By Ryan Schmidt & Alexander Servantez/CU News Corps
The White City
Located just outside the limits of Denver lies the town of Lakeside. Home to just 17 people, all are facing Sheridan Blvd. just off Interstate 70. It’s a small community in such a fast-growing city.
Most Denver residents pass through the narrow city lines of Lakeside daily without ever knowing. But the tall yellow Tower of Jewels and the white, wooden Cyclone ride that represents the Lakeside Amusement Park are recognizable to all.
Close to the town and park are Byron and Brenda Hamilton. They are lifelong Lakesiders. They haven’t just been to the park numerous times. They grew up around the park. They’ve maintained a relationship with General Manager Rhoda Krasner, daughter of Benjamin Krasner, who purchased the park in 1935.
“We see them about three to four times a year,” said Byron Hamilton. “But every time, it’s like we’re a part of the family. They trust us, and we wouldn’t do anything to break that trust.”
They speak about the times of their childhood at the park. Brenda’s grandmother was the official bookkeeper during the 1970s. Her grandfather was the Edgewater Police Chief around the same time. He went on to run security at the park before retiring.
Byron and his “delinquent parents” may not have had the association with the park that his wife did. But that didn’t stop them from sneaking through that loose hole in the wire fence across from the lake. They would hop onto the famous Lakeside train and ride to the park for a fun-filled day.
“Everybody at the park just felt like family. Rhoda was like everybody’s grandmother,” Byron Hamilton said. “Her mom, we called her Mrs. Kay. She was always riding around on a three-wheel golf cart. Stopping and hugging everyone. That’s the one thing we’d say made up the core of the park. Family.”
With such rich and touching stories, it’s not hard to understand how Lakeside grew to popularity. But what isn’t often mentioned is the park’s pure beauty and aura.
The park, first unveiled in 1908 to a crowd of over 50,000 people, was formerly known as the “White City.” When the sun went down and the night crept in, the park’s 100,000 lights would awaken to fulfill its early moniker. The Tower of Jewels and all of its bright, yellow and gold eminence could be seen from a mile away.
Premier attractions blended with incredible craftsmanship made Lakeside feel grand. The horses on the merry-go-round feature wood that is all handcrafted. The horses’ tails featured real taxidermy fur from horse specimens. Luxurious.
Every year, a carnival would come into town and set up shop in the park bringing a whole host of new, beautiful, and festive attractions for a short time. The carousel and the famed Lakeside train come from World’s Fair. And don’t forget the annual fireworks show that Byron and Brenda Hamilton each described as the “baddest show in the city.”
This level of focus and attention to detail doesn’t just attract Denver natives but amusement park enthusiasts worldwide. Taylor Finn, a Lakeside park visitor from Pennsylvania, raved about his childhood experience at Lakeside and the unique architectural style that set it apart from other parks.
“The park immediately transports you to a different era,” Finn said. “The fondest memories I have aren’t even of being on the rides, so much as just walking through the park, basking in the art-deco lights and seeing families have such a good time.”
The Ghost Town
The park closed for the winter season on Sept. 19. There are no crowds of joyous families to analyze when the threat of snow is at the wake. But with even just a couple of laps around the park’s perimeter, it’s hard to imagine those same spirited crowds packing the grounds even if the park was open.
The sidewalk facing Sheridan Blvd. and the park’s front entrance is hardly a sidewalk. Every footstep is met with the crunch of gravel and dirt. Occasionally, you might have to step over a crushed beer can—an empty bag of chips. Or trudge through vast piles of dead, unkempt leaves.
Make your way to the park’s fence. Enormous weeds and thick foliage inside the park’s boundaries stand taller than the fences’ barbed wire. Tree branches and roots are growing in between the steel material.
A tourist might approach the fence hoping for a good look at the park’s interior. Maybe a picture. The vegetation has grown so wildly and without attention that it’s almost impossible to see some rides and attractions.
The white, art-deco style that once glazed the park is now no more than just chipped and unpainted wood. The Casino Theater is reminiscent of an old, abandoned ballroom, and almost half of the rides are inoperable, including Lakeside’s most popular ride, The Cyclone.
If you had no clue what Lakeside was, you would think it was a ghost town.
So then, why is Lakeside falling into such a bottomless abyss? What’s causing another one of Denver’s most storied landmarks to a deathly fate? Byron and Brenda Hamilton say that it was a disaster, amongst other things, that launched the park into a state of disarray.
“A lot of people don’t know this, but a few years ago, there was a massive hailstorm that completely destroyed the park,” Brenda Hamilton said. “Even the tower that you see when you walk in. It had thousands of light bulbs that glowed bright, and it destroyed them all. Too much damage for Rhoda and them to pay and replace.”
They also spoke of the car wreck in 1988 that killed a young girl. Insurance rates after that accident were driven so high that Lakeside was forced to close down the incredible speedway.
