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A punt floats down Cherry Creek on a tranquil evening. (Provided by Jolon Clark)

One of the boats is a garden planter now. A couple more sit in a storage unit near Elitch Gardens. The remaining handful of punts — think gondolas like in Venice — were given away as gifts, their fate today unknown.

It’s been 13 years since the last punt plied Denver’s Cherry Creek. But the legacy of Venice on the Creek, the eccentric tourist attraction that once sent visitors on rides through the only boat locks in Colorado, lives on in how Denver thinks of the neighborhood around one of its primary waterways — and launched at least one political career. 

“It captured people’s imaginations,” said Jolon Clark, a Denver city council member whose first job was a “punter” for Venice on the Creek in the 1990s, and said his experience led him down a path toward public service. “It was a magical thing that got people to dream about where Denver was going.”

Venice on the Creek launched in 1996, when downtown Denver was still finding its identity, said Jeff Shoemaker, the head of the Greenway Foundation, a nonprofit focused on revitalizing Denver-area waterways. 

Two punts pass each other on Cherry Creek. (Provided by Jolon Clark)
Former Venice on the Creek punter Joe Wood demonstrates the spot where guests boarded boats on a landing beneath Larimer Street. (David Gilbert, The Colorado Sun)
Former Venice on the Creek punter Joe Wood points out features of a defunct boat lock on Cherry Creek. (David Gilbert, The Colorado Sun)

“It was one of the most delightful, challenging, goofy things we’ve ever done,” Shoemaker said. “Back then, the banks of Cherry Creek were asphalt and vacant lots. It was pretty forgotten. We wanted to prove it could be something beautiful.”

Founded by Shoemaker’s father, Joe Shoemaker, in 1974, the Greenway Foundation has led efforts to build miles of trails and dozens of parks along Cherry Creek and the South Platte River, and hosts environmentally focused summer camps for schoolchildren.

In 1996, the Greenway Foundation built a series of five dams and locks that would allow boats to float less than a mile from Larimer Street to Confluence Park on the South Platte. 

The foundation spent $50,000 on five “punts” — 23-foot wooden boats that could carry a half-dozen passengers plus a “punter,” a pilot who guided the boats with a long wooden pole. The punts were built by British craftsman Cliff Ansel, who also made boats that floated down the River Cam in Cambridge, England.

Funding came from $1.5 million in grants from the City of Denver, the Urban Drainage and Flood Control District, and the Gates Family and Boettcher foundations among others. The project required the blessing of the Army Corps of Engineers, FEMA and Denver Mayor Wellington Webb. 

The first season was slow, with just 3,000 passengers in three months of operation. But by 1997, the idea was starting to hold water. 

Punters during Venice on the Creek’s second season in 1997, when it was still known by its original name, Punt the Creek. (Provided by Jolon Clark)

That’s the year Clark, then a student at South High School, came on board. 

“My high school sweetheart told me I should apply, and I was sure she meant Cherry Creek Reservoir — how could there be boats on Cherry Creek?” Clark said. “But it was the coolest, funkiest thing ever. I gave boat rides to honeymooners from Germany. A guy proposed to his girlfriend on my boat.”

Clark was hooked, and came back every summer through high school and college. When he graduated from Colorado State University in 2003 with a degree in natural resources, Shoemaker put Clark in charge of the foundation’s summer camp program. The work led to fundraising and planning projects, and before long Clark said he was being courted to run for office. He was elected to Denver City Council in 2014.

“The vision I first saw from those boats was to build something positive for downtown,” he said. “It was inspiring.”

Clark said the neighborhood around the creek has radically transformed since his first summer on a punt, with apartments and the upscale LoDo shopping and dining district looming over the channel. In some ways it’s a fulfillment of the Greenway Foundation’s goals, Clark said, though downtown is again hurting as pandemic shutdowns and a shift toward work from home have left shops and restaurants struggling.

“You do see a lot of people living right in that downtown area, though, and I think that’s helped insulate downtown against some of the impacts of the pandemic,” he said. “If it were still almost strictly commercial in downtown like you saw through a lot of the 1990s, we could be in worse shape. I think the Greenway Foundation and Venice on the Creek helped make living there seem more feasible.”

The “Frolic,” one of two steamboats that once chugged across Denver’s Sloans Lake in the early 1900s.

