By Gary Flanagan
How many Denvers do you know? Here are the popular choices:
- John Denver, whose original name is Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr.
- Bob Denver, who is most famously known as Gilligan of “Gilligan’s Island.”
- Denver, Colorado, which is named not for location, but with hopes to curry a favor from the fifth territorial governor of the Kansas territory, James W. Denver, by a land speculator named William Larimer, Jr. in 1858. The favor was never granted.
The original Mr. Deutschendorf, Jr. changed his last name to Denver in order to fit his name on a marquee and honor his favorite state of Colorado. However, he preferred to live in Aspen, Colorado. The original Mr. James Denver was actually the great-great-grandfather of the aforementioned Bob Denver. All three men resided in multiple states, but not one of them ever resided in Denver. In fact, it wasn’t until 1875, after Colorado became a state, that the man who Denver is named after even visited the city. He was disappointed that the city showed little affection for him. He was a stranger in a strange land that carried his namesake.
James W. Denver certainly had the credentials to have a prominent city named after him. Born in Winchester, Virginia, educated in law at the University of Cincinnati, he then started his law practice and acting career in Platte City, Missouri. Next he was commissioned as a captain in the Mexican-American War. After the war, he became a trader in California and killed newspaper editor Edward Gilbert in a duel on August 2, 1852. It didn’t slow the man down, as he was then elected to the California State Senate and shortly after appointed as the California secretary of state. By 1855, he had become a U.S. congressman from California and then appointed as commissioner of Indian Affairs by President Buchanan in 1857. Buchanan kept the appointment train running by making Mr. Denver secretary and then governor of the Kansas Territory. Little wonder as to why William Larimer wanted to hop on Denver’s bandwagon.
For my entry into this equation, I was merely visiting the 16th location of my Separation of Church and State tour. It was time to exit the front range bandwagon down Interstate 25. My experience with visiting the Colorado State Capitol and the churches in nar proximity left me amazed that the City of Denver is not a total illusion.
I arrived to the second Capitol of my day and immediately noticed a Capitol dome under reconstruction. I would not be able to see the golden dome. I could see that pedestrians are everywhere. Many of them appeared to be homeless.
As one approaches the west steps of the Capitol, they will find markers on three different steps. These markers identify the elevation as being exactly one mile above sea level. The building was completed in 1894 and the first marker was placed on the 15th step, where the Sun could be seen setting behind the Rocky Mountains. In 1969, a second marker was placed on the 18th step after being surveyed. Modern methods in 2003 produced a third marker, located on the 13th step.
My goal is to find the physical separation between church and state at each Capitol and to document the results. Four distinct buildings quickly caught my eye. The tall steeple of First Baptist Church of Denver was first, directly across the south steps. This community began in 1864, shortly after the town was named in 1858.
The Scottish Rite Masonic Center built in 1925 was located on the southeast diagonal corner to the Capitol. One block further to the east, I located the Christian Science building. Finally, the next block to the north contained the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception.
Of the four locations, only the last one had any activity buzzing about. It was 6:30 p.m. and the last Sunday Mass was beginning. I attempted to park and participate. Circling the area two times was fruitless. At the last moment, I noticed a space in the parking lot of the local McDonald’s. Success! Or so I thought.
I jumped out of my car and stopped in my tracks on the way to the church. Multiple signs had the same warning under the Golden Arch: ”McDonald’s customer parking ONLY.” In slightly smaller print, “Customers must remain on premises. All unauthorized vehicles WILL BE TOWED.” Below that, after a space “To reclaim your vehicle call 303 Recovery and Investigation at 707-447-3163.”
Looking at the time, 6:45 pm, I realized it was too late to still attend a full Mass. So I followed the instructions and stayed on the premises. This restaurant was also a temporary haven for the homeless looking for a break from the cold. They would come in, order a coffee with a few coins, take their time drinking and then move on. I decided to do the same and update my Facebook page documenting my trip while I was there.
Looking out the window, the parking lot was full of activity. One, two and then a third tow truck appeared. I peered across the lot and noticed a group of young men, pointing out to the tow trucks which vehicles to hook. In a matter of a few minutes, three vehicles and tow trucks were gone. Quite the slick revenue operation has been implemented here.
I quickly finished my update and coffee, then returned to my car just as an attendee to the church returned to her empty spot. She was confused until I pointed out the signage in the parking lot. I offered her a ride home if needed. She declined and called her roommate to pick her up. Strange how life works at times. She was blessed by attending, but distressed at the outcome. I was distressed at not attending on time, but blessed by the outcome. I could continue on my journey.
Confused and discombobulated in Denver, Colorado, this short timer needed to find a new state to explore. I pointed my Elantra south toward the New Mexico border. A 600 mile Saint Patrick’s Day drive ended in Raton, New Mexico at Motel 6. I fell asleep to a dream of John Denver singing the theme to “Gilligan’s Island.”