Taking Flak: Denver Names and History

I’ll probably take some flak for writing this essay.  Oh well, I have before, and I probably will again. 

Recently I took a bus to downtown Denver for an event.  Why the bus? Traffic and parking anywhere near there are just another form of self-inflicted brain damage. And I don’t need any more of that than is absolutely necessary. Just ask my wife; or my neurologist.

Just after exiting I-25, the bus came to a stop right behind center field of the baseball stadium called Coors Field – the Colorado Rockies’ home park.  I got to wondering about the street names at the intersection:  Park and Wewatta.

Surely Park was not named after the ball park.  That didn’t come until 1995. So … what was the street named after? Or for?  I could not think of a significant park along its diagonal path, from northwest to southeast. In fact, after consulting a map, it does not have one. It surely did not really come that close to City Park, or the Park Hill neighborhoods.   

What to say about Denver’s Park Avenue? How many times did Audrey and I traverse its entire length en route to the old Children’s Hospital?  How many grains of sand in a bucket?

First to discuss is the non-cardinal direction of Park Avenue, and all the streets in downtown Denver.  The city, and its twin – competing – city Auraria, were founded during the early years of the first Colorado gold rush, in the late 1850s, at the confluence of the South Platte River and Cherry Creek – water being very important to civilization in the arid west.  The original streets naturally ran parallel and perpendicular to the water flow there: Cherry Creek enters the South Platte at nearly a right angle; Cherry Creek flowing from southeast to northwest, and the South Platte flowing from southwest to northeast.

Streets were numbered moving northeast away from the city’s southwest-most corner. The street that would one day be called Park Avenue was then called 23rd street.  Around 1873 there was a major city effort on improving street naming conventions, and – for reasons I have yet to discover – 23rd street was re-named Park Avenue.

I found a great interactive map of Denver made in 1878 with almost infinite zoom – I surely thought that would help me. But there were no parks along Park Avenue. 

Park Avenue does cross over the the South Platte River, and its flood plain. Maybe some land there was set aside – as a sort of park – before the railyard there became so expansive. Surely you wouldn’t build where it could flood.  [There has not been a severe flood of Denver from the South Platte since 1965.  Flood control has improved greatly.  Building on that flood plain used to be a dicey proposition. Now it is cluttered with buildings, many of them apartments and condos].

Perhaps it was wishful thinking about “Parks of times yet to come” –  (Denver does, indeed, have many parks) – maybe someday there would be a park at the end of the Park Avenue.  The “end” is where it meets Colfax Avenue, and yields to the more traditional North-South-East-West grid found throughout the rest of the Denver area, and many “planned cities” everywhere.  

Or perhaps, Park Avenue was named after something else. 

Plenty of things in America, particularly the west, are named after other things and other places well-known further east – whether “further east” is somewhere in America, or across the Atlantic.  One of our former “hometowns” – Erie, Colorado – was named after Erie, Pennsylvania … each one hardly a “wonderland.”

“Park” is the fifth most common street name in the United States, according to the National League of Cities (NLC).  [Oddly, #1 on the list is “Second”, or “2nd”.  I assume “First” sometimes gets renamed to Front, or Main, as it is still is #3 on the list].

Probably the most well-known Park-named street is Park Avenue, linking Manhattan and Harlem in New York. And indeed, it was named after a park – sort of, anyhow.  It was originally 4th Avenue, but a rail line was built along its length in the 1830s, connecting the two neighborhoods.  To minimize slope, a cut was made through Murray Hill.  Once the rail line was in, it was covered with grates and grass in the 1850s, which became a sort of common area known as “the park.”  Grand Central Station is there now.

I cannot tell you why Denver’s street is called Park Avenue. For now, I’m going with Denver’s Park Avenue being named after New York’s famous and more glamorous Park Avenue.

It’s a bit quicker to get the source of the names of three “W” streets lumped close together, starting with the intersection where the bus stopped, near Coors Field: those are Wewatta, Wynkoop and Wazee Streets.

 Wynkoop Street.   Edward Wynkoop was one of the first white settlers in Denver, one of its founders, and was appointed the first sheriff of the county and territory in which Denver lay at the time (Arapahoe County, Kansas Territory). 

When the Civil War broke out, and there seemed to be a need for soldiers (there were actually some battles in the west), Wynkoop was part of the 1st Colorado Volunteer Cavalry and became an officer.  Both as sheriff and as commander at Fort Lyons in Colorado (some 150 miles to the southeast of Denver), he tried – in vain – to promote peaceful relations between Denverites and the local Amerindians, mostly the Arapahoe tribes. 

Unfortunately, in late 1864, he was re-assigned further east, to Fort Riley (in modern day Kansas).  Only a few weeks later, on November 29, 1864, one of the saddest, bloodiest, and tragic crimes in Colorado history was perpetrated near Fort Lyons along the banks of Sand Creek.  Under the “leadership” of John Chivington, several hundred mostly Arapahoe and Cheyenne Amerindians, who had camped near Ft Lyon under the promise of protection, were attacked and butchered without warning.  We still mourn the event, a black spot on America’s soul and history, now known as the Sand Creek Massacre. 

The location is now, finally, federally protected as a National Historical Site, and part of the National Park System.

Not exactly a savory bit of history, but it closes the loop on the Wynkoop street name.  To put a better looking ribbon on the story we’ll continue, to well over 100 years later. 1988, a few guys with an urge to make beer, and not much else to do, got together and founded the first micro-brewery in Colorado: Wynkoop Brewery, right there on Wynkoop Street.  One of those guys was an unemployed, laid off geologist named John Hickenlooper.  After a very successful business career at Wynkoop, he went on to become mayor of Denver, governor of Colorado and is currently a candidate for president of the United States.  It seems likely that “Hick” will change horses and run for US Senator … we shall see.

