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BEACON Senior News

Tales from the Tombstones

Oct 03, 2022 02:30PM ● By Steve Strickland

Cemeteries get a bad rap, especially this time of year. Though they’re often depicted in a creepy way in decorations or horror movies, the reality is far from scary. They’re fascinating! 

As a monument industry worker, I have visited dozens of cemeteries in Colorado, from forlorn prairie cemeteries and well-kept cremation gardens to picturesque mountain graveyards overrun with glorious wildflowers. All hold their own unique beauty, charms and stories. 

But Denver’s Fairmount Cemetery is head and shoulders above the rest when it comes to the sheer volume of granite, the masterful workmanship and the epic history it contains. The affluence and opulence of Denver’s movers, shakers and ordinary well-to-do of all decades is on enduring display in this magnificent garden of history. 

CEMETERY TOURS

Fairmount was established in 1890, a mere 32 years after Denver was founded, and is still used as a burial ground today.

Fairmount Cemetery’s professionally guided tours are offered by the Fairmount Heritage Foundation. Seasoned actors guide around two dozen paying customers at a time through the tombstones and monuments of a dozen prominent names and families from Denver’s earliest days. Tours last an hour and a half and are 1.5-2 miles in distance at an easy pace. Fully charged scooters and power wheelchairs can easily traverse the grounds.


THE “GOOD OL’ DAYS” 

From the first family monument described on the tour to the last, the magnificence and artistic detail is astounding. Professional narrators tell of the dramatic lives of families during the Edwardian and surrounding eras, including romances, divorces, affairs, murders and bitter family fortune feuds.

Horrific crimes, mysteries and injustices have been laid to rest as well in Fairmount. Twelve-year-old Louise Frost was raped, stomped on and stabbed on the outskirts of Limon in 1900. She died shortly after this brutal attack and was buried in Fairmount, reportedly in the same grave as her 2-year-old sister. 

Compounding the shock and cruelty of this incident, what passed for an investigation in those days resulted in the arrest of a young Black man who was, quite possibly, not guilty. Even when the railroad laborer had his defenders, which included a detective. Without a trial, however, Preston Porter Jr., age 16, was burned alive by an outraged mob on the prairie near the scene of the crime. This act of lawless vengeance caused a national uproar. 

Fifty-five years later, a massive, well-funded justice system featuring groups of forensic scientists was in charge of the region when a luxurious DC-6B left Denver’s Stapleton Airport and crashed near Longmont. All 44 passengers and crew were killed, including the wife of an assistant to President Eisenhower. 

Within a few weeks, FBI investigators and aviation authorities reassembled the wreckage and determined that a time bomb in the luggage storage section caused the disaster. Investigators used evidence from the wreckage to swiftly focus on a suspect: Jack Gilbert Graham, the son of Daisie E. (Walker) King, a woman whose suitcase had evidently carried the bomb. 

Graham had a history of arson, violence and attempted insurance fraud stunts. He was executed in a state-of-the-art gas chamber less than two years after the explosion. Walker-King is also buried in Fairmount. The headline of her modest marker simply reads “Walker.” 


BURIED BENEFACTORS

Though it may seem that Fairmount’s elaborate monuments are some indication of roaring economic excess, many of the prominent individuals buried there “gave as good as they got.” 

They were generous donors, visionaries and benefactors in their community. Iliff, Speer, Bonfils, Clayton, Moffat, Cheeseman and Brown are just a few of the noteworthy names and examples of noble, intrepid, hard-working and conscientious wealthy and otherwise fortunate philanthropists. These surnames have earned their places on avenues, colleges, parks, tunnels, streets and foundations.


WAR HEROES 

Fairmount Cemetery contains four distinct areas and monuments dedicated to war heroes. A magnificent bronze statue of a soldier, perched high on a granite and bronze marker, is dedicated to volunteers. Soldiers’ graves appear to radiate outward from this stately tower, bearing the names of veterans from the Spanish-American War, the Civil War and peacetime soldiers who served up to the beginning of World War I. 

Lieutenant Francis Brown Lowry, depicted in bronze, looks toward the graves of many World War I veterans in the area, including actual members of his battalion, as though he were still addressing or commanding them. 

Lowry was the first Colorado pilot killed in World War I. Military airfields in Colorado were named after the war hero starting in 1924, including the Lowry Air Force Base which operated from 1938 to 1994. 

In the Garden of Honor, the marble GI gravestones are arranged in another concentric formation, facing a flagpole flying the American flag. The Nisei War Memorial honors more than 30,000 courageous Japanese Americans who served in World War II and the Korean War.

A map of Fairmount Cemetery reveals an overlapping and almost spontaneous pattern of sections and driveways. Any journey through this vast and imposing cemetery is bound to yield intriguing discoveries, as well as “six degrees of separation” links that morph fluidly into more branches on the evolving family tree, or however you choose to interpret the meaningful lives memorialized there.


Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery at Point Loma Photo courtesy Emily Stanchfield

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