Tall Tales

Here's the truth about Colorado's myths. We swear.

January 2011


1. Colorado once had an official state liar. True

It’s no fib: During the Great Depression, Governor Edwin C. Johnson worried about the state’s morale so much that he sponsored a laugh-inducing contest to find the best, most shameless liar in the state. One Phil McCarty—an employee at a heating company—earned the honor after spinning a humdinger of a tall tale involving a cross-eyed, wooden-legged cat. (You don’t want to know the details.) Despite lean times, the state offered him a salary of $1 (which today would translate to an annual compensation of $16.48). Now, with the nation facing an economic crisis unseen since the Dirty ’30s and Colorado’s unemployment rate hovering around 8 percent, perhaps newly elected Governor John Hickenlooper should revive the state liar contest. —NG

2. Denver International Airport’s artwork is a New World Order plot. False

Conspiracy theorists believe the white-tent peaks of DIA hide a sinister secret: The airport is the future home of a neo-Nazi, New World Order headquarters. They point to the inflated construction costs—the price tag skyrocketed from around $1.5 billion to $4.5 billion—and the fact that contractors were hired for short periods of time. (Those things have clearly never happened on construction projects.) Others suggest that buildings are hidden under the terminal. These zealots’ best evidence? DIA’s public art. From gas-masked figures to Nazi symbols, the art is supposedly New World Order propaganda. And although the red-eyed mustang statue may be a little creepy, that’s hardly proof of a malefic plot. Still, maybe DIA got the bad-PR message: The newly installed trio of clouds on Peña Boulevard is decidedly vapid and friendly. —EMILY MUELLER

3. Some landmarks in Denver, like the Capitol steps, are exactly one mile high. True

Somewhere in Denver registers 5,280 feet—but unfortunately it’s not always where we think it is. As global positioning systems become more accurate, elevations in Denver (and all of Colorado) “shift,” which means the Mile High City and other parts of Colorado are up to seven feet higher than we thought a decade ago. This has happened before: In less than 100 years, the mile-high marker on the Capitol steps has moved twice—up and down—most recently in 2003. Which got us thinking about other Denver landmarks, like the purple row in Coors Field upper deck. The ballpark’s tour still boasts that the seats are a “mile high,” but the row was installed in 1995. Do the math and something’s off. When we asked Colorado Rockies spokesman Jay Alves what gives, he replied: “We won’t respond to rumors or innuendo, so until we have actual facts from an expert we have nothing to respond to.” Then we asked if we could measure the altitude of the famous row with experts in tow. Perhaps not surprisingly, our request was denied. —EM and NG

4. The air in Denver is good for your health. False

Folks once flocked to Denver—and Colorado—for its clean, restorative air. Now? Not so much. By 1977, Denver’s Brown Cloud—an omnipresent murky shroud of air pollution over the metro area—became synonymous with the Mile High City. And while the cloud has dissipated in recent years thanks to cleanup efforts (fewer smoke-spewing factories) and good old-fashioned awareness (smog alerts on the morning news shows), there’s little doubt the air up here is less than pristine. —NG

5. The St. Vrain glaciers, near Granby, are the southernmost in North America. False

Hands-down, California’s got us beat: The southern edge of the Sierra Nevada mountain range has oodles of ice bodies—about 230 miles south of the St. Vrain glaciers. Truth be told, even though the St. Vrain glaciers are the most well-known of Colorado’s ice blocks, the Arapahoe Glacier, near Boulder, and the mini-glaciers in the southwestern San Miguel range are actually more southern than the St. Vrain glaciers. —NG

6. The Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., was partially built with marble from Colorado. True

The Yule Quarry in Gunnison County is a speck-on-the-map site that has supplied recrystallized carbonate minerals (marble) for several D.C. monuments, including the Lincoln Memorial and the Tomb of the Unknowns. While the quarry has experienced hard times—it was closed for nearly 50 years and was pulled out of bankruptcy in 1999—workers these days pull an estimated 7,000 tons of marble out each year. Today, the quarry is linked by a three-mile dirt road to the aptly named town of Marble, a near ghost town with about 120 residents, through which the blocks of marble still travel as they are sent to artisans worldwide. —ROBERT SANCHEZ

