Historic Jeffco: Mount Vernon Canyon
A Brief History of Mount Vernon Canyon
The I-70 Foothills of Colorado
The Ancestral Rocky Mountains began to gradually uplift from shallow tropical seas about 300 million years ago. A "dinosaur speedway" at the base of the foothills is said to have flourished until 64 million years ago. The melting of the Ice Age—from 1.8 million to 20,000 years ago—gradually formed mountain meadows, valleys and canyons. Mount Vernon Canyon now supports Interstate 70 in the foothills directly west of Denver, Colorado.
Archaeologists have found many prehistoric treasures near today’s Heritage Square, southwest of Golden, at the base of Lookout Mountain. Paleo, Clovis, Plano and Folsom artifacts have been identified at several foothills locations. Some historians and archaeologists believe Colorado Ute Indians evolved from the "Clovis" migration around 14,000 years ago. Arapaho arrowheads, dating back to A.D. 1750, have been found on Lookout and Genesee Mountains.
The 1859 Gold Rush
The steep and rugged canyon rises 2000 feet within three miles. It was named after Mt. Vernon Towne, the first Colorado territorial government capitol, at the mouth of the canyon in 1859. The Mt. Vernon toll gate to the canyon was promoted as "The Gateway to the Rockies." Mt. Vernon Creek still flows down the canyon past two remaining historic homes built by pioneers to attract travelers to gold territory.
The toll road from Mt. Vernon to Genesee Mountain was often washed out by rain and melting snow. A competitive toll gate was established in 1861 at the Apex settlement for a wagon road that rose and crossed Lookout Mountain to Genesee Mountain. The Patrick family from Missouri controlled the Genesee toll gate adjacent to their two-story house that has been preserved in Genesee Park. It is the oldest building in continuous use in the area. Denver Mountain Park personnel have lived in the Patrick house since 1914.
Most travelers from Mt. Vernon and Apex passed through the Genesee gate to Bergen Park and continued west through Soda Creek and Floyd Hill to Central City and Idaho Springs or went south through Evergreen to South Park.
The Rockland Community
A few hardy pioneer families settled in Mt. Vernon Canyon and supported themselves by ranching and harvesting timber. Their summer gardens of potatoes, vegetables and grain were not disturbed by wildlife. Deer, elk, fox and rabbit ran for their lives at the sight of humans who usually had a loaded gun ready for needed food.
Most settlers built cabins near the creek for convenient water supply and to avoid wind. They built the Rockland School in 1873 and Rockland Church in 1879. It took two to three days for Rockland families to travel by horse-drawn wagon to Golden, gather supplies, and return home. Historic ranches and the school were taken out by I-70 but historic Rockland Church still stands as testimony to early community values.
Railroad entrepreneurs bypassed Mt. Vernon canyon’s steep grade for the more gradual rise west through Clear Creek Canyon in the 1870s. The old rocky canyon road was taken over by Jefferson County in 1880 but was never paved.
Real Estate entrepreneurs and missionaries
In 1890, Denver investors hired Frederick Law Olmsted to design a "city on the hill" on their 2,389-acre Denver and Lookout Mountain Resort. Olmsted was famous for designing extraordinary landscape projects, including Central Park in New York City in 1857 and Chicago’s World Columbian Exposition in 1893, among many others. His work inspired the "city beautiful" movement, the national park system, comprehensive community planning and landscaping with native trees and plants.
The Lookout Mountain Resort was promoted as “Denver’s greatest future attraction.” The plan for clusters of summer cottages, connected by winding trails through native flora that led to the resort hotel, never materialized. Except for the Cedar Lake Reservoir (planned by Olmsted) dug in 1895, the mountain properties with extraordinary views of the eastern plains and Rocky Mountains had no municipal water supply or reliable roads to the area until 1912.
In 1905, promotion for the development was renewed by British real estate developer Rees Vidler who gained Golden water taps in exchange for a right-of-way across the Lookout resort land. The pristine mountain water was piped from the Beaver Brook Watershed (Squaw Mountain) to Cedar Lake and down into Golden where it was treated for city customers.
Vidler constructed a “funicular” railroad track for open cable cars to bring visitors up from Golden to his real estate office on the east summit of Lookout in 1912.
