Denver Capitol

continuing in this capitol vein, let’s head to Denver’s mile-high capitol. while I may have visited before, my most memorable trip to the Colorado statehouse was on my drive from Madison to San Diego four and a half years ago (wow, really that long ago?!). because my uncle was running for state elected office at the time, upon stopping into the Republican caucus the office person offered to show us around the legislative chambers. apart from my uncle getting into trouble for trying to go into the well of the Assembly chamber (which is, apparently, restricted to elected officials), the tour was somewhat underwhelming. part of the interior was under renovation and mostly I remember it being dark and much narrower than any capitol I’d visited to date.

the building was designed by Elijah E. Meyers (who also designed the Michigan and Texas state capitol buildings) and constructed at the end of the 19th century, opening for use in 1894. unlike Illinois, the selection of Denver as capitol proved primarily uncontentious, the city beating out competitors like Pueblo by more than 17,000 votes. the exterior construction consists of white granite while the interior utilizes rose onyx and a rare rose marble, all from Colorado. the ceiling of the entrance hall rises some 180 feet (seen above) to the top of the dome, though (as I said) I was less impressed with this dome than with others that I’ve seen. the exterior of the dome is covered in gold plate, an addition made in 1908 to commemorate the Colorado gold rush.

the capitol shares its most unique feature with the city’s nickname as the Mile High City. the fifteenth step of the western entrance includes the phrase “One Mile Above Sea Level” and serves as the mark for measuring  the official elevation of Denver. subsequent to the step’s placement, however, more accurate elevation measurements have been taken — first by students at Colorado State University in 1969, and again and in 2003. each time, brass markers were added to indicate the adjustment, which currently resides on the 13th step.

learn lots more history here

Casa Bonita

one of the other unique Denver experiences on our list: a trip to Casa Bonita. one of our party was rather adamant about the experience and I will say this: a trip to Casa Bonita truly is unlike anything else in the world. I’ve never seen the South Park episode that made it (in)famous, but having now seen the place myself, I have some idea what that episode might have looked like.

founded in Oklahoma City in 1968, the Casa Bonita chain spread through neighboring states in the early 1970s, known for it’s all-you-can-eat beef and chicken plates, as well as its sopapillas. only two locations remain — one in Lakewood and one in Tulsa. the restaurant in Lakewood opened in 1974 in a space formerly occupied by a large retail store (I heard someone say something along the lines of a Ross?).

what your food looks like
where you pick up your food

the food is horrifying and prices astronomically overblown. it may be all-you-can-eat, but who would want to? there was no vegetarian option that coincided with “cheapest item on the menu” and we all ended up picking up taco salad plates, some with beef, some with chicken. none of us were terribly interested in doing anything but carry the plates to a table near the diving pool where we might fill our bellies with sopapillas instead. I don’t quite understand how or why people make a family night of the place. surely there are much cheaper places to find entertainment and bad Mexican food in Denver? ah, but, enthusiasts counter, do any of those places have cliff divers? well, no. I guess you come for the cliff divers. and the sopapillas. the divers are swim/dive team members who want to practice during the off season, apparently. there are also strolling mariachis, an arcade, a haunted tunnel (which was rather creepily dark), and a puppet theater. there is really nothing else like it.

cliff diving pool
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the Argo Gold Mine

walking down the hill

after we learned about the tunnel from our new Dutch friend, we got to go up the mountain and into an abandoned mine — the Double Eagle Mine, which dates from the early 1890s. they made us put on hardhats and, upon letting us out of the shuttle, admonished us to walk down the hill. apparently, a couple of weeks earlier a couple from somewhere in Europe made the mistake of turning left out of the tunnel and ended up half way to Central City (which we know is about 4.5 miles away).

when these mines were prospected, men had to rely on candlelight and hand tools, with the occasional assistance of dynamite (which, as we know, got them into trouble in the Argo Tunnel). it was excruciating and exhausting work to dig and haul rock from the tunnels and the depth of the Double Eagle mine illustrated this. it’s only a couple dozen meters from the mouth of the tunnel to the end, though it’s high enough in most places for someone of my height to walk through (we still had to put on hard hats all the same).

