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Did a Hoax and Two Liars Found Denver?

It’s a hoax!

That’s what early settlers who visited Colorado for the gold rush were saying.

Turn back!

Gold prospectors shouted Colorado’s Gold Rush was the hoax of ‘59. In 1859 Denver wasn’t much more than tumbleweeds and barren land and people looking to make their fortunes by finding gold in the hills. Many who came, died or left disappointed and only a few realized that early American Dream.

However, the so-called hoax helped create many cities now part of Colorado. And, the two people accused of being the liars perpetuating the hoax were D.C. Oakes and William Newton Byers who went on to be founding pioneers of the Denver area.

The Pikes Peak Gold Rush

Traces of gold in Colorado’s South Platte River in the summer of 1858 is what really sparked the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush. Today, this area is mostly industrial, with railroad tracks, roads and warehouses near Denver’s Alameda Avenue bridge.

But, by 1862, Colorado was producing $4 million dollars worth of gold annually. In 1865 that number dropped to 3 million and by 1866 dropped another million. 1867 marked an end to Colorado’s gold rush. The true hoax was that early gold rushers were heading to Pikes Peak- where there was no gold. Instead the gold was found 100 miles away in the mining towns west of Golden and in the Denver area.

D.C. Oates was an early gold prospector around 1849 in California. Gold prospectors who didn’t hit it rich there, began heading east again, through the Denver area to try their luck again. When again they didn’t find gold, many of them created graves to mock D.C. Oakes with headstones that read:

“Here lies the bones of D.C. Oakes, Killed for aiding the Pike’s Peak Hoax”

The “Hoax of Fifty-Nine” wasn’t just blamed on him, however. William Newton Byers, the founder of Colorado’s first newspaper also came under attack. In April 1859, he printed a letter that included a death threat for his life, luckily that threat never came to fruition. Byers has had several Denver area locations named after him and he is buried in Denver’s Fairmount Cemetery. Daniel Cheeseman Oakes has a memorial at Riverside Cemetery in Denver.

Gold Prospecting in 1859

Imagine for a moment why these first settlers would have gone through, and why they may have been so upset as to create mock headstones for Oakes and submit death threats to Byers’ Rocky Mountain News. What would it have been like in that time?

Imagine yourself a young man, likely one who did farming in the plains… you pick up a newspaper to read reports of gold in the West. California had their big boom in 1849 and you have heard accounts and stories, and now, maybe now is your time to find a fortune in Colorado.

With a mix of skepticism and excitement, you get your guidemap to the Pikes Peak region, maybe even D.C. Oakes’ “Pike’s Peak Guide and Journal” and plan your trip. You prepare all you can for the long journey, including cattle, food, water, camping gear, cooking supplies.

You leave your home and family, hoping to return with wealth, but more likely to not return at all due to illness or murder. You camp alongside rivers, wondering where you will encounter a city for any needs including hay for your horse. Finding timber is difficult and without it, food and water become poison rather than nourishment.

At a pace of about 20 miles a day, you lose cattle overnight, pass buried bodies on your route, some of them unearthed by coyotes or wolves. You fear gunfire, trek through rough terrain and fight the weather. You pass Indians and sometimes trade with them, and fear all who you meet, some who tell you disheartening stories and tell you to turn back.

You get to the land you dreamed of and can’t find gold, or work. You are homesick, lonely, disheartened, wondering if you will find what you need. You have a fear of going home empty handed and worry if you could even make the trip back alive. You are riding the line between despair and hope each day. You write in your journal something like this prospector did:

From the Journal of a Gold Seeker: (edited for readability)

“SATURDAY 14TH  Here we are camped on Cottonwood crick. It has rained hard and steadily all day. Our cattle all look poorly, the sick ones are better. We shall stay here today and tomorrow, it being 40 miles to wood and 18 miles to water. There is 6 or 700 camped on this crick. There is Buffalo and Deer and Elk and Antelope here.

“MONDAY JULY 4TH, 1859  This is the 4th of July. Have been at work on our race all day. Little does it seem like the 4th.

7/20/1859: “Smith Rube and McShaw have gone prospecting and I am here alone. I have been reading and meditating. I love to be left alone sometimes to commune with silent nature, which is beautiful here. Tall and rocky mountains surround our camp on every side and a rapid river comes rushing down over the rocks in a few steps of our door. I frequently see deer and sheep pass along the side of the mountain.”

You curse D.C. Oakes for his guidebook because you certainly didn’t find anything. You decide to either head back as a “go-backer” or stay in the beauty of Denver.

