Located at 1000 Osage Street, just south of Lincoln Park, the Buckhorn Exchange is Denver’s oldest operating restaurant. Established by Henry H. Zietz in 1893, the restaurant has occupied the same building for more than 120 years and is known for its interior stuffed with Western memorabilia and mounted animal heads. Now owned by an investment group called Buckhorn Associates, it remains a popular spot for steak and game meats as well as a reminder of Denver’s past.
Henry Zietz came to Colorado from Wisconsin in 1875, when he was just ten years old. He became a ranch hand and scout before shifting in the 1880s to the mining business and finding work with Horace Tabor.
After the Panic of 1893, which devastated Colorado’s mining industry, Zietz used $5,000 in savings to open a saloon and restaurant in Denver. For a location he chose a two-story brick commercial building that had been constructed in 1886 at 1000 Osage Street, across the street from the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad yard. He installed a white oak bar, supposedly brought from Germany by the Zietz family, and opened the Zietz Buckhorn Exchange on November 17, 1893. Railroad workers could walk across the street to cash their checks and buy lunch and a drink.
Zietz’s reputation as a scout and hunter—he knew William “Buffalo Bill” Cody and reportedly received the nickname “Shorty Scout” from Lakota leader Sitting Bull—helped draw business to the Buckhorn Exchange. It also helped decorate the building, whose walls filled over the years with hundreds of mounted heads (all shot by Zietz and his son, Henry Zietz Jr., according to Zietz Jr.) as well as firearms and photos of celebrities.
When Colorado banned the sale of alcohol in 1916, the Buckhorn Exchange stopped its saloon business and started a grocery. After Prohibition ended in 1933, the Buckhorn Exchange reopened its bar with Colorado Liquor License No. 1.
Changes in Ownership
Henry Zietz Jr. took over the Buckhorn Exchange after his father died in 1949. He ran the restaurant until the late 1970s, when poor health forced him to sell it. It was acquired in 1978 by a group of investors that called themselves Buckhorn Associates. Headed by Roi Davis and Steve Knowlton, they moved the bar upstairs and added game meats such as elk and buffalo to the menu. Otherwise they kept the building and restaurant mostly the same. In 1983 the Buckhorn Exchange was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
A century after it opened across the street from the railroad yard, the Buckhorn Exchange’s proximity to rail lines continued to shape the neighborhood. In 1994 the Regional Transportation District’s Tenth & Osage Light Rail Station opened across the street. Fifteen years later, the Denver Housing Authority tore down the two-story South Lincoln Homes near the station, which were constructed adjacent to the Buckhorn Exchange in the 1960s, and planned a dense transit-oriented development called Mariposa in their place. A mix of public housing and middle-income and market-rate apartments, Mariposa held its grand opening in 2013 and will have 800 units when the project is completed in 2018.
In early 2016, Union Pacific closed its Burnham Shops repair yard. The yard was the descendant of the Denver & Rio Grande Western yard that operated across from the Buckhorn Exchange in 1893. Various owners had operated the Burnham yard since the 1870s. Its closure marked the end of an era, but the planned sale of its seventy-acre lot promised to bring more new construction to the area. In the midst of rapid change and redevelopment, the Buckhorn Exchange remained one of the few visual (and gustatory) reminders of late nineteenth-century Denver.