Mary Elitch Long
More than the founder of Denver's famed Elitch
Gardens, Mary Elitch Long has a well-earned reputation as a businesswoman.
In the male-dominated
late 19th and early 20th centuries, Long served as a powerful
role model at a time when women had far fewer non- traditional
role models to embrace. At that time, she was the only woman in
the world running an amusement park.
Born in Philadelphia in 1856, Mary Hauck spent most of her childhood
in California where her father moved his livestock and fruit business.
At the age of 16, she eloped with John Elitch, Jr., whom she had
met in church. The couple moved to Durango in 1880, where they
opened a restaurant; two years later they moved to Denver and opened
a new restaurant called Elitch's.
The couple purchased an apple orchard five miles
north of Denver intending to grow fresh fruits and vegetables for
With Long's love for children, flowers, animals, and the theater
an ambitious dream was born. The apple orchard was transformed
into Elitch's Zoological Gardens (Denver's first zoo), a wonderland
of exotic animals, orchards, and gardens. There was plenty of entertainment:
from marching bands to vaudeville to light opera. After the close
of the first season, John long invested $35,000 in a theater troupe,
which toured up and down the Pacific Coast. It was in San Francisco
that he contracted severe pneumonia, and died two weeks later,
March 10, 1891.
It was a sad but determined woman
who returned to Denver. A 34-year old widow, short on cash, she
sold the majority of her
garden's stock to a group of Denver capitalists. She remained in
an administrative capacity with the company, and by 1894 had regained
total control of the gardens. Over the next 20 years Long provided
high quality low cost entertainment for thousand of visitors from
around the world. Elitch's was the first place in the American
West to show Edison's Warograph (animated pictures that were the
precursor to movies").
In 1897, Long formed the country's first
summer stock company. A who's who of stage legends such as Edward
G. Robinson, Douglas
Fairbanks, Sr. and Jr., Vincent Price, Gloria Swanson, Ginger Rogers,
and Lana Turner played the Elitch stage. In 1906 Sarah Bernhardt
was brought to Denver to play "Camille" and "LaSorcier," both in
the same day!
Music was always an important factor at the gardens. Not only
were brass bands popular with visitors, but soon outdoor symphony
concerts were drawing large crowds. By then, there were swings,
a merry-go-round, and a train which added to the merry atmosphere
of the gardens.
With the death of Long'ss second husband, Thomas
Long, in 1906, J. K. Mullen and Jim Berger began running the non-theater
and helping with financial decisions. By 1916, however, the park
had fallen on hard times, and the entire property was sold to John
Mulvihill. Long had provided in the sale contract that she would
in her cottage on the grounds and receive $50 a month until she
died. She spent the last four years of her life with relatives
and died at age 80 on July 16, 1936.