A story of early
Denver, Blake Street and the origin of the Vault
On July 9, 1858, a Georgia prospector named William Russell discovered gold at the confluence of Cherry Creek and the South Platte River. What followed next was one of the greatest migrations in American History. Over 100,000 prosperity seekers, a greater number than the California Gold Rush, embarked for the gold-laden mountains and valleys of Colorado.
This was a trip into the Wild West - not for the faint of heart - and the majority of the stampeders returned home before reaching Colorado or shortly after arriving. Of those that remained, what they found at Cherry Creek was a scant supply of gold and a tough frontier town. As one of the early settlers wrote of Denver, “…a nursery of almost every vice, a hot-bed of an unprincipled and dangerous sporting fraternity.”
On November 1, 1858, the town of Auraria (City of Gold) was founded just across Cherry Creek. Three weeks later, William Larimer crossed two cottonwood sticks on this side of the creek to mark the center of Denver City, named for James Denver, governor of the Kansas Territory. The two towns would eventually come together as Denver and become a territorial capital.
Denver was open for business and an entrepreneur named Charles Blake opened the first store in a log cabin built on Cherry Creek. After selling out of his merchandise pulled across the plains by oxen, he began construction of the Denver House, the area’s first hotel.
Built on Blake Street, this large log building with a canvas roof soon became the center of social, political and recreational gatherings. Many a miner who lived respectably all week in his diggings came here on Saturday night “to get drunk, blow his top, and gamble insensately.” Everyone in Denver gambled, even the local judge, who once lost thirty choice Denver lots in ten minutes.
In 1860, Blake Street was booming, and was lined with wooden buildings offering anything a prospector could want. Like most of these buildings, the original structure at 1526 Blake was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1863. By the time of the fire, Blake Street had become a center of commerce in early Denver, and the rebuilding was swift and solid – ensured by the ‘Brick Ordinance’ which required all new construction be of stone or brick.
Among the first brick structures rebuilt by August 1863 were the People’s Restaurant, the Empire Bakery and a boarding house & saloon owned by a German immigrant named Charles Eyser. This establishment at 1526 Blake opened at a time when saloons, gambling rooms and houses of ill-repute were flourishing - paving the way to an infamous chapter in Denver’s history best told over a Mule in the Blake Street Vault.
By the mid-1880s as Denver gentrified and was chosen as Colorado’s capital, it was time for a makeover at 1526 Blake Street. The building, which had suffered like many during the great flood of 1864, would be raised above street level and given some unique features - including a hidden basement vault only accessible through a trap door. As a distribution center of wholesale liquor and cigars, the secret vault was put to good use.
It was also during this time after the renovation, when rumors began of a bar maid from decades past who roamed on the original wooden saloon floors. Over the years, the legend of the high-heeled ‘Brown Ghost’ grew.
During the 1890s, tunnels were created under thoroughfares in downtown Denver. Originally built for the delivery of coal, they soon became a favorite passage to brothels and were even more effective during the Prohibition era of the 1920s. The entrance to these catacombs can be explored in the underbelly of 1526 Blake Street.
Today, 150 years after it’s original construction, visitors can still step back into early Denver at the Blake Street Vault – where good drinks, great food, and even better stories tell of a time when life – and the occasional indiscretion – was lived for the moment. Enjoy!