Feature

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

 

 

14. The state fish, the Greenback Cutthroat Trout, is almost extinct. True

Colorado boasts 168 miles of Gold Medal fishing—those primo spots to hook a trout—but don’t expect to catch the state’s venerated fish, the Greenback Cutthroat Trout. The species received the state’s top fish-y honor in 1994, but by then it was already near extinction because of us (to wit: mining runoff and introduction of different trout species that don’t play well with others). Don’t write off the Greenback yet, though: Some fish have been found in remote areas of Rocky Mountain National Park, and the Colorado Division of Wildlife is helping to propagate the elusive trout (it is stocked in 58 streams and lakes). —NG

15. Leadville got its name for the area’s lead mining. False

When the country’s highest-elevation city was founded at the start of Colorado’s Silver Boom, residents hanging out at 10,152 feet thought a silver-named town was too obvious. So in 1878, 18 people got together at a wagon shop and chose the Leadville moniker over names like Agassiz and Carbonateville—putting their stamp on a town that would become an economic hub of the West near the turn of the 19th century. While there was lead in the surrounding hills, the mineral was never the town’s main mining project. —RS

16. U2 once played downtown’s legendary jazz joint El Chapultepec. False

Bono tried to hit the Pec in the late 1980s—to watch the talent, not to rock his band's iconic anthems—but the unimpressed doorman sent him packing when he couldn’t produce legit IDs for the (exceedingly) young women on his arms. That paragon of hipness probably would concede that the legends who actually did play there—including Miles Davis, Chet Baker, and Stan Getz—were much cooler than U2, anyway. Or maybe he’d just say he still hasn’t found what he’s looking for. —LH

 

17. Denver has more medical marijuana dispensaries than Starbucks outlets. True

 

Venti lattes are so 2007. With a measly 44 Starbucks-operated locations in Denver proper, America’s favorite java pusher lags way behind the burgeoning medical pot business. According to Legalmarijuanadispensary.com—also known as “Weedmaps” (Is there an app for that?)—there are more than 70 dispensaries in the 80202 zip code alone. (There are 11 Starbucks in the same area.) This could be good business for Starbucks: The busy pot proprietors are likely fueled by frequent frappuccinos. And scones. And chocolate chunk cookies…. —LH

18. Stephen King’s The Shining was filmed at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park. False

 

The eerily picturesque hotel might look like an ideal horror film location, but the iconic slasher movie (“Redrum! Redrum!”) was filmed at the Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood in Oregon and at Elstree Studios in London. The Estes Park hotel did play a role in the genesis of Stephen King’s best-selling book of the same name: The tome’s plot came to King in 1974 when he spent the night in the Stanley’s “haunted” room 217. The book was written in Boulder, where King lived for a brief time. So why does the falsehood persist? Simply put, Coloradans love to neither confirm nor deny this rumor: After all, a little King-related tourism isn’t bad. —ALLIE GARDNER

19. Lieutenant Zebulon Pike was the first person to summit Pikes Peak. False

Explorer Zebulon Pike tried to scale the mountain in November 1806, during an expedition to find the headwaters of the Arkansas and Red rivers, but stopped amid waist-deep snow. He never made it to the top. Pike was the first American to document the peak (referring to the mountain as “Grand Peak”). He overestimated its height by 4,000 feet and predicted no one would ever climb it. Pike was wrong: In 1820, Edwin James— a botanist on an expedition—scaled the mountain while looking for the source of the South Platte River. Oh, and Pike may not have even stepped foot on his namesake peak. Experts argue that he hiked nearby Mount Rosa—not Pikes Peak. —RS

 

 

20. Breckenridge is named for a Confederate. True

The town of “Breckinridge” was incorporated in 1859 and named after John C. Breckinridge, the vice president under James Buchanan. After Breckinridge, a Kentuckian, sided with the Confederates during the Civil War, the pro-Yankee town switched the spelling to “Breckenridge”—a more P.C. name, if one letter really makes a difference. —PD

21. Colorado has more microbreweries per capita than any other state. False

Oh, how we wished this were true. We wanted to believe the Tourism Office’s list of “Colorado Fun Facts” and the Colorado Brewers Guild when they told us the state’s 114 craft breweries topped the list. Alas, fellow hop heads, it just isn’t so. According to the Brewers Association—the largest organization of brewers in the country—we’re lagging behind: The Centennial State ranks sixth in number of craft breweries per capita, with just one per 46,960 people. (Vermont wins with one per 32,724 people.) And while our total number of breweries is tied for second with Washington state, our beer output from craft breweries ranks fourth. Does that mean our Napa Valley of Beer moniker needs a little reworking? Not just yet. Grab some friends and get brewing—we’re almost there. —DS

22. An aspen tree is the world’s largest organism. False

Individually, aspens aren’t the largest organisms: The trees are measly compared to a 30-acre deposit of fungus (yes, you read that right) in Michigan. So why does this tall tale persist? Like the fungus, aspens mature from a single root system. Some believe a 106-acre stand of 47,000 genetically identical quaking aspens in Utah is the world’s largest organism—by weight (about 13.2 million pounds). —DS

23. At roughly 26 miles, Colfax Avenue is the longest continuous street in the country. False

No one seems to know exactly how far east Colfax stretches, making it difficult to measure the infamous thoroughfare’s length. But, if you really want to split hairs, according to Colorado’s Department of Transportation, Colfax is likely the longest commercial street in the country. But (forgive us, we’re editors) is the zoning continuous? That’s difficult to say because there are residences on Colfax. We called Denver historian Phil Goodstein for an opinion. His answer: The claim is simply Denver provincialism. —JD

24. Ralphie, the University of Colorado’s buffalo mascot, is a girl. True

Get over it, boys: All five Ralphies have been female animals, which are smaller and easier to handle than their male counterparts. (For sure.) To boot, the furry creatures aren’t even buffs, but bison, a close relative—and a fine distinction in bovine science. —AMANDA QUINN

25. The tallest sand dunes in America are located here. True

Sure, Colorado is landlocked, but the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve (near Alamosa) lays claim to the largest sand dunes in the country with peaks that top 700 feet. The sand comes from ancient lake beds, and a unique combination of winds and water flows help keep the sand trapped against the Sangre de Cristo mountains. Cue: Colorado’s version of California’s Central Coast…sort of. —NG