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Historic Jeffco: Lariat Trail

The Amazing Legacy of the Lariat Trail

One of the most admired engineering feats of the world is a switchback road that rises from Golden to Lookout Mountain. The Lariat Trail, now known as Lookout Mountain Road, begins west of 6th Avenue at 19th Street in Golden. It zig-zags for 4.6 road miles, rising 2,000 feet to Buffalo Bill’s Grave and Museum. The scenic drive has 56 perfectly-banked curves, including seven hair-pins!

 

An early photo of the Lariat Trail

 

Denver placed the road on the National Register of Historic Places as part of their Mountain Park system developed from 1912 to the 1930s. But, according to Georgina Brown in her book The Shining Mountains, the Lariat Trail became a reality from William “Cement Bill” William’s vision, tenacity, brawn, and brains.

 

Topographic map of the Golden and Lookout Mountain area. (Lariat Trail marked in red)

 

Denver placed the road on the National Register of Historic Places as part of their Mountain Park system developed from 1912 to the 1930s. But, according to Georgina Brown in her book The Shining Mountains, the Lariat Trail became a reality from William "Cement Bill" William’s vision, tenacity, brawn, and brains.

 

 

Brown claims that "no" meant "go" to Cement Bill. She portrays him as "hard boiled and obdurate as they come. If he hadn’t been, the Lariat Trail would never have been built" He stuck to his guns knowing it was the most scenic route possible and that time would bear him out."

 

Bill moved to Golden from Deadwood, South Dakota in 1901 and became a successful cement contractor of bridges, sidewalks, and reservoirs.

 

When he heard that Denver nature lovers and businessmen might develop a tax-supported mountain park system in Jefferson County, Bill began to plan. He wanted to make sure Golden would not be bypassed for a road up the steep rise of Mt. Vernon Canyon (now I-70 foothills). His dogged determination built the Lariat from 1910 to 1914.

 

Using his own savings, Bill surveyed Mount Zion and Lookout Mountain in 1910 and hacked out a two-foot wide switchback trail up to Windy Point in 1911. His stamina and perseverance must have been impressive because Adolph Coors contributed $1,000 and Charles Boettcher donated materials from his Portland Cement Company. Other firms donated tools, a ditcher, and pipeline.

 

Denver leaders of the Chamber of Commerce, Real Estate Exchange and Motor Club preferred Bill’s vision over the constant wash-outs the historic Mt. Vernon Canyon dirt road. They believed Bill’s scenic drive to the mountain park system would attract tourists. A trip to Colorado would compete well with a more expensive and time-consuming trip to Switzerland!

 

Lariat Road used by Denver to promote Mountain Park System.

(Photo courtesy of Denver Mountain Park)

 

The Denver businessmen helped Bill convince the State Highway Commission, Jefferson County, and city officials to finance the “scenic” route. Some leaders had shared a mountain park vision in 1890 with Frederick Law Olmsted who was hired to plan a 2389-acre "City on the Hill" for the Denver and Lookout Mountain Resort.

 

Investors H.A.W. Tabor and Colonel A.C. Fisk tauted the resort as “Denver’s greatest future attraction.” Olmsted, designer of New York City’s Central Park and founder of the national "city beautiful movement," could have planted the seed for the mountain park system in the minds of Colorado business leaders. The resort was not built. After Olmsted died, his son was hired by Denver in 1911 to plan the system.

 

By the time Frederick Olmsted, Jr. came to Denver, British real estate developer Rees Vidler had taken control of the 2380 Lookout acres and hustled investors to finance his plan to resurrect the resort—hotel, summer cabins, golf course, ball park, dance pavilion, and fishing lake (Olmsted’s Cedar Lake Reservoir, built in 1895).

 

Vidler’s track for an open cable car rail "funicular" began lifting visitors from Golden to his real estate office at the east summit of Lookout in 1912 when Denver voters approved a one-half mill tax to finance the mountain park system. Denver's first acquisition was Genesee Park.

 

Just when Cement Bill ran out of money (legend says he spent $9,000 of his own savings), Colorado provided $15,000, and Jefferson County and Denver commited to contribute $7,500 each. Bill supervised crews of 70-100 men during 1913 until completion in 1914. Laborers were paid $2 a day and were advised when hired of “good sleeping quarters and food for $5.25 a week, pure mountain water, and sanitation.”

