Date of Award

Spring 1-1-2011

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Peter Boag

Second Advisor

Marcia Yonemoto

Third Advisor

Virginia Anderson


The history of the Denver Mountain Parks exposes the profound connections between city life and scenic preservation, outdoor recreation, and wilderness appreciation during the early twentieth century. By examining the cultural roots of Denver’s mountain parks this study links the conservation and preservation movements of the Progressive Era to specifically urban concerns. Denver’s history highlights the central role that urban reform, urban planning, and municipal politics played in shaping the scenic natural landscape parks of these years. Denver developed its mountain parks at a time of growing federal commitment to resource conservation and the national parks. In Denver, however, these trends were less significant in conceptualizing the mountain parks than the City Beautiful movement. In 1912 a coalition of Denver’s commercial interests persuaded voters to fund municipal development of extra-urban mountain parks. Building upon the popularity of exiting Mayor Robert Speer’s urban beautification program, these advocates extended City Beautiful thinking beyond the bounds of the city proper, applying urban park geographies and ideologies to justify the distant mountain parks and join them to the city. These ideas included the pursuit of tourism, thereby linking City Beautiful thought with the See America First idea and the coincident boom in national tourism. Denver commissioned a mountain park plan from Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., which provided a template for preserving vast tracts of essentially wild mountain land. Over time, however, Denver’s park planners moved away from Olmsted’s large tracts toward an urban geography of smaller parks. The city created a legal framework that extended its political power into the mountain hinterland, giving Denver the right to buy or condemn land outside its corporate limits, and to develop, police, and manage its mountain parks. Denver developed a range of attractions and amenities in the mountain parks including a game preserve, rustic lodges, and Buffalo Bill’s grave that connected the mountain landscapes with the popular symbolism of the frontier. These images were joined with a wealth of promotional literature that celebrated modernity, especially the technologies that paved the way for new forms of outdoor recreation in nature made accessible by road and car.