Visiting the Forney

by Jill Hadley Hooper

I’m a Denver native. And by Denver, I mean Denver; my family rarely ventured west and into the mountains. They were dangerous places full of bad weather, sharp turns and the antisocial. We were plains folk. We liked to be able to see people coming.

Denver in the 60’s and 70’s was a small but growing city and it had its perks. My parents took full advantage of the many museums, parks and libraries. Sundays were spent, not in church, but at the library downtown or classes at the art museum, natural history museum or the Forney.

The Forney Museum in the 1980s
The Forney Museum in the 1980s
I was in REI last week, it’s a beautiful building. And these days it’s so clean which is very different from it’s previous incarnations. It was born as the Tramway Power House, built in 1901 to house the boilers and engines to generate the electricity for the Denver Trolley system.

When the trolley system went caput in the 1950’s the Forney Museum moved in. The Forney was (and is) a transportation museum. It’s a collection of cars, horse drawn carriages, trolleys, train cars, motorcycles and bicycles, anything that will get you from A to B. It’s a Colorado museum soup to nuts: the collection originated with Mr. Forney, who started modestly with his own cars and eventually traded tools for unused and unloved vehicles until he found himself with a collection that needed housing. It’s first stop was the then *new and glamorous* Cinderella City for two years before settling in Platte and 15th.

This was a grand and dusty place to visit. The building dwarfed the vehicles. Inside the place offered independence from parents; a kid could wander alone up and down the cars, it seemed to go on forever. In the yard there were train cars you could climb on and cars you could sit in. The weeds were knee high. The place had the feeling of being an underdog. I bought a conductors cap when I was seven and wore it for a year.

By my teens I had become immersed in the suburbs and school and downtown was lost to me. All these places that had been second homes fell away in favor of Houlihan’s, Skate City, and parks filled with kegs and kids. I left for college in 1982 and returned to Denver in ‘87.

In 1989 I moved into the Highlands and the Forney became my neighbor. I also worked as a waitress at My Brother’s Bar, a close companion to the Tramway Building for over 100 years. I became reacquainted with the museum. My newly minted art school sensibilities—so observant and superior—were numbed by visits to the Forney. It was so earnest, so beautiful, and without irony. You couldn’t take a bad photograph in there. There were pigeons roosting that came and went through the high broken windows, and dusty paths of light that created a cathedral effect. It felt like yours too, a still hidden gem no one had claimed. Best of all, in my absence they had added a wax figure diorama of Alfred Packer.

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