“I was living somewhere with beauty and charm”

Venice on the Creek wasn’t Denver’s first attempt at boating its shallow rivers, though. 

“Denver has always wanted to be a seaside city,” historian Phil Goodstein said. “But the reality of how small these rivers really are always catches up with people.”

John Brisben Walker, who developed Red Rocks Amphitheatre, was said to have attempted to start a steamship service between Denver and Brighton in the 1880s, soon scaling it back to a four-block stretch of the South Platte deepened by a dam, Goodstein said. In 1894, miners left unemployed by the Panic of 1893 built flatboats in an attempt to float east to join Coxey’s Army, a nationwide political protest movement demanding solutions to poverty and unemployment, though most of the boats are believed to have run aground. Steamboats once chugged around Sloans Lake.

To Goodstein, Venice on the Creek is a relic of a “more democratic Denver,” that was more interested in how it could improve the quality of life for residents and visitors. 

“Now, we seem to be in a time of removing benches, lest we give the poor somewhere to sleep,” he said. “When I walk along Cherry Creek now, what I notice isn’t so much the old boat locks, but the steel grates under the bridges to keep someone from laying a sleeping bag there.”

Unemployed miners prepare flatboats to float down the South Platte River in 1894. (Denver Public Library)

For some who took a ride on a punt, it transformed how they saw Denver. 

Karen Pellegrin and her husband moved to Denver in 2006 after Hurricane Katrina laid waste to her hometown in Louisiana. Her first couple years in Denver were tough. She missed the art, music and culture of Cajun country.

But in 2008 her husband took her on a boat ride for her birthday, and it helped deepen her affection for her new home. 

“I was in heels and a dress, not really dressed to climb in an open boat,” she said. “But it was dusk, one of those beautiful Denver sunsets, and it was just so sweet and unique and romantic. It helped me feel like I was living somewhere with beauty and charm.”

Venice on the Creek crew guide a punt through a boat lock. (Provided by Jolon Clark)
A boat floats down a peaceful Cherry Creek on a summer evening. (Provided by Jolon Clark)

Memories of punts on Cherry Creek feel like a vestige of a more low-key period in Denver’s history, said Joe Wood, who worked as a punter in the summers of 2008 and 2009. 

“A lot of us who worked there were confused as to why Denver was drawing tourists,” Wood said. “It didn’t feel like a cool city back then.”

But Wood said spending his evenings on the creek was a transcendent experience. 

“As afternoon faded to evening, things started to slow down, and we’d hang candle lanterns on the boats,” he said. “You’d see their reflection in the water. You got to know the river’s temperament. It wasn’t some Davy Crockett thing, but there we were beneath the nightclubs, experiencing nature in Denver’s own peculiar way.”

At the time, Wood said he felt certain he was just one in a long chain of young people who would pole along the creek, repeating a spiel about Denver history to delighted tourists or leaping out of boats to turn heavy cranks to operate the locks. But as it turned out, he was among the last.

Venice on the Creek crew members open a boat lock. (Provided by Jolon Clark)
Former Venice on the Creek punter Joe Wood points out features in an old boat lock along Cherry Creek. (David Gilbert, The Colorado Sun)

By 2009, Venice on the Creek’s boats were getting old, as were the complicated locks and inflatable dams. Repair costs topped $50,000, and the operation was never much of a moneymaker. Shoemaker and the Greenway Foundation tried to raise funds to bring the equipment back up to snuff, but amid the Great Recession, money was hard to come by. 

Venice on the Creek shut down at the end of 2009, the boats were given away, and the doors of the locks were removed. Their concrete enclosures still stand in the creek.

“It was a funky tourist attraction, and it seems unlikely something like that could happen again,” Wood said. “It was like a giant ball of twine or something. An anachronism from before Denver saw the flood of interest it has today.” 

Shoemaker, who heads the Greenway Foundation, said pulling the boats out for the last time was a sad moment, but he felt he had succeeded in his goals. 

“We wanted to see development up to the banks, to make something out of that part of town, and to get people to enjoy their river again,” he said. “All of that happened. And, hey, if we gave someone a beautiful birthday date that helped them love Denver, well, mission accomplished.”

A punt glides beneath a railroad bridge on Cherry Creek. (Provided by Jolon Clark)

David is a former Colorado Sun staff writer. Twitter: @davidgilbert4u