Featured writer: Tony Greco
Historic Bars of Colorado
Tour of Denver Metro Area
As we are attempting to be providers of historical knowledge it behooves us to frequent historical establishments that the common would not. These places come in the form of taverns and bars. Taverns/Bars, as the educated know, have played a special part in United States history as many important decisions were discussed and debated in taverns. Anybody, or group, can visit state houses and museums and find America’s past. However, it takes a true scholar to seek out where U.S. history was really made; the great taverns of America.
The first focus of our exploration will take place in our home state of Colorado; and the bars of metro Denver. The goal is to look at the oldest bars in the area and give a detailed description of their historical significance. The phrase “Libations of Liberty” is fitting for this type of historical inquiry as by definition it clearly provides a solid historical context, “the liquid so poured for freedom”.
My day began in Golden, Colorado about 20-30 minutes from Downtown Denver. As Denver is the capital of the state, I felt it imperative to search out the oldest bar in the former territorial capital of Golden. The Buffalo Rose is documented as the oldest bar in the region (1859) and its walls have contained banks, saloons, a grocery store, and a political meeting place that determined laws to govern the territory. Today the Buffalo Rose is a different kind of meeting place. The Rose has three main areas; a spacious outdoor area with easy access to a bar, a western themed bar with photos of Native American leaders in southwest decor, and a multilevel stage area where bands from across the country frequent. Fun trivia exists as well, according to staff at the Rose the stage was built over a swimming pool as the building was once used as a recreational center. Guitars, photos of famous visitors (Ulysses S. Grant) and trendy record labels visually enhance the character of the saloon. The history is in the walls at Buffalo Rose as it was a meeting place for founders of Colorado giving it unprecedented historical value in regards to development of the state.
After my stay at the Buffalo Rose Saloon, I decided to head towards another historic building that truly defines the landscape of Golden, the Coors Brewery. To enter the brewery you have to wait for a bus in the visitor parking lot which comes every 20-30 minutes. I was able to get on a bus with minimal wait and headed towards the facility. The bus takes a route through Golden in which our guide described several historical features of the town. Eventually, we were dropped off at the entrance of Coors in an area that is adjacent to the breweries own power plant, an enormous cooling system, and lagoon from the Platte River. Inside museum based exhibits dominate the lobby as there were sections displaying the history of Coors ranging from its beginning, Prohibition, and modern times. At this point you are given a head set to a self guided tour as you wind through the brewery’s brew room, laboratory, distribution center, and two tasting rooms. The tour is insightful and unique as it depicts the Adolf Coors story and brew making process that has developed over the last century. The two samplers during the middle of the tour, and three free beers at the end of the tour undoubtedly made it highly entertaining. As the Coors Brewery is synonymous with the state of Colorado to visit Golden and not take advantage of this tour would be historical sabotage. The Coors Brewery truly depicts the great entrepreneurial spirit of the Rocky Mountain Region past and present.
From Golden I proceeded to drive to downtown Denver (20 minutes). I highly recommend parking at the Tivoli Center as spots are hard to find near Coors Field (where most of the bars I visited were generally located).
The first of the historic bars of Denver I visited was the notorious Cruise Room (1933) at the Oxford Hotel. Do not mistake the Cruise room for McCormick’s which is also connected to the historic Oxford. You will have to obtain permission from the manager to get access to the Cruise Room if it is not open. It will be well worth the small task to gain admittance. The Cruise Room, inside the Oxford, opened the day after Prohibition was repealed. It is a glorious replicated room of the Queen Mary Cruise Ship which provides the visitor the sense of being frozen in time. Elaborate era deco garnishes the walls displaying “cheers” in a variety of languages. The soft pink track lights provide a calming atmosphere and as the jukebox plays oldies from the back wall- an aura beckons patrons to partake in a martini from the friendly, well-informed staff. I was given a tour of the “Room” that had hidden doors from it’s speak easy days during Prohibition. This place was romantic, mysterious, hip and a time capsule of America in its heyday. One can get lost in the historic atmosphere of the “Cruise” Room.
My second stop was El Chapultepec, a bar that has been a common gathering spot since 1933. When you enter El Chapultepec you definitely enter into a neighborhood bar that has historic significance. Pictures of some leaders of music such as; Miles Davis, B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Frank Sinatra, Mick Jagger, and President Bill Clinton who have played at the “Pec” adorn the walls. The “Pec” is not elaborate in decor; it is old school- reminding me of the jazz clubs I had the opportunity to visit when I lived in New Orleans. The beer is cold and relatively inexpensive for an establishment in the “lodo” corridor of Denver. The piano sits regally on a small stage surrounded by mirrors where one can only imagine who has played to entertain the jazz lovers of Denver. The one story I stumbled upon in my visit shows this bars legendary status; according to a bartender- Bono from the band U2 came with an entourage of young women while visiting Denver. The owner Jerry Krantz refused his admittance into the establishment because the young women did not have the proper identification. The El Chapultepec is an establishment founded upon old school principles of standards, personality, great music and charisma. Due to these factors history exists in every corner of the “Pec”.