while the Double Eagle mine didn’t net the miners the lode every prospector hopes for, it yielded some gold. in fact, there is still gold to be found in the tunnel. because they were using candles to light the tunnel, the original prospectors didn’t notice the vein of gold running along the ceiling at the back of the tunnel. it’s hard to tell from the picture of Gabrielle and Jen, but there’s an apparent streak along the southern wall of the tunnel which would have been just a bit too faint to distinguish by candlelight. we, of course, had the benefit of electricity. and being told where to look to see the gold. you can’t prospect on the Argo land any more, but there is still gold in dem hills and anyone can take a pan out to the creek and try their hand at prospecting in the frigid waters. we opted for the easy, gold-flake-laden prospecting opportunity in the troughs in front of the Argo shop. the water was plenty cold, but at least we weren’t up to our knees in it!

the Argo Tunnel

in addition to the Denver Miniature Museum, we also ventured into the mountains to see another unique Colorado site — a gold mine & mill. the Argo Mill & Mine is located in Idaho Springs east of Denver and is known in part because of its 4.16 mile long tunnel that allowed easier extraction of gold along the length of the tunnel. the Dutch ex-pat that started us off on our tour was a hoot and gave us far more information than strictly necessary.

construction of the tunnel began in 1893 from the southern terminus and, by the time it reached its completed length in 1910, intersected nearly all the major gold mines between the entrance and Central City. construction did not progress unhindered, as management and construction teams changed and war broke out between England and Spain. rather than dig further into the mountain and then cart gold out to the entrance and down the mountainside or to the mill, the tunnel allowed prospectors to send ore down chutes into carts that traveled along rails inside the tunnel and straight to the mill.

by 1914 the nearby mill was running at full capacity but problems persisted and, in 1943, disaster struck. prospectors found a major lode of gold near the Central City end of the tunnel and decided to blast it out to get at it more quickly. unfortunately, there was an abandoned mine that did not appear on maps which was filled with water. the blast unleashed what amounted to an underground lake and flooded out the tunnel. the deluge ripped up everything in the tunnels, rendering it virtually unusable and full of acidic mine water. shortly after the disaster, the national government ordered all gold mines closed so as to free men and materials for mining metals more deemed more important to the war effort. neither the mine nor the tunnel ever re-opened.

Argo Mill & Tunnel
Argo Tunnel

our homecoming tradition

as any of you who have been reading my blog for more than a year know, each October I meet up with some good friends from college in a town where one of us lives. the first annual was in Vegas, followed by San Diego, Los Angeles, Santa Cruz and, this year, Denver. starting with the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City, we started a tradition of finding crazy, odd-ball, or definitively kitsch tourist-trap sites for our weekends. you know, the kinds of places you probably wouldn’t ever go if you didn’t have the right kinds of friends in town visiting. in Santa Cruz, I convinced everyone to go to the Mystery Spot and, later, we rode the Giant Dipper on the Santa Cruz Boardwalk.

this year, thanks to the excellent day-planning skills of our host, one of our first stops was the Denver Museum of Miniatures, Dolls, and Toys. it has a meticulous replica of the childhood home of a Denver scion, as well as period and regional displays — pueblos, a 16th century German town store, a hacienda — all very impressive. but in addition to these fascinating miniature displays, the museum hosts an odd assortment of classic toys and games (a very early model E-Z Bake Oven, board games from the 1950s, superhero figurines in original blister packaging) and three giant teddy bears. while either the papa or mama bear came over from England (where all three were made) in the belly of a jetliner, as would your average piece of freight, the smallest (standing at least 5 feet tall), crossed the pond in a first class seat. who knew such enthusiasm existed for such things?

the location and museum staffer added to the atmosphere, too. upon seeing five twentysomethings waiting outside the front door, the gentleman taking tickets seemed rather uncertain as to how to cope with such a large group of unexpected early-Friday visitors. he offered us makeshift clip-boards for a scavenger hunt and wished us well. the museum itself is located in the historic Pearce-McAllister cottage and displays take up most of the rooms … including two bathrooms. the toilets in both bathrooms have ribbons over the top with notes admonishing visitors not to utilize them. we restrained ourselves and one of our party, so amused by the situation, took a clandestine photo of one of the toilets.

next year, the plan is for the House on the Rock which, pursuant to the criterion posed above that we go places one would never go unless with the right group of friends were in town.