for xenophobia, deaf from tolling the bells of white nationalism, and pining for the spotlight once again? Only time will tell.
— Grant Stringer
Who or what is buried next to a suburban strip mall in Aurora?
The Facts: Near Parker Road and South Chambers Road, Pioneer Hills Shopping Center has a past. It used to be the Town of Melvin.
There’s hardly anything left of Melvin. The homes are gone, as are the few one-story frame buildings the town consisted of. The Cherry Creek Valley Historical Society saved a one-room schoolhouse. That’s on the Smoky Hill High School campus.
There’s also a small cemetery tucked in an Aurora Chick-fil-a parking lot.
It’s easy to overlook, even while waiting on some drive-thru chicken nuggets. But the cemetery is starkly out of place among the suburban sprawl. Across the parking lot in the Pioneer Hills shopping center is a Petsmart, a retail beauty store and a few other independent businesses.
The cemetery — officially called the Melvin-Lewis Cemetery — is kept locked. It served as the cemetery for Melvin, according to the historical society, named for the earliest recorded settlers, John and Emma Melvin.
When Cherry Creek Dam was built, many residents along the Cherry Creek banks were forced to move. As they relocated, the cemetery was abandoned.
There’s more, though. Several remains have been moved to the cemetery, but there are no markers at the site. Historians believe remains from at least one homesteader are still there, however.
And there’s more. More remains. Before the Pioneer Hills shopping center was established, the land was owned by the University of Colorado. CU buried nearly 1,600 cremated human remains from research facilities at the site. The remains are from those who donated their bodies to science, and a marker dedicates their donation to humanity.
The Fiction: This is not the cemetery of Chick-fil-a workers and patrons past. If you thought that visiting this particular drive-thru on a Sunday, when the chain is closed, would lend itself to a ghost story or two, you might be correct. But it won’t be tales of fryer accidents or a crazy ax man who had it with the “my pleasure” replies synonymous with the chicken joint. If you hear a ghostly, but equally friendly reply in the parking lot, our bet it’s the ‘burbanite teens playing jokes after their shift. The real ghost stories of this cemetery may be of the first pioneers of the region and the anonymous souls who gave their bodies to scientific research.
— Kara Mason
THE ELITCH THEATER
Before the monster roller coasters near downtown Denver, there was Elitch Gardens. The old Elitch’s as old-timers call it. Now a housing development, the amusement park grounds are at 38th Avenue and Tennyson Street. But it’s not all gone. remaining are the iconic gazebo at the corner and the aging and famous Elitch Theater.
The Facts: With all kinds of neighborhood changes, few remember or even know of a piece of Denver history tucked behind the Starbucks and Sprouts on 38th Avenue, overflowing with a century of memories. The Historic Elitch Gardens Theater, once a vital part of Colorado’s artistic and cultural landscape, has sat vacant and forgotten for the better part of 20 years.
Built in 1891, Elitch Gardens was the inception of John and Mary Elitch, as the couple transitioned their farm into a lush and thriving destination for Denver residents.
“This was the epicenter for culture,” said Evan Semón who has been documenting changing Denver. He became interested in the theater when he lived nearby.
There was a zoo, a playhouse, a music house, and there were dances under the gazebo at the park. The Gardens became an entertainment destination with national appeal, the theater drew actors, directors and musicians from both coasts to take the stage.
Now a board has taken on the project and is restoring the old theater. Famous for summer stock and touring shows, the venue has graced stars including Debbie Reynolds, Grace Kelly, Gary Sandy, Douglas Fairbanks and Edward G. Robinson. “One early star, nicknamed ‘Tony’, was 11 years old when she debuted on the famous Elitch stage,” says a historian writing for Historical Elitch Theater. “This Denver girl grew up to be a famous Broadway producer, Antoinette Perry — namesake of the ‘Tony Awards.’”
And then it closed when the amusement park moved to Lower Downtown Denver.
