Morrison is a small tourist-oriented town of restaurants and antique shops located along Bear Creek in the valley south of Red Rocks, about fifteen miles southwest of Denver. Established in 1872, the town relied on George Morrison’s quarrying industry in its early years but gradually shifted to a tourist economy by the twentieth century, when John Brisben Walker operated a hotel and developed attractions at Red Rocks. The town’s location between the hogbacks and the foothills largely protected it from being absorbed by Denver’s suburban sprawl in the late twentieth century. In 1976 Morrison was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Early Years: George Morrison and John Evans
Before the Colorado Gold Rush of 1858–59 brought white settlers to the area, the hogback valley along the Front Range near what is now Denver was a favored campsite for Native American groups stretching back thousands of years. Evidence from nearby archaeological sites such as LoDaisKa, Magic Mountain, and Ken-Caryl South Valley suggests that the area was used at least as early as 6000 BCE, and Indians continued to camp, fish, and hunt in the valley until whites displaced them in the nineteenth century.
In 1859 Morrison founder George Morrison came to Colorado in the gold rush. He tried his luck in Idaho Springs for two months before falling back on his previous experience in construction and stone masonry. In 1860 he moved to Mount Vernon—a town then located just north of Red Rocks—and built a stone house that he operated for a few years as a hotel. In 1864 he acquired 320 acres near Bear Creek, about three miles south of Mount Vernon, where he had discovered rich deposits of building materials such as sandstone, lime, and gypsum.
In 1872 Morrison and a group of investors, including former Colorado Territorial governor John Evans and railroad developer David Moffat, incorporated the Morrison Stone, Lime and Town Company. The plan was to establish a town along Bear Creek on land that Morrison sold to the company. The town would have Morrison’s quarries as an industrial base and would also be developed for tourism to take advantage of its picturesque location. Evans and Moffat also planned to route their narrow-gauge Denver, South Park & Pacific Railroad through Morrison on its way to mountain mining camps. The railroad would have plenty of freight thanks to Morrison’s quarries, and it could also quickly transport tourists to the town from Denver.
The town of Morrison started to take shape over the next two years. In 1873 George Morrison built a stately three-story sandstone residence for himself; after his death in 1895, it was turned into the Cliff House, a hotel known for its good food and Sunday concerts. The year after building his own house, Morrison also completed a high-class sandstone hotel that Evans hired him to build. Called the Swiss Cottage, the hotel featured forty-two rooms and a dancing pavilion. Located on high ground south of Bear Creek, it boasted great views of Mt. Morrison and the area’s large red rock formations.
In 1874 the Denver, South Park & Pacific Railroad arrived to haul out construction materials and bring in tourists. Morrison ended up being on a spur line rather than the main line after engineers decided that the railroad should go up Platte Canyon instead of Bear Creek Canyon, but the railroad was still crucial to the town’s success. By 1880 the town had grown to about 500 people, most of whom lived on side streets branching off from the main street of commercial buildings parallel to Bear Creek. It had five quarries for sandstone, limestone, and gypsum, as well as two kilns and a brick factory. All these construction materials could be shipped to Denver on the railroad, and Morrison also linked farms and ranches in the mountains to markets on the plains. Tourists could pay sixty cents round-trip for an express train that took about forty-five minutes from Denver.
John Brisben Walker’s Tourist Town
In the final decades of the nineteenth century, Morrison’s founders died or moved on. The Swiss Cottage originally owned by Evans became the Hotel Evergreen, and in 1884 Bishop Joseph Machebeuf bought the building for use as the home of Sacred Heart College. The Jesuit college lasted only a few years in Morrison, however, because students wanted to be closer to Denver. In 1887 entrepreneur John Brisben Walker, who had fallen in love with the Morrison area, acquired the old hotel building and gave the college forty acres of an alfalfa farm he operated northwest of Denver. The Jesuits developed that farmland into today’s Regis University.
After Walker acquired the old hotel in Morrison, he expanded and updated the building into a high-class resort known as the Mt. Morrison Casino. Over the years the hotel played host to a parade of famous visitors, including Theodore Roosevelt, Warren G. Harding, Herbert Hoover, and Lawrence Welk. Walker lived at the hotel with his family and ultimately acquired roughly 4,000 acres in the Morrison area, including Mt. Falcon, Mt. Morrison, and Red Rocks (known as Garden of the Titans at the time). In the early twentieth century he began to actively develop his properties for tourism. In 1906 he established a pavilion for concerts at Red Rocks, and in 1908 he opened an incline railway from Red Rocks to the summit of Mt. Morrison. Tourists could take the train from Denver to Morrison and rent a burro or buggy to get to Red Rocks, where they could enjoy an afternoon concert or pay seventy-five cents to ride the incline railway up Mt. Morrison.
Meanwhile, Walker built his family a large stone mansion near the summit of Mt. Falcon and also started raising money for a Summer White House on the mountain, where he hoped future presidents would spend their vacations. But the start of World War I, the death of Walker’s wife in 1916, and the burning of Walker’s mansion in 1918 derailed his dreams. In addition, the incline railway up Mt. Morrison became less popular as roads like the Lariat Loop (which came through Morrison) were completed and automobile tourism became more popular.
Walker’s own fortunes declined, and in 1924 he offered to sell Red Rocks to the city of Denver. The city declined at the time but eventually acquired the property in 1929. Around the same time, Frank Kirchoff bought some of Walker’s other Morrison-area properties, including the Mt. Morrison Casino. Kirchoff renamed the hotel the Hillcrest Inn and catered to eastern tourists. By World War II, however, the railroad to Morrison had been removed, and new highways were allowing towns deeper in the mountains to draw tourists away from foothills towns like Morrison. In 1943 Kirchoff gave the Hillcrest Inn to the Poor Sisters of St. Francis, who used it as a retreat house and an old folks home for about a decade. The inn stood vacant for five years before being acquired by the Mt. Morrison Investment Company in 1957 and turned into the Pine Haven Nursing Home.
After World War II, Morrison ceased to be a tourist destination in the way that it had been in the early twentieth century. With the opening of Interstate 70 to the north and US 285 to the south, by the 1970s it was no longer on any main routes to the mountains. The town also largely lost its role as a producer of construction materials, although Aggregate Industries continues to operate a quarry about a mile south of town. Morrison settled into life as a somewhat sleepy residential town, with antique stores and restaurants in the historic brick and stone commercial buildings along the town’s main street. It has a population of about 500.
The biggest threat to the town’s historic character and setting came from the rapid development of the Denver metropolitan area in the late twentieth century. Whereas Morrison was once separated from Denver by miles of farms and ranches, today suburban developments are within minutes of the town. In the 1960s and 1970s, Morrison itself added some new ranch-style houses just southwest of the town’s historic core, but the hogbacks have largely shielded the town from Denver’s growth. Future developments planned on Morrison land in Rooney Valley, just east of the hogbacks, will bring more traffic but also more residents and a larger tax base.
Today, most Colorado residents know Morrison as the home of Bandimere Speedway, a dragstrip that opened just east of the hogbacks in 1958, and Red Rocks Amphitheatre, the famed concert venue that the city of Denver opened in 1941. In 2015 Red Rocks Amphitheatre and the related Mount Morrison Civilian Conservation Corps camp just west of Morrison were named a National Historic Landmark. Visitors also come to the Morrison Natural History Museum and nearby Dinosaur Ridge to learn about the many important dinosaur fossils and footprints that have been discovered in the area since the late 1870s.