7. When it rains, the gold coating on the Capitol dome flakes off, which is why transient folks tend to congregate in the Civic Center area. False

The gold is real—200 ounces of 24-karat were added in 1908 to commemorate Colorado’s gold rush days. But the gold wears off: Thirty years is the average life span, and you can see worn spots today (the last regilding occurred in 1991). So is there a cash-for-gold scheme for Civic Center’s patrons? There’s no documented evidence of panning, says Dr. Derek Everett, assistant professor of history at Metropolitan State College of Denver: “The flakes are so small that even if they did make it down to ground level, they wouldn’t offer much money. A flake or two here or there isn’t going to make anyone rich.” —JULIE DUGDALE

8. There are bodies buried in Cheesman Park. True

Cheesman Park’s manicured lawns hide a macabre truth: The idyllic green space lies on the site of Mount Prospect, Denver’s first cemetery. In the late 1850s, bodies were piling up (gun duels, anyone?) and city officials needed a place to bury the dead. Three decades later, the burial ground’s central location seemed like a better place for a park than a crypt, so the city began digging up the dead—which, it turns out, was something of an arduous task. Not only were burial records lacking, but the city also made the mistake of hiring a crooked undertaker who broke up bodies and stuffed them in coffins. The exhumation was, ahem, done sloppily, and over the years remains continue to be unearthed, including four skeletons found last year. —JD

9. You need to win Colorado’s Western Slope to get elected to state office. False

The Western Slope plays a huge role in the psyche of Colorado politicians, but with only 307,124 active voters, its population is actually quite tiny. Compare that to Denver, El Paso, or Jefferson counties (each have more than 270,000 voters). In fact, nearly 90 percent of Colorado voters live to the east of the Continental Divide. If a state politician were to win only about 56 percent of votes east of the Divide—and none to the west—he or she would be elected to statewide office. —PATRICK DOYLE

10. Colorado once turned down a chance to host the Olympics. True

After almost two decades of advocating for the sporting extravaganza, Denver was finally awarded the 1976 Winter Games in 1970. But two-and-a-half years later, the good people of Colorado voted down a bond to use public money for the event. No money, no games. The '76 Winter Games took place in Austria. Denver is the lone modern city to be awarded, and then reject, the Olympic Games. Now, there’s a movement to bid for the games once again. Make up your minds, people. —DALIAH SINGER

11. The Glenwood Canyon portion of I-70 is the country’s most expensive stretch of interstate ever built. False

Once upon a time, the award-winning $490 million Glenwood Canyon highway project employed up to 500 workers a day (just in the canyon), imported sophisticated platform equipment from France, and took extreme measures to preserve the fragile canyon ecosystem. Back then (in 1992) Glenwood was the priciest piece of interstate ever cobbled together. Now, the honor of America's most expensive roadway goes to Boston’s notorious Big Dig project, which carried a hefty price tag of $22 billion (including interest). —JD

12. “Menver” is a fair, accurate nickname for Denver. False

If you walk into a LoDo watering hole, the ratio of beards to broads is often way out of whack, which helps perpetuate Denver’s reputation for testosterone overload. In 2007, National Geographic provided quantitative backup to the rumor by publishing a map that suggested the Denver metro area was home to about 40,000 more single men than single women. But a more recent U.S. Census Bureau estimate indicates that single women now outnumber single men by about 2,000. Sadly, neither Nat Geo nor the Census Bureau offered suggestions for how to distract eligible bachelors from craft brewery happy hours or totally epic powder days. —LUC HATLESTAD

13. No water flows into Colorado. False

Yes, Colorado’s known primarily for the water that flows out of the state (Colorado River ring a bell?), but there are actually some minor streams that cross across our borders, which, technically, give back to the Centennial State, like the Little Snake in the northwestern part of the state. Still, this flow is just a trickle. —NG