Wynkoop Brewery is still a fantastic setting to have a craft beer, chat with Kurt the bartender about ANYTHING related to sports, get a burger, and catch up with friends.  And it’s only a few blocks from many good things to do and see in Denver, including catch a Rockies game at Coors Field.

Wazee, Wewatta.  Another of Denver’s founders and early residents was a “mountain man” who began life in Scotland, William McGaa (Also known as McGau). He kept moving farther and farther west, finally settling at the confluence of Cherry Creek and the South Platte. He had lived, on-and-off for several years, among the Arapahoe. He had a reputation as a rather unruly vagrant. 

He began naming some early streets, including one after himself and two after his Arapahoe wives, naming three parallel streets (evidently skipping a block each time) as McGaa, Wazee and Wewatta.  McGaa’s own street (where he apparently lived a while) became quite notorious as a street full of grifters, drunks, prostitutes and gamblers.  At the time it carried the nickname “America’s most lawless street.”

[According to legend, McGaa also named Champa after himself, claiming it was one of his Amerindian names. Champa is still called that today]

The names of his Arapahoe wives, Wazee and Wewatta, still adorn downtown Denver street signs over 150 years later.  McGaa, ever the prototypical, free-spirited, western mountain man, was not really cut-out for city living – even a city as new and raw as Denver.  He himself was a regular rapscallion there on McGaa Street; notorious for his excessive drinking, gaming and womanizing.

Not unsurprisingly, McGaa kicked-off a tad young, age 43, in 1867.  Upon his death, and seeing no reason to preserve his name, Denver changed the street name to Holladay.  This was to honor Ben Holladay, a successful businessman who had developed the Overland Stagecoach Trail and the Overland Mail Trail. Denver essentially recognized his – and the trails’ – contributions to the city’s early economic development.

Overland Trail as spur to Oregon/California Trails

Unfortunately, due to the circumstances of the era – and unfortunately for Holladay himself – the street continued to be home to much of Denver’s amoral behavior and business.  Two years after Holladay’s death, and under petition from Holladay’s family, the city changed the name again, in 1889, to Market Street. Not really being a market street, per se, city historians believe this was done with a smirk and a wink to acknowledge all the “activities” going on there.  It still carries that name Market, yet now has a much cleaner image.

There’s an old saying “If you are taking flak, then you must be close to the target.” Flak is an interesting word, isn’t it?  You, dear reader, might feel like flinging some “flak” at me right now. In that case, I’m over the target.

It’s a term that comes from WW2, and it’s interesting that we English speakers don’t use the term “ack-ack” instead.  Both terms have similar military jargon origins. 

In early electronic communication – both telephonic and wireless – words, and even spelling, could be confusing.  The Brits came up with using “ack” instead of saying the letter “a”; because even saying “a” could be misinterpreted (like a bad cell phone connection), especially given dialects which might prefer “ah”, “ay” or even “eh”.  Anti-Aircraft fire simply became abbreviated as “ack-ack”, which they started using in WW1.  Somehow, we Americans never really picked it up, not doing much flying “over there.”

Flak has a more curious germination. I deciphered it recently while wading through William Manchester’s exceeding dense history of Germany’s most famous industrialist family, the Krupps.  Flak comes directly from German “Fliegerabwehrkanonen”; or literally “Flight Defense Cannons.”  Germans, of course, having that propensity to smash words together. In there we can detect Cannons (Kanonen), Defense (Abwehr) and Flight (Fleig-) … in this just a single word!  [As usual, almost always in reverse order of significance: just think: Flieger Abwehr Kanonen; Or: guns defending against flight … easy, huh?].

How or why the Allies began using the German term “flak” is still a mystery to me.  But, it does seem to have better flow and onomatopoetic value, does it not?

Well I’ve drifted rather a long way from Park, Wewatta, Wazee, Denver, baseball and apple pie. So, I’d better quit before I catch any flak – which originally would refer to the guns that are shooting at us,  – and not  the nasty stuff that might hit us!

Peace, take care, and remember: if you’re taking ack-ack, you’re close to the target!

Joe Girard © 2019

Thanks for reading. As always, you can add yourself to the notification list for when there is newly published material by clicking here. Or emailing me at Joe@Girardmeister.com.

9 thoughts on “Taking Flak: Denver Names and History”

  1. Steve Rolfe

    As you so uncommonly can, you make stories of remarkably minor importance into interesting reading. Especially through excellent writing.

  2. Aaron

    This makes me wonder if Acca Dacca (Australian colloquial term for AC/DC) has any connection to ack-ack. Great article because I always wonder about naming conventions too!!

  3. Regina Graw

    My dad was drafted as a “Flak helper” when he was 16. Many of those kids died. Luckily he didn’t. I never thought about what the term actually meant, even though I heard the word repeatedly. “Flugabwehrkanonen” – interesting.
    This is what I found on the Internet: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luftwaffenhelfer

    1. Joe Post Author

      Oh my gosh, Regina. I forgot you had told me that. I’m glad your father survived his impressment into service.

  4. Diane

    An excellent read, thank you. There’s a park here in Santa Barbara called Alice Keck Park, called so because it was donated to the city by a woman named Alice Keck Park….so legally, the name is Alice Keck Park Park. I always thought that was funny. Our city has a fascinating history including names like Bath Street (yes, where all the ranchers bathed weekly) and Mission Street leading up to the old Mission. One street was renamed because the original meant Dead Indian and folks got a little worried…

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