Women's History Month: Mary Elitch Long

Mary Elitch Long and her first husband, John Elitch, Jr., opened Elitch Gardens. Soon after, she became a widow who decided to run the original Elitch Gardens for years.
  • Portrait of Mary Elitch Long, an old poster for Elitch Zoological Gardens, a photograph of the original entrance to Elitch Gardens, and Mary pictured with two bear cubs. Text: Mary Elitch Long, one of the original owners of Elitch Gardens in Denver, CO.

There’s a good chance you’ve either been to Elitch Gardens or have seen it across the way from the Auraria campus. There is also a good chance you may not know that Mary Elitch Long owned and operated it. While there are plans to eliminate the amusement park in the future, which we’ll touch on more, it is rich in history and good times, all thanks to one woman.

Mary Elitch Long was born in Philadelphia in 1856 before she relocated to California with her family. They settled there and made a living as fruit farmers. In California, Mary met John Elitch, Jr., an actor, restauranteur, and businessman. There was a significant age gap between the two when they fell in love, Mary being 16 and John being 22, that did not stop the couple from eloping in the summer of 1872.

Less than ten years later, the couple decided to pick up their belongings and move to Denver. It was here that they opened the Elitch Palace Dining Room in August 1886. The following year, John and Mary purchased the 16-acre Chilcott Farm in northwest Denver along 38th Avenue to provide fresh produce for their restaurant. Things took a plot twist when they sold the restaurant in 1888 to transform the property into a resort, including the only zoo west of Chicago, a botanical garden, and a theatre.

Elitch’s Zoological Gardens opened on May 1, 1890, quickly becoming a popular destination and a profitable business. Unfortunately for Mary, her beloved husband fell ill and died less than a year after the opening. The death of her husband left her as a 35-year-old widow and now the sole business owner and manager of Elitch’s Zoological Gardens. It was pretty unusual in the 1800s for a woman to own a business, particularly a very successful one.

Mary did not let the death of her husband deter her. She took the opportunity to expand the business. Elitch had been gifted lions and bears by the circus owner P.T. Barnum, but she needed more animals for the attraction to be a true destination, so she added kangaroos, deer, and snakes to the squad. She also decided to incorporate a theatre training program for the theatre on the property. Eventually, a rollercoaster was added as well.

Mary married Thomas Long at the turn of the century, which was a huge misfortune for the future. Thomas passed away within 17 years of the marriage, the property fell on hard times, and Mary was forced to sell Elitch Gardens. In the sales agreement, the Elitch name got to stay, and she was allowed to continue living in her house on the property.

The original Elitch Gardens was open from 1890 to 2014. In 1995, the amusement park we know today came to fruition and was relocated to its current location, just west of Downtown. The original theater remained in northwest Denver and was turned into the Center for American Theatre.  

Fast forward to the present day, there are plans to close Elitch Gardens to make way for the new River Mile Project. Voted on in 2018 by the Denver City Council, the project is viewed as a newly rediscovered and revitalized natural resource… to reaffirm the importance of the South Platte River as an essential part of the regional ecology – as an active watershed, wildlife habitat, and recreational amenity for all.”

River Mile Elitch Map (bigger).png

Map of the Rive Mile Project. Image shows where Elitch Gardens currently is in relation to Downtown Denver, Speer Blvd, I-25, the South Platte River, and other areas of Denver.
A map showing where Elitch Gardens' property currently sits in relation to the South Platte River and the Auraria Campus. Photo Credit: RiverMileDenver.com

What will this mean for the people of Denver and students on the Auraria campus in the years to come? The project will take an estimated 25 years to finish, including affordable housing, restaurants, parks, art installations, and retail spaces. With Auraria’s proximity to Elitch Gardens, this project could potentially provide CCD students with careers in the coming years, ranging from architectural and engineering jobs to business opportunities to art and design to manufacturing.

While the River Mile Project is technically already underway, there is no official date for when Elitch Gardens will close. There is still time to enjoy the park. For now, let’s admire the strength of the business-savvy Mary Elitch Long, appreciate the park’s origins, and pay homage to an incredible part of Denver’s history by floating down the lazy river a few more summers!