Riverside Cemetery was established along the South Platte River in 1876, making it the oldest surviving cemetery in Denver. It is the final resting place for many prominent early Coloradans, including John Evans, Augusta Tabor, Miguel Otero, and Barney Ford. The seventy-seven-acre cemetery was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1994.
Denver’s first cemetery was located in what is now Cheesman Park. It was poorly maintained, with weeds and vermin crawling throughout. By the 1870s, locals wanted a more idyllic landscape where they could lay their loved ones to rest. In early 1876, John H. Morrison organized a meeting to propose a new, better-maintained cemetery outside the city. The group incorporated the Riverside Cemetery Association on April 1 and bought 160 acres for it from Morrison’s original homestead near the bank of the South Platte River about four miles northeast of downtown. The first burial at Riverside was Henry H. Walton on June 1.
The landscape of Riverside Cemetery was roughly modeled after Mt. Auburn Cemetery near Boston. The first garden cemetery in the United States, Mt. Auburn featured gravestones set in a parklike setting rather than in a burial ground beside a church. It represented the beauty and serenity that wealthy locals wanted in their final resting place.
Like Mt. Auburn, Riverside was a planned cemetery with family plots and interwoven paths lined with bushes and flowers. Landscape engineer Harvey C. Lowrie oversaw the project. He created a central rose garden and planted trees and native grasses to create the western paradise he envisioned. The lush landscaping, proximity to the South Platte River, and views of the Rocky Mountains made it a sought-after place to be buried. In 1901 historian Jerome Smiley described the cemetery as “a most beautiful city of the dead, adorned with shrubbery and lawns and costly monuments, so that one feels in the midst of it all, that rivers of human love and devotion flow up and down all its walks and drives.” Very few of the original trees remain, but the pathways have been maintained.
The first headstones in Riverside were made of elegant carved wood. They have since disintegrated. The headstones that now mark the graves are made primarily of local limestone, sandstone, or zinc. They often feature mementos to the lost loved one, including life-size horse statues like the one atop Addison Baker’s gravesite. The mementos, statues, and carvings were intended to be elaborate and showy, almost in a competition with other headstones in the cemetery. Opulent graves or mausoleums were a way of showing one’s status and accomplishments. Zinc, in particular, allowed early patrons of Riverside to project their wealth beyond the grave because it is a delicate material that requires expensive upkeep. Local preservation organizations believe Riverside’s zinc headstones may constitute the largest collection of all-zinc statues in North America. Over time, however, few of the zinc headstones have been adequately maintained.
The cemetery features a few buildings that are still standing. The Old Stone House, as it is known by staff, is a mysterious limestone dwelling on the property. It is unclear if it was originally built for the purposes of the cemetery, but it was used in the late nineteenth century as a secondary office and holding site for burials. It has been boarded up since 1904. By that time, the Fairmount Cemetery Company had purchased Riverside. Fairmount hired prominent local architect Frank Edbrooke to design an office and chapel space on the grounds, which was completed in May 1904.
Riverside is home to a diverse group of people. There are influential early Coloradans such as territorial governors John Evans and John Long Routt. The grounds are also home to businesswomen such as Augusta Tabor and activists such as Sadie Likens (the first prison matron in Colorado). The cemetery accepted different groups for burial before other cemeteries around the state. Riverside is home to prominent Asian Americans, Latino, and African Americans, including New Mexico politician Miguel Otero, freed people Barney Ford and Clara Brown, and suffragist Elizabeth Ensley.
Riverside is also known for its graves for Civil War veterans. More than 1,000 Civil War veterans are buried at Riverside, many of them unidentified. The known veterans include Silas Soule, the cavalry captain famous for disobeying General John Chivington’s order to attack a camp of peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho at Sand Creek in 1864.
Riverside Cemetery was founded by a like-minded group of locals, not an endowment, institution, or government. This origin meant that few looked after the cemetery’s interests after its founding families passed on or moved away. By the 1890s, Riverside was starting to lose its status to the new Fairmount Cemetery on the southeast side of Denver.
In 1900 the Fairmount Cemetery Company purchased Riverside to save it from financial demise. Riverside was reduced from its original 160 acres to 77. Many families, who knew how much status meant to their loved ones, exhumed their relatives and moved them to Fairmount. The families who remained at Riverside were faced with deteriorating graves because the upkeep contributions had been paid in advance, and $8 per year paid in the 1880s could not cover steadily increasing actual costs. In June 1904, Riverside became the first local cemetery to have a crematory. This service brought a brief resurgence of business before several other crematories opened in Denver by 1906.
Riverside’s decline steepened after World War I. It fell victim to industrialization along the river north of Denver. The cemetery became surrounded by refineries and railroad tracks. Its view of the mountains was obstructed, and weeds crept into the paths. Moreover, the cemetery’s water rights, established in the 1890s through a gentlemen’s agreement, were revoked in the 1970s. The Fairmount Cemetery Company, which still owned Riverside, lost a court battle with the new water owners in the 1970s, then lost an appeal against Denver Water in 1981. The cemetery struggled to keep up its landscaping and faced property-line disputes involving graves close to the riverbank. Annual burials declined until Riverside stopped burials entirely in 2005.
Riverside Cemetery’s recent history has pitted preservationists against developers. Developers have been eyeing the cemetery since the 1990s, sometimes spreading false rumors that it was abandoned. These rumors caused the Fairmount Cemetery Company to focus more attention on upkeep and public awareness of Riverside. In 1994 the cemetery was listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The Fairmount Heritage Foundation, founded in 2003, and Friends of Riverside Cemetery, formed in 2005, now advocate for the cemetery and provide necessary services. Members remove dead trees and regularly check on the grounds, water flowers, and clean graves. Volunteers offer school tours to educate students on the cemetery’s history and its prominent burials. They also staff special events, including Halloween-themed tours that feature living-history performances from volunteers posing as famous figures buried in the cemetery. Volunteers also care for the cemetery’s records and archive.
Despite these efforts, Riverside was listed as one of Colorado’s “Most Endangered Places” in 2008 and was recognized by the Cultural Landscape Foundation in 2009 to bring attention to the immediate needs of preserving this important piece of Colorado history. This recognition helped bring greater public attention to the plight of the cemetery. The listings also helped raise awareness of ongoing struggles to maintain ownership and control of the property as Denver grows and the land, located beside Brighton Boulevard and the Regional Transportation District’s N Line, becomes more valuable and expensive to maintain.
By the late 2010s, plots were for sale again at Riverside. The cemetery now has an average of fifteen burials a year, providing a small stream of revenue to help protect the cemetery for the future.