The magnificent John Brisben Walker, father of Denver’s Entertainment Industry
A creative visionary who fluttered in and out of local history for over half a century, John Brisbane Walker Sr. did more for Denver than many others whose names are etched on city streets and buildings. Although some of his projects fizzled or developed into more grandiose schemes for which others took the glory, Walker’s imagination and enthusiasm brought a sense of fun and adventure to the raw young city. Not only did he pioneer the city’s first amusement park, but also he organized the first concerts at Red Rocks and came up with the idea for Denver’s Mountain Parks system. And that was just for starters.
John Brisbane Walker Sr., agriculturalist, writer, promoter and publisher of Cosmopolitan magazine, was born Sept. 10, 1847, at his parents’ country house on the Monogahela River, near Pittsburgh, Penn. A West Point graduate, Walker served with the U.S. Minister to China before moving to West Viginia to make a fortune as an iron manufacturer. Although his political life was short-lived (he ran for Congress as a Republican in 1972 and lost), he was a staunch Pacifist with a lifelong interest in politics. When his business went under (to the tune of $500,000) during the Depression of 1873, Walker turned to journalism, and spent three years as managing editor for Cincinnati and Washington, D.C., newspapers before becoming a surveyor for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Trekking through the dry lands of Colorado, he decided to use what he knew about irrigation to try his hand at farming. A risk-taker from the get-go, he purchased 1,600 acres in north Denver and grew alfalfa, which turned out to be a lucrative crop for the climate. After he sold his farm in 1888 for a healthy profit, a Kansas City group developed the area into the town of Berkley. Walker later donated land he still owned in the area to the Jesuits for Regis University and purchased the old Swiss Cottage in Morrison, site of Sacred Heart College, for a lodge/casino. He eventually acquired all the land that presently encompasses Red Rocks and Mt. Falcon.
Walker also purchased 500 lots in the Platte Valley for Denver’s first amusement park. In the wake of massive publicity, River Front Park opened to a crowd of more than 20,000 in 1887, a spectacular addition to Denver’s social scene. The new amusement park attracted thousands of city folk in search of summer thrills, featuring a racetrack, medieval castle, grandstand, baseball park, toboggan slide and even riverboat rides. Two buildings consisted of an exhibition hall and a grandstand capable of handling 5,000 spectators. Here he staged Denver’s first rodeo.
River Front soon became home base for Denver’s beloved baseball team, the Mountaineers. The bandstand in which games were played was movable, originally created for special concerts by the Great Gilmore and his 55-piece band. These musical performances were enhanced by six pieces of artillery and real anvils during particularly dramatic musical moments. Admission to all three Gilmore concerts was only $4. Walker ran horse cars that drove directly to the park entrance and waited for spectators until the end of the performance. The destinations on these carriages were color-coded for those who couldn’t read.
In 1887, Walker introduced another unique feature to otherwise landlocked Denver, a side-wheel paddler that sailed to Brighton and back for 50 cents. When the South Platte proved too shallow for efficient navigation, the river was dammed at 19th Street to form a lake that extended back to 15th Street. The steamship transformed into a showboat during the summer. One year, the paddler was converted into the H.M.S. Pinafore for Gilbert and Sullivan’s famous operetta. Performances were originally held every evening, but the Sunday show was dropped after the manager and company were arrested and fined for breaking the “Sunday blue laws.”
Walker subsequently sold River Front Park to the city of Denver, missing by months the Panic of 1893. He moved the family (which eventually included nine children) to New York, where he became publisher, editor and occasional writer for Cosmopolitan magazine. He had purchased the magazine at a rock bottom price, jazzed up while slashing subscription prices and then sold to William Randolph Hearst in 1905 for more than $1 million. During the interim, he increased the magazine’s circulation from 16,000 to 400,000.
An avid automobile enthusiast, Walker became entranced by the Locomobile and the Stanley Steamer, invented by the Stanley brothers of Estes Park fame. After buying them out for $250,000, Walker built an auto factory at his Tarrytown estate, and sponsored the first automobile race in the U.S. in 1895. The founder and first president of the Automobile Manufacturer’s Association, he also sponsored the country’s first auto show at Madison Square Garden in 1900.
With Cosmopolitan profits, Walker returned to Colorado in 1905 and attempted to develop Red Rocks, which he at various times called “The Garden of the Angels” and “The Garden of the Titans.” Together with his eldest son John Jr. he built roads and walking paths and a platform at Red Rocks, where he held the first concerts from 1906 to 1910. He also coordinated with other Morrison businessmen to create the Mount Morrison Incline Railroad, a 1-mile long funicular railroad, which opened in 1909. The railroad gave spectators an incredible view and generated a lot of publicity, attracting film star and Hollywood movie maker “Bronco Billy” Anderson to make several early westerns in the area.
Walker’s most grandiose scheme, a castle-like summer White House for presidents at Mt. Falcon, never progressed beyond the marble cornerstone. His own Jacques Benedict-designed Mt. Falcon castle was struck by lightening and burned to the ground, leaving an impressive skeleton that now serves as the centerpiece of Mt. Falcon Park. By 1918, he left Colorado, selling 110 acres at Red Rocks to the city of Denver seven years later for a very reasonable $54,133.
Together with his third wife (he had been widowed twice), feminist Iris Calderhead, he moved back to Brooklyn where he died on July 7, 1931, at 83, stone cold broke after making and losing several fortunes. At the time, he was working on one plan to convert the elevated railroads of New York into elevated roads for busses. He also thought he’d found a way to convert dirt roads into hard roads at an affordable price.
Note: For more on the history of Red Rocks, see Tom Noel’s Sacred Stones, Colorado’s Red Rocks Park and Amphitheatre.