From the Pec I walked up the 16th street mall to the historic Brown Palace Hotel. The Brown Palace in its own right is a historic relic being a permanent resident of Denver since 1933. Presidents have frequented the hotel from its inception and in modern times you can get a glimpse of fame walking in and out of the Palace. It is no coincidence that one of the oldest taverns, the Ship Tavern is located on this premise. As it is common knowledge that the largest body of water near Denver is the Cherry Creek reservoir, an ocean themed tavern seems out-of-place. For a moment I thought I had walked into a bar on Boston Harbor and anticipated seeing the Atlantic Ocean out of the window. Instead a magnificent view of the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception shadowing the glazed bay windows of the tavern created a captivating setting. The collection of model ships, the maps on the wall, and the center mast seemingly holding the establishment aloft gave an atmosphere of history. It is no wonder that every President since Hoover had been a guest here, and to this day the Brown Palace/Ship Tavern attracts multitudes of wealth and prestige (the Beatles visited the premises in 1964). Other gems of history exist if one looks. For example, the hotel’s original artesian well is located 720 feet deep beneath the Brown Palace and is still able to provide drinkable water to the Ship Tavern. In a similar historical context, the hotel/tavern prepares all of its own baked goods in a fifty year old carousel oven. The oven is one of only three known to be in use in the world today. As I left the tavern I could not help but to think in amazement how many Presidents had walked, or sat, where I had just spent a good part of my afternoon. The antiquity of the entire establishment bleeds history, as you walk out of the tavern into the lobby of the hotel look up and prepare to be amazed.
My last stop included catching the light rail from outside the Pepsi Center for a short ride to the Buckhorn Exchange. I had seen this building many times on my trips to Denver Bronco games, but never considered it seriously to be a bar of the past. I was mistaken in so many ways. As I walked up to the door I was greeted by a historical marker that gave credit to this being a site of Henry H. Zeitz (Shorty Scout) and one of the oldest known “bars” of the west (1893). Zeitz was a friend of Buffalo Bill and a strong representation of what the west once was. Some its famous visitors include; Teddy Roosevelt, Buffalo Bill, Ronald Reagan, Bob Hope, Roy Rogers, Will Rogers, Franklin Roosevelt, Jimmy Carter, and Dwight Eisenhower. When I walked into the Buckhorn my historical “spidey” sense was overwhelmed. No exaggeration, at least 200 mounted animal heads stared at me as I looked up at the walls. I walked up the stairs to the bar (the lower floor is the restaurant) where I was greeted by the most informative staff of the day. They explained to me the arrowhead collection, Sitting Bull’s daughter’s wedding dress, the second largest documented buffalo killed in Colorado, the only documented Colorado kill of a wolverine, the working chuck wagon, Teddy Roosevelt’s presence in the bar, the original cash register, and the first liquor license in the state of Colorado. That small intro did not even break the ice of the history that existed in this establishment. The upper floor was once a brothel and the “Exchange” name derived from the act of people coming from the nearby train station/lodge to exchange paychecks for cash as they became part of the mining flood that developed the state. Zeitz provided a free lunch and beer to these “exchangers” for their business. I found newspaper articles pertaining to General Custer, Billy the Kid, and legends of Colorado. For the historian who likes libations and stories, this establishment is one of a kind. If you have never been to Colorado the Buckhorn Exchange is a must on your bucket list.
Sadly, the day ended. Of course I had my libations that day, but that was not why I was happy. As a historian I was able to walk through several different concepts of American history; the old west, prohibition, jazz age, economics and political spheres. I was able to ascertain through this experience the exponential growth of this western region due in part from establishments like the Buffalo Rose, Coors Brewery, Cruise Room, Ship Tavern, and the Buckhorn Exchange. These bars are living museums that have saved pieces of the past that are not encased behind a glass display. They are interactive living exhibits that patrons encounter daily. History is alive and well in these bars and taverns of Denver/Metro area, their voices tell us a story of freedom, the American dream, and our past. What a day…..a liquid so poured for freedom…I am content
Stay tuned for Libations for Liberty in Philadelphia!
Visit the NAEE Libations for Liberty site at: http://lewisandclark2011.com/2012/04/21/libations-for-liberty-denver-colorado/
Main NAEE site: www.lewisandclark2011.com