 

Cement Bill and his crews build the road with brain and braun.

 

There are many legends of danger and heroism during the construction. A huge snow storm on December 6, 1913, trapped 34 horses and a construction crew of 16 men on Lookout Mountain. It took 13 hours for them to hand-shovel through drifts as high as 15-feet to get back down to Golden. Their only mishap was when a horse fell off the road edge and tumbled two hundred yards down into a snow bank. The horse was dug out and had no injuries.

 

All governments had paid Bill except Denver, which still owed him $2,500. Bill put up a road blockade at the Golden entrance in May, 1914. He allowed all travelers to pass through except those with Denver license plates until the city finally cut him a check.

 

Rees Vidler wisely gave 58 acres to the Denver Park Commission that endorsed Cement Bill’s plan for the Lariat Trail which Cement Bill completed in 1914. Vidler’s resort never materialized but the park system became a roaring success. Denver purchased Lookout Mountain Park for Buffalo Bill Cody’s final resting place in 1917. The funeral procession of 20,000 mourners walking, riding horseback and driving motor vehicles moved slowly up the Lariat Trail.

 

An estimated 25,000 people drove, walked, or rode horses up the Lariat Trail to attend "Buffalo Bill" Cody's funeral , June 3, 1917.

 

Denver featured the scenic Lariat Trail on the cover of brochures for tourists. The mountain parks were promoted as having "first class road system with access to the best mountain scenery"" offering two approaches from Denver" up the Lariat Trail from Golden to the top of Lookout, looping past Genesee, Fillius, and Bergen Parks, moving south to Evergreen and east along Bear Creek Canyon to Morrison, then north past Red Rocks Park back to Golden.

 

An early "sod-roof" shelter along the Lariat Trail.

 

The "Lariat Loop" was designed "in conjunction with resting places, picnic areas, camp grounds, shelters, hotels, and other facilities." Denver brought seven of the remaining Yellowstone bison to Genesee Park in 1914. According to Denver Municipal Facts, the mountain park loop was so successful that 116,292 cars passed through it in 1918. It was so congested with weekend city visitors and tourists by 1921 that Denver expanded the system to Mt. Evans and south into Douglas County. Pipes from Cedar Lake supplied spring water for people, horse and motor vehicle consumption. The Pahaska Tepee (at Buffalo Bill’s grave), Chief Hosa and Echo Lake lodges, and the Genesee elk and buffalo preserve were built to distract motorists and reduce traffic congestion.

 

This Lookout Mountain Park Shelter continues to be widely used today.

 

Cement Bill was a living legend long before he died in 1945. Beyond the Lariat Trail, he built Lookout Mountain Road and what became U.S. Highway 40 through Floyd Hill all the way to Idaho Springs. He "improved" Golden’s water works system from the Beaver Brook Watershed to cross Lookout. He encased Buffalo Bill Cody’s casket in cement to prevent the body from being stolen. In addition to $15,000, the state legislature granted Bill $6,350 to reimburse his personal expenses in 1919.

 

A 1976 Lookout Mountain Newsletter included a story about Cement Bill who" "was a big, rough, tough fellow, walked at a fast clip, hands clasped behind his back, and always wore a little white canvas cap perched on the top of his head. His most notable and lasting work was the planning, designing, and building of the Lariat Trail" Some say he also built a cement house in Cody Park and replaced the oak-barrel pipeline from Beaver Brook to the Lookout reservoir with steel pipe."

 

The Lariat Trail’s design, including the original pull-outs and rest areas, has not been altered except for paving and widening.

 

Some of the original stone guardrails, installed along the steep drop-offs, were built to allow space for viewing and drainage. Jefferson County maintains the road and added metal guardrails to improve safety in 1996.

 

The large stone gateway constructed in 1917 still marks the entrance to the Lariat in Golden.

 

(All historic photos courtesy of Golden Pioneer Museum
unless otherwise noted.)

The electrically illuminated letter “M,” installed by Colorado School of Mines students in the 1920s, still lights the night above the road. The Lariat is a favorite for hang gliders, runners, cyclists, tourists and locals. Apple trees, that grew from discarded cores long ago, bloomed again this spring.

 

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