John Brisben Walker: A Man of Ideas
by Edna Fiore
John Brisben Walker—inventor, innovator, and visionary —truly fit the description of a ‘Renaissance Man’. By the time he was 26 years old (in 1873) he had attended Gonzaga College, Georgetown College, and West Point Military Academy; served as a military advisor and general in a Chinese Army; run for Congress on the Republican ticket; and married Emily Strother, “the prettiest girl in the valley of the Virginia”; and won and lost his first fortune. He spent the next three years as managing editor of the Cincinnati Commercial Gazette and the Washington D.C. Daily Chronicle. Throughout his career, he continued a remarkable diversity of pursuits, some successfully, others not.
Asked by the US Government to investigate agriculture in the arid regions of the West in 1879, he purchased 1,600 acres in North Denver, Berkley Farm, where he introduced the production of alfalfa as a cash corp. In 1880, he purchased 500 lots near present-day Union Station and developed Denver’s first amusement park, River Front Park, which boasted a race track, the Castle of Culture & Commerce, ball parks, an excursion steamer, and numerous other features, such as fireworks displays. There he also staged Denver’s first rodeo.
In 1887 [actually about 1909, ed.], Walker purchased the ‘Swiss Cottage’ in Morrison, a hotel built by Governor Evans and used by the Jesuits as a college for four years. He donated fifty acres of Berkley Farm to the Jesuits, and it became the nucleus of what is today Regis University. He reopened the hotel as the Morrison Casino and added a swimming pool and other amenities. Eventually he purchased all of what is now Red Rocks Park and Mt. Falcon.
Walker sold River Front Park to the City of Denver in 1893 and moved to Tarrytown, N.Y. Here he purchased the faltering Cosmopolitan Magazine, turned it around, and in 1895 (after purchasing the rights to the Stanley Steamer) manufactured automobiles at his Mobile Wagonette factory on the Tarrytown estate. By 1900 his auto factory boasted 24 models, ranging from a $750 economy model to $10,000 racers. Always the innovator, Walker sponsored the first automobile race in the United States in 1895. He sold Cosmopolitan Magazine to the Hearst Corporation for one million dollars in 1905 and prepared to return west.
He and his new wife Ethel Richmond Walker returned to Morrison, where he concentrated his efforts on developing the Red Rocks area, which he named The Garden of the Titans. There he built a road to the area, a teahouse, hiking trails, and a funicular or incline railway to the top of Mt. Morrison, the longest cog railway in the world at the time. The famed opera diva Mary Garden, accompanied by Ethel on the violin, sang in the Red Rocks natural amphitheater and pronounced it “acoustically perfect.” Many other concerts by the day’s famous musicians and performers followed.
In 1911, J.B. sponsored an automobile rally on Mt. Falcon and also laid out a golf course at its base. His love for the area made him a tireless promoter of its beauties, which he believed could make it a major resort. During this period of enthusiasm, Walker proposed the concept that eventually became the Denver Mountain Park system. J.B. Walker also dreamed of a palatial summer White House on Mt. Falcon. [right] The cornerstone was laid and construction begun, but his fierce spirit of individuality hampered his search for successful funding for the project, despite enlisting the pennies of the schoolchildren of Colorado.
Near his hoped-for Summer White House, Walker built a grand mansion on Mt. Falcon for Ethel and his many children.* Ethel Richmond Walker died there in 1916 and was buried near the foot of her beloved Mt. Falcon during a snowstorm. Two years later the mansion burned to the ground. Some say it was caused by lightning, others suggest a more sinister origin. The stark ribs of this edifice remain in Mt. Falcon Open Space Park, a timeless memorial to Jefferson County’s greatest tycoon.
John Brisben Walker was elected to the Jefferson County Hall of Fame in 1988.
* Eight children by his first wife, Emily Strother Walker, and four by Ethel, his second wife. J.B. Walker was born September 10, 1847, and died July 7, 1931.
Fall 2010: We’ve just received word that an historic building Walker was closely involved with was recently torn down. Read more about Berkeley Town Hall.