He formed an alliance with “Cement Bill” of Golden who built the Lariat Trail, the first reliable access to the area from 1911 to 1914.
Another successful newcomer was Frances Xavier Cabrini who founded the Institute of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart in 1880.
In 1912, she founded a summer orphanage and farm on 800 acres as one of 67 schools, orphanages, hospitals and day care centers during her lifetime.
She was canonized in 1946 and is now known as the Saint of Immigrants. Mother Cabrini’s Shrine continues to serve 200,000 annual pilgrims from around the world annually.
Denver sets land preservation precedent
Legend says that "City Beautiful" competition around the country inspired prominent Denver businessmen to explore projects to attract tourism. One of the most legendary business leaders was John Brisben Walker who preserved Red Rocks Park (until Denver acquired it in 1927). After twenty years of "brainstorming" tourism attractions, Walker representing the Denver Real Estate Exchange, Elmer Sommers of the Denver Motor Club and Charles Johnson of the Denver Chamber of Commerce convinced Denver’s Mayor Speer to promote their plan for a "Denver Mountain Parks" system in Jefferson and Clear Creek Counties in 1911.
Businessmen funded a massive campaign in every newspaper, civic society and labor organization asking Denver voters to approve a tax of one-half mil to finance the Mountain Park System. The promotion claimed the parks were "Denver’s chance to open a gateway into the mountains, and to take the lead in the work of making Colorado more attractive to tourists than Switzerland." Jefferson County officials did not support the project.
Denver voters approved the tax in May, 1912. The Mountain Parks Committee of businessmen hired Olmsted’s son "Rick" (Olmsted died in 1903) to design the system based on their extensive research and preliminary planning. Rick Olmsted was familiar with the area from experience as a surveyor apprentice in Colorado in 1894.
The first acquisition in 1912 was Genesee Park "to preserve scenic views of the Continental Divide and Mt. Evans." Some "public-spirited" investors had purchased 1200 acres of Genesee Mountain from a sawmill-timber company in 1911 to hold it until Denver could permanently preserve it. In 1914, the city enclosed 160 Genesee Park acres to preserve two native species that were nearly extinct, wild elk and American bison.
Colorow Point, a .37-acre parcel near today’s Lookout Mountain Nature Center, was acquired in 1915. The site preserved extraordinary views of Clear Creek Canyon and access to the historic Beaver Brook Trail, which Denver secured easements to preserve.
The acquisition of Lookout Mountain Park (65.7-acres) in 1917 provided a burial place and museum for Buffalo Bill Cody. From 1912 to 1927, Denver built roads across Lookout into Genesee Park, west to Bergen Park and Mt. Evans, south into Evergreen, the Evergreen Lake and dam, and east along Bear Creek to Morrison. This system of "scenic drives" offered picnic sites, fishing and hiking for tourists and Coloradans. It initiated Jefferson County residents’ most treasured gift—preservation of native land. Genesee Grange #219 became the center of a more prosperous Rockland community in 1912.
Wealthy nature lovers build summer cabins
Denver made Jefferson County foothills accessible and popular by building hiking trails, tent colonies and picnic shelters through the mountain park system. Wealthy entrepreneur and philanthropist Charles Boettcher built Lorraine Lodge on Lookout Mountain in 1917. Denver built the Chief Hosa Lodge and Campground in Genesee Park in 1918.
Visitors to the Denver Mountain Parks made tourism profitable in Golden, Mt. Vernon Canyon, Evergreen, Kittredge and Morrison. Many Lookout Mountain entrepreneurs managed popular restaurants, dance pavilions, camping sites and tourist “gift shops” from 1912 until the Great Depression in 1930. Nearly all Lookout Mountain land was platted with residential lots by 1924.
The Denver Ski Club leased northeast Genesee Mountain land from homesteader Lucian M. Ralston in 1921 for a ski jump. Thousands of Denverites attended event competitions during the 1920s. Economic depression of the 1930s, lack of snow and better transportation on U. S. Hwy 40 to West Slope skiing (in 1937) ended the ski jump. The “Twisted Pine” ski club house was purchased by Denver Girl Scouts for taxes in the 1930s. The ski jump scar is still visible from I-70 above Chimney Creek condominiums west of the “space house.”