After more than a decade of neglect, the restoration project was picked up by locals in the area in 2002 and carried to the city for 501(c)3 non-profit status, which then brought with it the Historic preservation rights. A series of rotating and inactive board members in addition to previous poor spending of funds has kept the theatre in this state of slow decline and disrepair. Until now.
“Finally, now, this board is really clicking,” Semón, who eventually joined the board, said.
The plans now are to make Elitch Gardens Theatre’s 2020 Season unlike anything the historic space has seen in decades, Semón said.
The Fiction: You won’t walk into the theater and find a disappointing historic building turned storage space. You won’t find a decaying theater, either. You may find some workers applying a fresh coat of paint or restoring, the roof though. Mary Elitch may be keeping an eye on things, though. If you sleuth around the internet, reports say even back in the ‘60s, when the theater was operating, performers would occasionally spot her on the top deck.
CHERRY CREEK DAM
A mysterious little structure on the top of the dam, just off the Dam Road.
The Facts: Commuters creep past a mini-structure on the Cherry Creek Dam likely twice each day. A gravel road, gated off, blocks curious travelers from getting to the building to investigate any further — which probably piques the curiosity even more.
It’s nothing more than the top of what’s called a tower, and it allows water to move through the dam.
The Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for the Cherry Creek Dam, but other agencies also are involved in the area, as the water allows for a state park.
Hardly any of the water there belongs to Aurora, despite its proximity to the city. But a similar little building would be easy to spot on most of the dams that do hold Aurora water, and probably most dams you’ll find across the state.
The Fiction: Like the underworld of the Denver International Airport or the Thornton Gates of Hell, the unknown does lend itself to some pretty outrageous suspicions. But the building isn’t any secret passage of sorts. There are no nefarious tunnels or hiding places. This isn’t an elevator that transports inland mermaids to the water. It’s just a mechanical necessity. Bummer.
— Kara Mason
Are they an Epcot tribute? Titleist products for a group of coordinated Brobdingnagians? An alien bingo hall? Swing again, Tiger.
The Facts: The looming white orbs on Buckley Air Force Base have long been shrouded in mystery. But the truth behind the spheres’ purpose is far less sexy than Tiger Woods’ infamous fall from the green, er, grace.
Officially called radomes, the roughly 100-foot-tall structures in Aurora house sensitive communication equipment used to detect missiles launched around the world. More than 800 tiles comprise the peculiar structures, which are intended to shield specialized satellite dishes from inclement weather. The covers are designed to withstand “hurricane force winds of more than 90 miles per hour,” according to an article on the Buckley website.
Typically under lock-and-key, the Buckley crew grants “exclusive” access to a coterie of metro-area newspeople every few years. This faithful hack was one of those lucky few several years and pounds ago, and rest assured, dear reader, there are no tiny green men frozen in carbonite chambers lining the walls. On the contrary, the spaces contain gargantuan bowls that would make a stellar secret level in any number of the Tony Hawk Pro Skater video games.
The devices play a crucial role in the 460th Space Wing’s perpetual mission of missile detection and defense.
The Fiction: While there aren’t nearly as many conspiracy theories swirling about the eggshell domes in east Aurora as there are about, say, a certain international airport in a certain capital city that may or may not be contain a direct portal to Dante’s deepest circles, there’s enough hardware in those bad larrys to, at the very least, spark a few tough questions. Such as: What actually happened in Roswell, New Mexico? Do you think Marvin the Martian will enjoy the bird sounds on that golden record floating around up there? And what the hell is Goofy, anyway? A dog or a mouse?
Local lore has often centered on giant death-ray guns being concealed under the orbs. Or giant snakes. Or a massive habitrail for prairie dogs. Also, they’re the real McCoy giantist ball or string.
— Quincy Snowdon
COLORADO MOTOR SPORTS TRACK ET AL
Aurora hasn’t had much luck in the auto racing circuit in recent years, but it’s not alone. An attempt to breathe life in a defunct dog-track in the middle of well, somewhere east of Aurora along I-70, and turn it into a race track, has sputtered, too.
