RTD’s new rail line has Riverside Cemetery lovers worried

The cemetery and its 67,000 residents have survived it all — so to speak — but now they face a significant new challenge.

Denver founding father Richard Whitsitt's grave, an angel silhouetted by the moon at Riverside Cemetery. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

riverside cemetery; history; kevinjbeaty; denverite; denver; colorado;
Vapor spilling out of the Cherokee Generating Station at dawn colors the sky beyond Riverside Cemetery. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite) energy; environment; cherokee generating station; elyria; swansea; kevinjbeaty; denverite; denver; colorado; riverside cemetery;
Vapor spilling out of the Cherokee Generating Station at dawn colors the sky beyond Riverside Cemetery. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Once, Riverside Cemetery was seen as the next posh spot to bury your dead in Denver. The first burial at the near modern-day Elyria-Swansea happened in June 1876, two months before the creation of the state of Colorado.

The graveyard did indeed attract many of Denver’s founding figures, and more Civil War veterans than any other cemetery in the state. But the place has suffered its share of indignities too, first from the herds of cows at the stock show and then from industrial development.

“For an awful long period of time, very few people in town would know what Riverside Cemetery — unless you were lost going to the stock show, or nowadays looking for pot, you’d never go there,” said Ray Thal, a historian who has closely followed the graveyard.

The cemetery and its 67,000 residents have survived it all — so to speak — but now they face a significant new challenge: RTD and BNSF Railway Co. want to close and relocate the cemetery’s main entrance to make way for a new commuter rail line.

A train is seen down the tracks by the Suncor refinery. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite) riverside cemetery; history; kevinjbeaty; denverite; denver; colorado;
A train is seen down the tracks by the Suncor refinery, near the Riverside Cemetery. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

RTD currently is building out its North rail line, which will cross over the entrance to the cemetery on Brighton Boulevard. BNSF’s freight rail lines already run across that entrance, and the addition of the commuter rail means trains will cross the entry road nearly 120 times a day.

That creates both an inconvenience and a safety hazard. Thal recalled a time that cemetery visitors were trapped inside for four hours because a freight train had stopped on the tracks.

So, RTD and BNSF want to move the entrance, eliminating the “at-grade” crossing. In a filing, the two companies requested that the state close the Brighton Boulevard entrance to the cemetery and replace it with a side entrance either from York Street or Race Court, to be paid for by RTD.

Fairmount Cemetery Company, which owns Riverside, and at least 84 people have objected to the plan.  A chief concern is that blocking off the Brighton entrance will do even more to hide away the cemetery.

“We’re strongly opposed to the closure of the main entrance,” said Michael Long, director of business development for Fairmount.

Denver founding father Richard Whitsitt's grave, an angel silhouetted by the moon at Riverside Cemetery. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite) riverside cemetery; history; kevinjbeaty; denverite; denver; colorado;
Denver founding father Richard Whitsitt’s grave, an angel silhouetted by the moon at Riverside Cemetery. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

“I understand that progress is inevitable, but to degrade the significance of this historic cemetery in the name of progress is disrespectful and reprehensible,” wrote one person with “numerous relatives” buried at Riverside.

Originally, RTD and BNSF proposed two alternative entrances — one on York Street, one on Race Court. They’ve since said they would not go with York Street, which cemetery supporters had argued was simply too far from the current main entrance and office.

The option that’s still on the table would create an entrance that’s fairly close to the original, but the access road would wind nearly 700 yards, Long said. RTD estimates it will cost $1.2 million to build.

One major sticking point is the question of who will pay to maintain all that new road.

“What you’re not hearing is that they’re wanting us to take care of that road for all of eternity,” Long said. “That’s a tremendous upkeep.”

Instead, he wants RTD and BNSF to pay to create either a tunnel or an underpass that will keep the main entrance where it is.

However, the city of Denver and the Colorado Department of Transportation do not oppose the change to the entrance location.

Public comment will be accepted at a Public  Utilities Commission meeting at 4 p.m. May 11, Commission Hearing Room A, 1560 Broadway, on the second floor.

Meanwhile, Thal is hoping for the best — after all, he just bought a plot at Riverside.

“Again,” he said, “it’s a very historic spot and it deserves to be treated with respect by everybody — including RTD.”

Correction: Commuter rail, not light rail. D’oh!

Andrew Kenney

Author: Andrew Kenney

Andrew Kenney writes about public spaces, Denver phenomena and whatever else. He previously worked for six years as a reporter at The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C. His most prized possession is his collection of bizarre voicemail. Leave him one at 303-502-2803, or email akenney@denverite.com.