Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Washington Park

Washington Park is one of Denver's largest and most heavily used city parks. It is bound by Virginia Avenue on the north, Downing Street on the west, Louisiana Avenue on the south, and Franklin Street on the east.

The beginnings of Washington Park can be traced back to 1886 and the development of South Denver, the Denver area's first suburb. Created as a separate city, South Denver extended from Alameda Avenue south to Yale, and stretched from Colorado Boulevard west to the South Platte River. It has been said that the creation of a separate city was primarily a legal maneuver intended to keep Denver proper's "liquor element" from continuing to move south, effectively making it impossible to open a saloon within the city. They also banned "gambling, dog fights, cock fights, gun fights, human fights, lewd dress, vulgar language, reckless operation of a horse, dancing on Sundays, and the selling of liquor to anyone deemed idiotic, insane or distracted". Much of the impetus for this social legislation was the desire to maintain the University Park neighborhood as a Methodist-inspired prohibition suburb that would compliment the ethics and goals of the nearby University of Denver, which was a largely Methodist institution. The city of South Denver was also successful in fighting off DU founder and local millionaire John Evans, who wanted to open a massive cattle feed lot in the heart of southern Denver where he hoped to establish a rail hub to distribute Texas cattle to national markets.

The plan worked for about eight years until the silver bust of the 1890s when the city of South Denver was annexed into Denver proper due to financial difficulties. This was seen as a mutually beneficial move since the city of Denver wanted South Denver's tax revenue, and South Denver wanted out from under its growing burden of debt. Once a judge had determined that the saloon and liquor bans could stand after the annexation, South Denver quickly gave up its independence.

Construction of the park proper began in 1899. The landscaping was designed by German landscape artist Reinhard Schuetze, with later additions to the park being designed by Saco Rienk DeBoer and Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. The park began as 20 acres of undeveloped farmland, but by 1916 had been expanded to its current size of 116 acres. By 1901 tram lines had been extended down Franklin Street into the park and interest in building in the immediate neighborhoods surrounding the park took off.

There are a number of water features that are central aspects of the park. These features, including Smith Lake, Smith or City Ditch, and Grasmere Lake occupy important places in the park as well as in city history. These water features were initially designed to carry and store irrigation water to farmland that was south of Denver. Smith Ditch, a 25 mile irrigation ditch, was dug by John W. Smith in 1864. Along the way the ditch, which has been called Smith's Ditch, City Ditch, or the Big Ditch, passed through a buffalo wallow which was in turn expanded and became Smith Lake. Because of the importance of Smith Ditch to early Denver residents the city purchased the ditch from John W. Smith in 1875 for $80,000. Grasmere Lake was created in the early years of the 20th century for additional water storage.

Washington Park has all the things that one would expect from a large city park. There was swimming in Smith Lake until 1957 when the lakefront was closed. There is a boat house, picnic sites, recreational facilities, walking and cycling paths, etc., etc. Newspaper reporter and children's poets Eugene Field's house was moved to the park after being purchased by "unsinkable" Molly Brown of Titanic fame. It served as the Eugene Field Branch of the Denver Public Library for many years.

 Washington Park is really beautiful and the city does a wonderful job of maintaining it. It is also very heavily used by the surrounding neighborhoods and on a sunny Sunday morning you will see crowds of people walking, relaxing, and generally enjoying the park. These pictures don't do the park justice and it's worth a visit in person.

Getting There By Bike...
I like to get to Washington Park by riding down Louisiana Avenue, which has some nice bike lanes running most of its length. If you go on the weekend expect the area around the park to be filled with pedestrians, other cyclists, and cars filled with prospective park users trying to find a parking spot. If you're feeling very fit, and are on a time crunch, you could join the teams of cyclists in full kit that seem to be endlessly circling "the loop", a circular street designated for cyclists and joggers within the park.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for posting this description of Wash Park. I am compiling an historic pictorial of the residential & commercial areas surrounding the Park and notice in your description a couple of minor errors. If you want to make corrections, contact me at fairhillso@msn.com. -Sarah