The Facts: The city has tried for about three decades to lure a race track to its expansive eastern stretches — to little avail. After much hoopla, ballot questions and lawsuits, those efforts to retool the city charter have resulted in little more than still-vacant prairie. But the eastern metroplex that courses toward Kansas hasn’t been completely void of cars cruising in circles. Located just a lug nut’s toss from I-70, the now defunct Colorado Motor Sports Park, née Interstate Kennel Club, operated outside of downtown Byers from the early 1970s until just last year. Boasting a 80,000-square-foot grandstand and dirt track, the facility was a booming greyhound racing facility until the early 1990s. The hulking compound, which still stands today, experienced a series of rebirths in the past decade, but catawampus zoning regulations stalled multiple ventures, according to Jerry Kendall, a mortgage broker who tried to revive the property as an auto racing facility in 2010.
“We hit a wall with the zoning and planning and all that,” he said. “This traffic thing has become such a nightmare.”
At its peak, Kendall, who used to live in a house beside the track, said the Interstate Kennel Club was one of the premier dog racing tracks in the west, regularly attracting as many as 3,000 visitors on Friday and Saturday nights. The facility even used to boast a some 60-foot-long greyhound statue near the entrance, but Kendall said he gave the colossal canine to an eastern Colorado rancher soon after he assumed management of the property.
Despite creative programming — the facility also hosted raves and a circus to try and stay afloat — Kendall pointed to the track’s proximity to nearby rail road tracks as the death blow to his venture.
“You get into traffic studies and you have to build a crossway and you have to go through the railway authorities and the highway commission,” Kendall said. “It costs so much money to do that.”
Another sanguine entrepreneur named Don Hulse tried to revive the track again several years ago, but ceased his efforts in early 2017 after Arapahoe County denied him a temporary use permit. Hulse’s plan called for more than a dozen events from April to October at the facility.
“It’s closed; it’s done; it’s over with,” Hulse said. “Unfortunately, that’s the way it is.”
But for the deep-pocketed, those zoning and permitting hiccups could be a mere speed bump in the road to racetrack nirvana in Byers. The property is currently on the market for a cool $899,000, according to a listing on realnex.com. Don’t have an extra $1 million lying around? Fear not. The listing assures viewers that “no reasonable offer (is) refused!!” You know they’re serious because they used two, yes, two exclamation marks. Race you to the couch cushions to scrape the liner for Indian Heads.
The Fiction: The lights go on at night all by themselves and you can see dust in the dirt as if the ghosts of a thousand dogs came back to chase that damned rabbit one more time. Also untrue: Aurora will not be annexing all the way to Buyers just so they can finally get a racetrack inside city limits.
— Quincy Snowdon
THE LONE “H”
Near the intersection of E-470 and I-70, a big green letter “h” sits in the middle of nowhere.
The Facts: The area was once slated for a massive development of the plains where E-470 and I-70 intersect. That’s a great area for development, said Aurora Mayor Bob LeGare, that is still owned by Australia-based development giant LendLease. The plans, called Horizon Uptown, were to include residences and commercial skyscrapers. LendLease did not respond to requests for comment, but LeGare said the city hasn’t heard from the firm in “a while.” However, he hopes that Denver’s booming economy will encourage construction there. In the meantime, it is unclear how long the lone “h” will stand in the tall grass.
The Fiction: It’s a shame that the “h” isn’t accompanied by any other letters of the alphabet; it probably gets lonely out there with only the traffic and planes from DIA overhead. Until development begins, we’d like to see a few more letters. Maybe an “e” and two “l”s to prepare travelers for long TSA lines and grounded Frontier flights at DIA? At the very least, we need an “e”, “l” and “p” to highlight the vast rural lands being swallowed by Front Range suburban sprawl. However, we’d bargain that this patch of plains will only house prairie dogs in the foreseeable future.