Therefore, it may be true that the hoax of ‘59 was the catalyst for the development and growth of present day Denver. But, Oakes and Byers weren’t liars. And while many didn’t hit it rich through gold prospecting, they may have made their fortunes in ranching, banking and businesses who offered services to those prospectors and their families. Byers was a huge proponent for the growth of Denver and even ran, unsuccessfully for political office.

These early founders built a rich history and their pioneering stories end many times at Fairmount Cemetery. Come by and tour our grounds, or connect with the Fairmount Heritage Foundation to learn more about the history that lives at Fairmount.

Buried at Fairmount Cemetery: William Newton Byers

William Newton Byers (February 22, 1831 – March 25, 1903)

Byers was born in Ohio in February 1831, moved with his parents in 1851 to Iowa and settled in Omaha, NE in 1854. At the early age of 24, Byers became the first deputy surveyor and helped create the first plans of the layout of Omaha in the Nebraska Territory. He served in a few political seats before heading to Denver in 1859 to find gold. His idea of gold may have been different than others, however, as he took with him, via an ox cart, a printing press and the first stories and page layout ready for the newspaper he already titled, “The Rocky Mountain News”. He based his writing on the stories he had heard of the gold towns and he knew newspapers would attract people to the area, bringing money and business.

Denver may not have been what Byers had envisioned from what he read in the newspapers, but he was determined to create a local paper, and did so within days of arriving in Denver and strategically days before his competitor, therefore staking his journalistic claim. Although Byers sold it in 1878, The Rocky Mountain News continued publication until 2009.

Byers And the Denver Tramway Company

William Byers helped organize the Colorado Historical Society, Chamber of Commerce and the Denver Tramway Company. The Denver Tramway Company was a system of electric car transportation that eventually handled transportation to Fairmount Cemetery where he is now buried.

“In 1886, John Evans and his son William Gray Evans incorporated the Denver Tramway Company (DTC) with William Byers, hotel keeper Henry C. Brown and businessman and library builder Roger Woodbury… The Denver Tramway Company became one of Denver’s biggest employers and an essential part of many people’s lives. Most, lacking horse and carriages, took streetcars to work, to shop and to play. Special tramway cars were rented out for weddings and honeymoons, while Funeral Cars A and B took many Denverites on their final rides—to Riverside and Fairmount Cemeteries.” SOURCE: Denver History

The would be political career of William Byers

William Byers had become very popular due to his efforts in the growth of Denver, his fight against crime in the city and The Rocky Mountain News. He was seen as a strong contender for Governor of Colorado in the first year of their statehood. However, his run was short lived when his mistress, Hattie Sancomb attempted to kill him, creating a political sex scandal. His wife Elizabeth stayed by his side and they moved to south Denver. Their home, currently named the Byers-Evans House, at 1330 Bannock in Denver, is now a historical museum. The home was purchased in 1889 by William Evans, the President of the Denver Tramway Company and restored to the 1920’s period and turned into a museum in 1981.

William Newton Byers Legacy

Byers was a leader in bringing pioneers into the Denver area. He cared about Denver’s water, food, transportation, growth. His south Denver home was torn down to create the William N Byers Junior High School in 1921, which features many trees planted by the Byers’ family. William became the Postmaster of Denver in 1880, and passed away on March 25, 1903.

Visit the graves of William Byers as well as several other Colorado Pioneers at Fairmount Cemetery. Join one of our many walking tours, or just come by this beautiful, living, historic Colorado landmark. Tour our grounds to learn more about Denver’s history and how Fairmount Cemetery is a part of it. While here, schedule time to talk to one of our staff about pre-arrangements and events.

Ornate Headstones to see at Fairmount Cemetery

Founded in 1890, Fairmount Cemetery is home to some of Denver’s most prominent families, founders and influential residents.

We offer several walking tours as well as guided tours that tell the stories of the vast richness of Denver’s history and we invite you to come along. One tour we have is a walking tour of some of our most ornate headstones. Headstone rubbings and photographs have long been used to discover ancestral connections and to capture the beauty of headstones through the years, and you are welcome to do that, following our guidelines.

In Block 1 of Fairmount Cemetery

You will find a headstone with the last name Darrin. Mass produced hollow metal monuments were produced in Des Moines, Iowa by the Western White-Bronze Co. from about 1880 to 1908. Zinc is naturally rust-proof, and its oxidation gives a gray appearance. The zinc was deceptively referred to as white-bronze as it sounded more classy and expensive. The monuments lost their appeal when they began to be seen as cheap and when the Western White-Bronze Company closed in 1908.

Find the Shapter Family’s Romanesque altar monument in Block 2. The design mimics that of the medieval era, including the sarcophagi commonly found in English cathedrals. A cluster of oak leaves with acorns can be found to the right of the inscription and are meant to be a symbol of strength and endurance. To the left, sorrow is symbolized by weeping willow tree leaves.

