Nearly two decades after Reverend Dr. John Henry Houghton became St. Mark’s Church’s third rector on Christmas Day in 1892, one of his pet tortoises started a fire that could have potentially destroyed the entire church.
Houghton had been keeping his thirty rare tortoises, some of which he collected from his travels around the globe, in a wooden box on a shelf on the ground floor of the church’s rectory. Tortoises usually don’t come out of during winter hibernation but one of them moved on the night of October 23, 1912 and knocked over a lantern that was placed in the box to keep the tortoises warm.
Houghton was out of the city at the time of the fire but Marie Harris, his 18-year-old ward, smelled smoke and after opening the door to the rectory she was met by clouds of smoke. Harris rushed in and picked up two young children who had been sleeping in the rectory, carried them out of the burning building to a nearby house. Had Harris not discovered the fire and notified the fire department, it’s unlikely the church would have been saved. The church sustained $500 in damages and only two of Houghton’s tortoises survived.
Although one of Houghton’s tortoises may have started a fire, he was a well-loved rector at the church by the congregation during his 25 years at the church. During his time there, the church grew in numbers and became known as one of the largest and most influential churches in Denver at the time.
Houghton, who was also interested in improving the minds of both children and adults, had collected a library of 1,000 volumes over a two-year period for a parish library and reading room for boys. He also helped found St. Mark’s-in-the-Mountains, a summer retreat for young people in the Platte Canyon, just below Buffalo Park in 1902.
Houghton was instrumental in establishing Denver’s first playground with playground equipment in Brownie Park, which was on eight vacant lots next to rectory. The playground was later replaced by buildings.
In addition to raising tortoises, frogs and snakes, Houghton also had a fondness for flowers, particularly water lilies, which he grew in the garden at his summer home in Englewood that was located near the horsecar line. During the summer months, Houghton supplied flowers to the church.
Houghton, who was the longest serving rector of St. Mark’s Church, was 69 years old and in ill health when he resigned from the church on April 9, 1917 and died on December 8, 1917. About seven years after his death, Denver artist created a three-paneled altar painting entitled “The Ascension and the Angels” and dedicated in memory of Houghton, and in 1926, a memorial altar was built and dedicated to Houghton.
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