The first successful Lookout Mountain resort was Mount Vernon Country Club, established in 1922. The popular social and recreation club had a golf course, croquet courts, 100 acres of open space for nature trails and excellent clubhouse dining. Some members built cottages and stayed for the summer. Other non-residential members traveled up and down the Lariat for dinner dances and summer recreation. "The Club" faltered during World War II when the golf course became open space, but came back into popularity during the 1950s and continues to be one of the area’s most popular attractions. Members acquired more land during the 1960s for a total of 1200 acres of open space.
The Denver Kiwanis Club attempted a similar resort east of Genesee Mountain in 1924. The "Kiwanis Reservation" was expected to be a "mountainous rendezvous" for visiting Kiwanians to find "opportunities for rest, recreation and pleasure, amid unusually congenial surroundings." Some wealthy club members built cabins but the resort never developed.
1930s to 1950s—from Depression to Boom
To counter lost income during the Great Depression and World War II, some Rockland families became fox fur farmers. One entrepreneurial Denver dentist, Menefee Howard, established a huge mink and chinchilla farm where the retail Genesee Towne Centre now stands.
Construction of U.S. Highway 40 on the north side of Mt. Vernon in 1937 greatly improved access to the area. The first one-room Rockland school (1873) was taken out by the new highway and a new two-room Rockland school was built for 17 students in 1936. Telephones and electricity became common by World War II. It was a small and friendly mountain community where "everybody knew everybody" at the community Ralston Store.
After the war, developers filed new plats with larger lots for custom homes in Panorama Estates, Panorama Heights, Clear Creek Heights and Paradise Hills. Most Mt. Vernon Country Club cottages were expanded from two to twelve times original size.
Business on Lookout Mountain boomed — Wild Rose Lodge, Mt. Vernon Canyon Inn, Lookout Mountain Trading Post, Jack & Marie’s Cafe, Robin’s Nest, Thunderbird Inn, Brown’s Cabins, Cubby Hole Tavern, Flying Horse Inn and Chuck Wagon Cafe. The Lighted Lantern became a popular square dance place. Sam’s Cowhide Corners became "Sams," a wildly popular college student haunt during the 1960s (now the Crystal Rose event center).
In spite of disapproval of the "Tee Pees" curio shops (now Walmart, Amaco and MacDonalds), the most respected local business was El Rancho. Travelers continued west on Hwy 40, turned south to Bergen Park and Evergreen, or stopped to enjoy dinner, dancing and the hospitality of Paul and Donna McEncroe. The restaurant continues to thrive today.
Unmanaged growth thrives
The Ralston Elementary School was built for 100 students in 1955. The Genesee Grange, stagnant since the 1920s, moved into the second Rockland School building and again became a center of community activities. The second Rockland Church was built in 1960. Land for the new church and school was donated by the Ralston family who settled in the area in 1896.
Competitive mortgage rates were not available for mountain properties until Hiwan began to develop in Evergreen in 1960. There were 254 improved properties in Mt. Vernon Canyon in 1948. By 1968, there were more than 1,000.
Some of the 1890 Lookout Mountain resort land became Panorama Estates, a 63 home development, in 1954. It became known as the Beverly Hills of the foothills development. Then "Paradise Hills Ranch" was filed for 167 horse-owning families in 1963. The development stalled in 1975 until the Lookout Mountain Water District was formed in 1988. Some Cedar Lake area land became a resort for antenna owners (see Antenna Tower Struggle).
“Unmanaged growth” concerns prompted some residents of Mt. Vernon Country Club and Rilliet Park to preserve 2,000 acres by 1965. One resident, Carla Coleman, personally preserved over 600 acres managed by her Northwoodside Foundation land conservancy. Some of those same citizens became Jefferson County leaders for a 1/2-cent sales tax to develop an Open Space program in 1972. The voters approved the open space tax and and defeated a referendum to host the 1976 Winter Olympics. Also in 1972, the state legislature required counties to regulate subdivision land use.