Block 5

Holds an example of an altar-like headstone of Reed. A Bible lies atop the monument with a carved scroll beneath it. Reed was a well-known minister, teacher, and lawyer during his lifetime.

Williams, in Block 8, displays a Victorian verse intricately carved on the back of the white marble monument. Blue bells wrapped with Gothic curves is a symbol of sorrow over the loss of this infant.

The art deco memorial Klipfel in Block 9 uses Egyptian design.The relief is contrasted with a domed top, polished for color. The lotus bud molding gives, even more, design to this ornate piece.

The Woodmen of the World memorial for Schaefer in Block 12 is a beautiful example of workmanship and artistry. The carver was able to create architectural perspective on the flat granite, including detail in the wood flooring, window, and siding. Note the Roman egg-and-dart molding below the memorial’s cap.

Block 46

Is a bit out of the way, but there you will find the marker for Hooper. This beautifully carved monument is of a 1st Colorado Infantry serviceman’s hat resting on his backpack.

Block 17 is home of the Smith memorial.Made of Sandstone, the obelisk and plinth weathered greatly through the years of Colorado weather. White marble withstands our harsh weather better and can be found in the inscription panels.

Walking through the Fairmount Cemetery, you will see many ornate headstones. Take a moment to look at the dates and you will soon realize that many of these were crafted before headstone machining existed, meaning the work was carved by hand using chisels, files, and brushes. This can add even more appreciation and intrigue to the beauty of these headstones and the history and artistry they entail.

History lives at Fairmount Cemetery and we invite you to become part of what we continue to create. Tour our grounds to learn more about whatever piece of history interests you, enjoy the tranquility or celebrate in one of our many venues.

The Trees of Fairmount

Arboretum

Around 1860, Denver was described as “one continued plain, parched”, with “a little of miserable quality” grass and sand as “pure as Sahara can boast”, by travelers Horace Greeley and Colonel AK McClure.

When Fairmount Cemetery opened in 1891, landscape architect Reinhard Schuetze brought in thousands of plantings. He later went on to create more parks for the city of Denver’s City Beautiful Movement in that decade, including City, Congress and Washington Parks and became known as the father of Denver’s park system.

Fairmount Cemetery is now considered Denver’s largest arboretum, with over 20 varieties of trees covering its 280 acres of land. Here are just a few you can see on the Trail of Trees walking tour:

American Elm Tree in Fairmount Arboretum

Elm groves were favorite council sites for many Indian tribes and later became meeting places for treaty talks between Indians and whites. Early settlers often spared elms when they cut down all other trees. Elms outnumber white oak and live oak (its two closest rivals) two to one. Over one million American Elm trees succumb to Dutch Elm Disease annually, and in Denver, where is was heavily planted, the disease has left areas barren.

Most American Elm has lopsided, oblong leaves with coarse, double-toothed margins. Winter buds are lopsided, reddish-brown and sharply pointed. The American Elm has a vase shaped with upper branches that tend to arch. It is typically found in Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, but is across the US.
Sycamore Tree in Fairmount Arboretum

Sycamore Tree in Fairmount Arboretum

On the corner of Block 9 and also in Block 8, you will find a large Sycamore tree. From the Greek word meaning ‘broad’ or ‘ample,’ the Sycamore tree grows to enormous size in rich soils. Pioneers favored this tree as it was stable and large and, therefore, was good for stabling livestock to it, or even as a temporary shelter for the family themselves. It is easily recognized by the mottled brown, white or green flaky bark and large leaves that resemble those of the Maple. However, the Maple tree leaves are borne in opposing pairs where the Sycamore leaves alternate on the stem.

The Sycamore tree can be found in the eastern US and Denver’s Highland Park at 32nd and Federal.
English Oak Tree in Fairmount Arboretum

English Oak Tree in Fairmount Arboretum

On the northwest corner of block 5, you will find two English Oak Trees. Their trunks reveal scars- pronounced frost cracks from the winter of 1948/49 when the winter temperature in Denver dropped 80 degrees in a 24 hour period. This species is considered the symbol of Fairmount Cemetery as there are many examples of the English Oak here, many of them the largest this side of the Mississippi River.
Ther small shallowly-lobed foliage with short stalks and leathery feel with dark brown bark is what distinguishes this tree from others. This tree is known for its strength, holding up to the weight of snow and frequently used in British fighting vessels.

It is found heavily in England and locally at South High School in Denver.

Come to Fairmount Cemetery to see these and several other species of trees, shrubs, and even our collection of Heritage Roses. While here, learn more about the famous Denverites buried here and the stories that live with them. Give us a call or come by to arrange a tour, or take the self-guided walking tours at (303) 399-0692.