Tombstones, Tumbleweeds & Tall Tales

The Denver Press Club plot at Riverside Cemetery.
The Denver Press Club plot at Riverside Cemetery.

Writer and Club Treasurer Skyler McKinley explores the Denver Press Club plot at Riverside Cemetery.

I was honored to write this week’s cover story for Westword, where I worked to tell the complete story about Riverside Cemetery – Denver’s oldest operating cemetery, and one with as many tumbleweeds as tombstones.

It’s an important place, especially for the history-minded among us. On a short stroll you can come across the final resting places of names you’d recognize from street signs, state maps, and the history books – including three Colorado governors; nine Denver mayors; pioneering African American business leaders such as Barney Ford and Clara Brown; and Silas Soule, the Union Army captain who principally refused to participate in the Sand Creek Massacre.

You can also come face to face with some Denver Press Club history while paying respects to past members. Our Club purchased a plot at Riverside not long after its gates opened in April 1876. That plot is in a prime location in Block 2, Lot 51 – about twelve paces from the grave of Gov. John Routt, the State of Colorado’s first governor, and his partner Eliza Pickrell Routt, the first woman registered to vote in Colorado.

Just as you’ll always find characters at the Clubhouse bar, you’ll find them at our burial plot, too. Most prominent of the bunch is Owen J. Goldrick, who founded Colorado’s first school and first public library before launching a successful journalism career – and who reportedly spoke to his oxen in Latin. A biographer described Goldrick as, “a forcible, trenchant writer…[who] is fearless and outspoken in manner, has little regard for the conventionalities of society, and heartily detests sham and hypocrisy in all its forms.” Sounds like he’d fit right in at the Club on a Friday night.

Just to Goldrick’s east lies Michael J. Gavisk, the first editor of the Daily Democrat, the Leadville branch publication of the Rocky Mountain News. He died in 1882, at age 27, while serving as private secretary to Gov. Frederick Pitkin.

To Goldrick’s west? Col. Champion Vaughan, who was editor-in-chief of the Denver Tribune in 1873. There’s no relation, best I can tell, to past Club President Kevin Vaughan. According to historian Annette L. Student, Champion Vaughan “kept a 10-gallon container of whiskey under his desk and would arrive at work at the peak of his dignity, which as the day progressed changed in proportion to the decrease of whiskey in the container.” Vaughan called himself colonel after claiming to attain that rank in the 4th Kansas Cavalry of the Union Army. Civil War researchers tell me they have been unable to substantiate any military service on Vaughan’s behalf, whatsoever, and suspect it was a tall tale he’d tell his drinking buddies at the Denver Press Club, who owned the plot and had him buried there after he died in 1884.

That’s the thing about tombstones: Nobody fact-checks them. Journalism, as they say, is the first draft of history. Cemeteries, meanwhile, are sometimes places where history lies. What I so love about the Denver Press Club is storytellers of all stripes can call it home.

I hope you’ll take a look at my Westword piece, which is online and in those red news boxes all over town. I’d love to hear what you think over a tipple at the Clubhouse bar.


Skyler McKinley
Treasurer, Denver Press Club Board of Directors

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Skyler McKinley

Skyler McKinley is on the board of directors for the Denver Press Club, where he's served since 2018 and as treasurer since 2022. The spokesman and head of government affairs for AAA in three states, he previously served in a variety of senior roles in the administration of Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper. He owns and operates the Oak Creek Tavern in the rural heart of Colorado's Yampa Valley, and is a contributor to Denver7, FOX31, and Denver Westword, among others.

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