Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Colorado Springs & William Jackson Palmer ~ Julie Lence


William Jackson Palmer
Colorado Springs Gazette

Being an east coast girl from upstate New York, one would think hubby and I would’ve retired to our hometown to be close to our families, but we didn’t. Hubby spent twenty years in the Air Force and one of his assignments was Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado Springs. We fell in love with the area and decided to make it home when he retired. In the past 18 years, Colorado Springs has boomed in population and business, and every day, weather permitting, I get to see America’s Mountain.

Pikes Peak

Long before Army lieutenant and explorer Zebulon Pike traveled through the area and discovered the mountain that is now his namesake, Pike’s Peak, the Ute, Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes called the area at the bottom of what is now Ute Pass home. It was Pike’s wish to summit the peak to map out rivers and the landscape, but feet of snow prevented him from doing so. He published an account of his travels in 1810 naming the mountain, Grand Peak, thus putting it on the map. Fast forward a few years to when gold was discovered in the area and folks rushed to the region, where businessmen established Colorado Springs’ first settlement, Colorado City, at the base of the peak. (Situated west of where Colorado Springs currently sits and Manitou Springs, Colorado City is now known as Old Colorado City.) Colorado City became the hub for selling mining equipment and supplies to those headed up Ute Pass to pan for gold. For a short time, Colorado City was also a territorial capital.

Those looking to strike it rich in the mines weren’t the only people coming west to Colorado Spring’s first settlement. Many came for health reasons, hoping the fresh air and sunshine would cure tuberculosis, and others came for business opportunities, including Colorado Springs’ founding father, William Jackson Palmer. Born in Delaware on September 17, 1836 to a Quaker family, Palmer had a fascination with trains at a young age. He eventually hired on with the Pennsylvania railroad and learned everything he could about the railroad industry and engineering and was the first person to suggest trains should burn coal and not wood, since wood was fast becoming short in supply. Because of his teachings, the Pennsylvania Railroad was the first to use coal.

Vintage Map

A man who loathed slavery, Palmer served as a general in the Civil War and won a Medal of Honor for heroic efforts. After the war, he financially supported education efforts for the freed slaves and ventured to the Kansas Railroad and helped lay the tracks all the way to Denver. He and his friend, Dr. William Bell, founded their own railroad company, the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad. The first tracks went to the Pikes Peak. The area struck a chord deep inside Palmer and he predicted the foothills would become a booming resort town. Purchasing 10,000 acres of land along the train route, Palmer laid out streets, hauled in thousands of trees to make the city lush and green, and erected lavish buildings resembling European style, to include the Antler’s Hotel. In 1871, his Victorian resort town was born. From the start, Colorado Springs wasn’t a boom town. Palmer used the breathtaking scenery to lure the rich to the area, along with capitalists, artists and intellectuals. Gold was discovered to the west of the peak in Cripple Creek in 1891. More of the wealthy flocked to Colorado Springs and for a spell, the city had more millionaires per capita than any other location in the United States. 

Durango & Silverton RR
ASCE Library

In 1870, Palmer married Mary Lincoln (Queen) and the two enjoyed a honeymoon in the British Isles. It was there he saw and learned about the narrow gauge railroad. The narrow gauge was cheaper to build, could make sharper turns and climb steeper slopes, making it the perfect type of railroad for Palmer to incorporate throughout the state of Colorado to make travel through the Rocky Mountains easier. To date, two of his tracks remain in place; the 45 mile trek between Durango and Silverton in the southwest corner of Colorado, and the Cumbres and Toltec 63 mile trek between Chama, NM and Antonito, CO.    

Colorado Springs today

Palmer went on to bring the railroad to Pueblo. He co-founded the Colorado Fuel and Iron company, and drove the ‘golden spike’ at the Promontory Summit in Utah to finishing America’s Transcontinental Railroad. He eventually retired to Colorado Springs where he helped to establish the Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind, and the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, before passing away March 1, 1909. A statue of him riding his favorite his horse,  Diablo, sits in the intersection of Nevada and Platte Avenue in Colorado Springs across from Palmer High School, which is named after him. 

General Palmer Statue
and high school 

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