While there is little venture capital spent in Colorado Springs these days, history suggests the local economy has always been fueled by bold entrepreneurs who love risk, seek opportunity and are always in a hurry.
Case in point: the Colorado City Glassworks.
On Feb. 9, 1889, Jerome Wheeler and five other businessmen incorporated the Colorado City Glass Co. According to contemporary news accounts, Wheeler wanted a cheaper source of bottles to supply another business in which he held a controlling interest, the Manitou Mineral Water Co.
Highly mineralized and naturally carbonated, Manitou water was distributed nationally. It was even served to guests in the nation’s finest hotels, including the Waldorf-Astoria in New York.
But bottle problems were cutting into Wheeler’s profits. The cost of importing bottles from the East Coast was significant, while poor quality led to broken glass. In 1888, demand for bottles at the Manitou plant doubled, compounding Wheeler’s difficulties. It was all very well to grow sales, but decreased profitability was turning Manitou’s success into a zero-sum game. Wheeler decided to take action.
Three of Wheeler’s partners in the new venture were local investors who also held stock in the Manitou Mineral Water Co. (Louis R. Ehrich, Joel A. Hayes and Gen. Charles Adams). The other two were men who had some acquaintance with the production of glass bottles.
One was Edward C. Modes, the superintendent of a Midwestern glassworks, the Streator Glass and Bottle Co. The other was a St. Louis resident who owned both a glassworks and a brewery, and found himself continually in need of bottles to supply his growing brewery.
Augustus Busch acquired his father-in-law’s brewery, renamed it Anheuser-Busch and had ambitions of making it the nation’s first national brand. He was a shrewd and careful man, one who was famously contemptuous of his flagship product. He reputedly refused to drink beer, referring to it as “that slop.”
Wheeler was a former president of Macy’s Department Stores in New York City. In the early 1880s he spent time is Aspen, where he invested in silver mines. He built the Hotel Jerome and a downtown mansion that he never occupied. Moving to Manitou Springs in 1888, he quickly became one of the movers and shakers of the Pikes Peak region.
Wheeler and Busch both created scaled-up businesses that could compete nationally. They sought to do the same thing on a vacant Westside site south of the Midland Railroad roundhouse, grandly named the Calvert subdivision.
A few days after incorporation, work began on property located on Race Street, bounded by freshly cut roads named after Busch and Wheeler. The wooden-framed, brick-walled 21/2-story glassworks building had a stone foundation and a 75-foot chimney. The company also built a large boarding house near the factory for single workers, as well as 24 cottages for men with families.
Construction went quickly. On May 16, the company began production, at first limited to fruit jars and bottles made of light green glass.
Glassmaking wasn’t automated in 1889. An article in the May 17, 1889, issue of the Gazette described the process.
“On the platform at the head of the furnace stand the glass blowers. Beside each is a small wooden rack and at his feet a mold. Each blower also has an assistant. In the furnace are small openings about six inches square. Into these the helpers first put the blow pipe, a cylinder of iron about four feet in length. The glass adheres to the end of the pipe and is then taken out. Instantly the blower puffs a breath of air through the pipe and the glass becomes hollow and pear shaped. Then the assistant takes the pipe and shapes the bottle, finally putting it into the mold where it is gradually turned and blown until a perfect bottle is formed. Next a boy presents a sheet iron cylinder into which the bottle sits. It is then cut away from the blow pipe and stuck into the furnace where a bit of glass adheres.
“From this, the assistant forms the head of the bottle. Next it is handed to the boy, who places it in an annealing oven, where it is kept for three days under a slow fire to temper. If the bottle is perfect after being taken from the oven, it is then ready for market.
“A practiced production team could turn out a bottle every 30 seconds.”
Production ramped up quickly thereafter. Adams had gone to LaSalle, Ill., in search of skilled labor, and returned with 52 German glassblowers on May 4. More arrived within weeks, swelling the labor force to 125 glassblowers and approximately 250 assistants, boys and apprentices.
Demand skyrocketed. Twenty boxcars of Manitou water left the Midland spur every day, but the CCGC easily supplied the market. At its peak, the factory turned out 19,000 bottles a day for customers between the Mississippi River and the Pacific Coast.
The bottles were so well made that the plant superintendent showed off to reporters by driving “10-penny nails clear in a hardwood post with any bottle the visitor might select.”
Three years after the company’s founding, the Gazette noted that it was the largest glassworks in the West. It seemed that the bold visions of Wheeler and Busch had been realized — but fate intervened.
On Sept. 9, 1892, a catastrophic fire destroyed the factory, adjacent buildings and several railcars on the Midland spur. The energetic Wheeler managed to salvage equipment and resume limited production within three weeks, but the factory closed for good in January 1893. Although Wheeler tried to start another glassworks, it never opened — thanks to lawmakers in Washington.
In 1894, a tariff on foreign manufactured goods was repealed, opening American markets to foreign glassmakers.
Within months, the Manitou Mineral Water Co. had switched from American to German glass. The domestic glass industry eventually recovered, but time had run out on CCGC.
Today, no trace remains of the Colorado City Glass Company. Of the millions of bottles produced by the factory, few survive. The Pioneers Museum has one and the Manitou Heritage Center has several on permanent display.
Elegant, graceful and functional, they’re lovely reminders of a daring and adventurous era.