An even more recent incident was referenced, involving a hand injury on the world-famous Cyclone ride. Lakeside visitor and Florida truck driver Daniel Depaola sued the park, hoping they would pay his medical bills after being struck by a wooden beam when he was holding his hands up on the ride.
“I’ve held my hands up on that ride a hundred times, and I’ve never gotten hit,” Byron Hamilton said. “I don’t know how he did it, but he forced that ride to close. That ride will probably never open, either, because it won’t pass a safety inspection without a lot of money going into it.”
However, it’s not all just a series of peril holding the park back from greatness. It’s almost as if the family-friendly identity is also hurting development.
“Rhoda hires cheap,” Brenda Hamilton said. “There was a time when they had a worker stealing from them on the job. Instead of firing him, Rhoda kept him on because they wouldn’t have anybody else to work if they let him go.”
“They also don’t like to get rid of things, either. I love them to death. But they are generational hoarders. There is so much history and beauty in that park that they refuse to get rid of, but something is holding them back from restoring it.”
According to the Hamiltons, a lack of trust keeps Rhoda and company from entrusting others with the restoration and identity of their park. Not once was Rhoda or any other figures of management able to be reached or contacted.
Byron himself foresaw this coming. “You can leave a message and tell them to call you,” he said. “I can tell you they probably will not.”
Losing Our Landmarks
This isn’t the first time the great city of Denver has seen a popular entity fall from grace. In April 2021, a legendary restaurant named Casa Bonita, located at 6715 West Colfax Avenue in Lakewood, filed for bankruptcy and closed its doors to the public.
Since the 1970s, the iconic eatery has given the Denver community festive decor and sopapillas filled with joy. It was one of the nation’s top 10 roadside attractions. It was a landmark. But it was also a place filled with love. A place that gave Denver families a night of belonging in a city that has changed so much since the restaurant’s inception.
Residents wondered how an establishment like Casa Bonita could be gone for good. How could it possibly come to this? What is left in the city of Denver to replace it?
It took two men, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, to save the restaurant from the verge of obscurity. The co-creators of the hit animated television show South Park were avid Colorado enthusiasts not ready to see the “pretty house” die. They purchased the restaurant and are planning to restore its staff and attractions back to all of its glory. The reopening is set for May.
For Lakeside, there is no Trey Parker, no Matt Stone, waiting to save the park from imminent collapse. Instead, Byron and Brenda Hamilton hope the Trey Parker and Matt Stone for Lakeside are the community.
“I always ask myself one thing,” Byron Hamilton said. “If there was an opportunity for the community to volunteer and help restore the park, would Rhoda do it?”
A New Beginning?
There are plans in the near future for the town of Lakeside to turn its sights toward bringing the park back up to speed. The idea is a beautification project headed by Lakeside resident and city council member Henry Schueller.
“I want to bring back some of the beauty within the park,” Schueller said. “ It starts with a presentable image. Big open sidewalks that are safe and wheelchair accessible to open the city up for everybody.”
“Another thing that I am proposing is bike lanes. I think it would be great to see bike lanes going down 44th. Down 48th, possibly connecting Berkeley Park to the Green Belt. Community parks, gardens, solar. It starts with doing our part here in the city.”
But even Schueller knows that a spring cleaning is only the first measure. As the owner of AVLancer, an audio and visual technology company in the town of Lakeside, he believes there have to be some risks taken along the way.
“We built this company by taking risks,” he said. “We put our savings on this company multiple times, so we know all about taking risks. I hope to see a few risks taken, and I hope I can jump in and contribute, as well.”
He’s also taking notes from recent and widespread development in the Highlands area of Denver. A wave of gentrification is knocking at the doorstep of Lakeside along Sheridan and I-70.
“With the growth we’re seeing in this area, I really think the risks that this community and the park need to take are low on downsides and have massive upside potential. It’s really just about connecting that growth to our town.”
And so the final question is this: Where does Lakeside go? What does Lakeside do to keep this park from closure?
Byron Hamilton doesn’t think the land will ever be sold. He believes if the park were ever to shut down, the ground would sit as it does now. Empty, with untapped potential and a firm grip on the glory days of the past.
According to other town sources, there are some talks of selling. Some think Lakeside could become a more mainstream tourist area, similar to the Belmar shopping center. Others believe that restoration efforts are in place, and with the interest and help of the Denver Film Festival, the park could be turned into a historical walk. A place filled with Lakeside history.
But the consensus remains. Lakeside natives and enthusiasts alike don’t want to see the park die. They won’t let the park die. And they need help from the people of Denver to keep the park alive.
“It could be a GoFundMe. It could be anything,” Schueller reaffirmed. “Even if it’s just to show Rhoda and the people at the park how much the community cares and wants to see it succeed. It could go a long way.”
“It’s sad what’s going on over there. I’m sure I and everyone else want to see it doing better. I think some things must be done before it’s too late.”