A new town named “Genesee”
The mountain community, where more everybodies knew everybody, felt threatened with extinction in 1971 when land developers proposed "an entire town" covering 1889 acres for 2,324 residential units plus a commercial center. Genesee land investors expected to house 8,000 more residents in the area. Citizens had already fought to defeat proposals for a chemical plant near El Rancho and Denver prison next to the bison herd in Genesee Park. They lost a battle against a hotel operation that was not developed (today’s Riva Chase neighborhood).
County Commissioners listened to hours of testimony by members of the Hill and Dale Society (HADS), Mountain Area Planning Council (MAPS) and Protect Our Mountain Environment (POME) and denied the Genesee proposal. The land developers took their case to court hoping to overturn the denial. MAPS and HADS became "co-defendants" with the county. Genesee developers outraged citizens further by negotiating to bring the 1976 Winter Olympics to the historic Mt. Vernon Canyon ski jump.
The investors withdrew the law suit and proposed a revised plan, withdrew it and purchased more water rights. The third proposal was for 1,542 units and 360,000 square feet of commercial space on 2,040 acres for an estimated population of 4,000. Half of the land would be preserved as "open space."
The Genesee Master Plan was approved on January 3, 1973. HADS filed a civil action suit against the County Commissioners hoping to reverse the decision. Genesee land developers filed "SLAPP" suits against individual citizen members of HADS. Both parties withdrew their legal claims in January 1974.
More "drama" arrived with actors Woody Allen and Diane Keaton in May of 1974. The Hollywood film crew were attracted to Mt. Vernon Canyon’s most notable landmark, Charles Deaton’s “Sculptured House” on Genesee Ridge to shoot the film “Sleeper.”
Pressured by economic inflation and gasoline shortage caused by the oil embargo in 1976, the land investors sold their “Genesee Land Company” to Fidelity Mutual Life Insurance Company. Genesee Real Estate Company was formed to market new homes within the Master Plan. Fidelity sold filings to individual home building companies. When more than half the lots were sold in the largest residential area (750 homes) in 1979, Fidelity turned control over to the homeowner association. The Genesee Foundation was controlled by a resident-elected board of directors.
Genesee residents gradually partnered with their longer-time neighbors as diligent "environmental protectors" during the 1980s and 90s. The remaining lots on Lookout Mountain were filled by families who also care enough to do the necessary "homework," write letters and attend public hearings to influence elected representatives. Some outsiders judge this as "not in my backyard" (NIMBY) behavior. Others respect the active commitment of involved, intelligent citizens taking responsibility for the fragile, semi-arid mountain environment.
Visionary leadership among today’s population of 9,000 continues to care collectively through a non-profit, informal "Town Council" — Canyon Area Residents for the Environment (CARE). Everyone within the eclectic community treasures the legacy of preserved land by Denver, Jefferson County, Mt. Vernon Country Club, the Genesee Master Plan, Rilliet Park Association, Northwoodside Foundation and Clear Creek Land Conservancy.
In 1996, a private land owner prepared to develop 177-acres that includes a segment of the historic Beaver Brook Trail. Some community leaders wrote earnest checks to the landowner requesting a six-month delay for them to raise $700,000. JeffCo Open Space Advisory Committee agreed to acquire the land, which was part of the county’s long-term plan, on the condition that citizens raise $105,000 (15%) from within the community. With approval of the County Commissioners, and without media fanfare or merchant promotions, the Clear Creek Land Conservancy raised $105,000 within three months!
In 1998, 1999 and 2000, thousands of citizens from both sides of I-70 and the Greater Golden area researched, wrote letters, attended meetings, testified at public hearings and donated $1000s to defeat a proposal for a “supertower” of hundreds more antennas on Lookout Mountain and another tower on Mt. Morrison. The non-conforming use of historic Lookout land remains the area’s most dangerous problem. The visual and radiation pollution affects over 800 high altitude families and the Ralston Elementary School. Businesses within five miles suffer from severe radio frequency interference.
Local residents and business owners treasure living with wildlife, watching constant weather changes from the Continental Divide to the Denver metro area, from their serene natural environment. The diverse mix of joggers and cyclists, horseback riders and artists, home-office entrepreneurs and Denver business executives all agree: the preservation of 8,000 pristine acres within the area is the greatest treasure on earth!
For more historical perspective, see Public Attractions, Neighborhoods, Legacy of the Lariat Trail, and Antenna Tower Struggle.