— Grant Stringer
RIVERDALE ROAD AND THE GATES OF HELL
Eleven miles of Riverdale Road, a curvy stretch between Thornton and Brighton, is said to be the most haunted highway in all of Colorado.
The Facts: Riverdale Road has its fair share of blind curves between Thornton and Brighton. At one point, it bounds the South Platte River. A fair amount of construction and development taking place on this once-dusty road. That’s about where the facts end.
The Fiction: Legend would have it that every possible spectre and haunting has called Riverdale Road home at some point, from an indigenous burial ground and witches to Satanic cults, a mysterious lady in white, and (more recently) the ghost of a jogger. Thornton Mayor Heidi Williams grew up in Brighton and has driven on Riverdale countless times in the last forty years. In fact, she lives right off Riverdale. She said the stories are out there – especially of the lady in white. “I will tell you that I’ve never seen anything there,” Williams said. However, she was disappointed to find no paranormal activity on a recent trip to the infamous Stanley Hotel. “They must not like me,” she said sarcastically, though she’s not opposed to the idea that ghosts roam Riverdale. When she was a teenager, local youth would cruise the roads and “try to scare the crap out of each other.” If the ghost stories weren’t enough to freak kids out, the Gates of Hell certainly would have. The story goes back to the mid-1800s, when a man named David Wolpert settled in the Denver area after prospecting for gold in the Rockies. Wolpert built a mansion near Riverdale Road, which apparently housed a brothel, cowboy bar and then a hippie commune until it was burned down in 1975. On countless blogs and online forums, Denverites have speculated that a man killed his family and set fire to the house. Only the front gates and chicken coop remained, which is said to lead directly to hell. Is it safe to add demonic chickens to the list of Riverdale Road horrors?
— Grant Stringer
THUMBS DOWN TO HITCHHIKERS
It’s a golden rule most people follow — don’t pick up hitchhikers, especially those freshly escaped from prison.
The Facts: Colorado residents and visitors have been gifted visual reminders of that golden rule in the form of signage, posted around a group of prisons across the state, including Lakewood and Aurora. The signs are cues informing drivers not to pick up hitchhikers in that area as they could be inmates escaping from one of the local prisons.
“We started installing those signs in the early 2000s,” said Colorado Department of Transportation Communications Manager Bob Wilson.
He added that the inspiration for installing the signs was purely in the interests of public safety, and not because escaped inmates regularly prowled the area.
“In Colorado, there was no event or tipping point … it was done more as a reminder for drivers in that particular area,” Wilson said.
Wilson said Colorado is not alone in posting hitchhiker-related signage. Similar signs can be seen throughout the country in areas that neighbor prisons.
“It’s pretty common in other parts of the country,” he said.
As to how many people have picked up prison escapees on I-70? Unclear and pretty much undone.
The Fiction: A panel wagon filled with habit wearing nuns in full regalia picked up an armed robber that dug his way out of the prison near Peoria and I-70 and convinced him to come to their Aurora convent and build them a medical marijuana dispensary.
— Sasha Heller
IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE, OR BELARUS
A long time ago, close and far away, AT&T spent a boatload of money to build a Long Lines system of microwave towers across the United States so you could phone home faster, and even after a nuclear blast. These massive, Soviet megamonsters still exist along the plains, and right smack dab in Denver.
The Facts: AT&T owns the defunct microwave tower atop one the city’s highest points at 52nd Avenue and Zuni Street. The tower and thousands like it were built during the 1950s within a line of site from each other all over the country. They transmitted microwaves to carry phone calls and Milton Berle’s show from coast to coast without wires. Towers were about 40 miles apart, according to AT&T records.
With the onset of fiber optics, the microwave transmissions became as tired a technology as a CB radio. Still, the towers, boasting horn antennae, remain across the country, silently and uselessly watching the world change around them.
The Fiction: They do not emit silent, subconscious commands or instructions to do really crazy things like vote for any kind of tax increase that appears on a Denver ballot or wear short pants all winter long or go see the Parade of Lights in a blizzard.
— Dave Perry