The summit of Pikes Peak as viewed from Colorado Springs appears to be a steep and rocky ridge with a defined high point. But the millions who have reached the summit know that it’s a high-altitude plateau, less a mountaintop than a staging ground for inventive businesses, delightful scams and feats of derring-do.
Prior to the opening of the Pikes Peak Cog Railway in 1891, getting to the summit was an arduous process. You could scramble up a rough trail, ride a mule — or forget about it and spend your time soaking in the healing mineral waters of Manitou Springs.
In 1873, the U.S. Signal Service built a telegraph station on the summit, intended “for the research of atmospheric phenomena and their relationship to weather and forecasting.”
The station was located in a crude stone structure, and in 1876 was manned by Sgt. John O’Keef and his wife Norah. Bored and restless, the O’Keefs conceived and created a piece of fake news that ranks among the best hoaxes of the 19th century.
On May 25, 1876, the O’Keefs reported that mountain rats had devoured their baby daughter Erin. Unlikely as it might have seemed, the story was supported by photos of the funeral, a solemn ceremony on the summit attended by the grieving parents and half a dozen mourners. Erin had been laid to rest on the summit, memorialized at “the highest known grave in the world” by a wooden marker recounting the tragic circumstances of her death.
The story went viral. Newspapers throughout the country brought the tragic news to millions of Americans who joined residents of the Pikes Peak Region in mourning the unfortunate Erin — who, of course, never existed. The funeral, the photograph and the story together amounted to Pikes Peak’s first experience with performance art — but scarcely the last.
It soon became clear that making the summit accessible to all would be a bottomless pot of gold. Sharp-elbowed entrepreneurs jostled each other for title to the mountaintop, most notably in 1882 when the then-mayor of Manitou Springs claimed the summit under the Homestead Act, took up a wagonload of dirt and pretended to plant vegetables. Predictably, nothing would grow at 14,147 feet (the then-measured altitude of the summit) and the scam failed.
Recovering from a mule ride to the summit in the late 1880s, Chicago mattress czar Zalmon Simmons decided to build a railway to the summit. It wasn’t a particularly remarkable engineering feat, but it was a marvelous piece of political maneuvering. Simmons and his partners had to obtain the right of way, as well as a big slice of the summit, from the federal government, requiring an act of Congress. By the time the Manitou & Pikes Peak Railway carried its first passengers to the summit on June 30, 1891, a carriage road to the top had been constructed — but it was no competition for the Cog, quickly falling into disrepair.
That didn’t stop C.A. Yont and W.B. Felker, who drove a Locomobile — one of the earliest cars in America — to the summit on Aug. 12, 1901. The duo’s bizarre $600 steam-powered runabout somehow made it up the mountain, generated plenty of publicity for the company and helped Locomobile stay in business until 1929.
The die was cast — if you wanted free national publicity, all you had to do was figure out an inventive way to get to the top of the peak. When photographer Harry Standley and four of his pals trudged through the snow to the summit on New Year’s Eve 1925 and set off fireworks at midnight, they launched a tradition that is still going strong 91 years later. It was a tough slog then and remains so today — but who doesn’t love fireworks?
Similarly, when Dr. Arne Suominen challenged smokers and nonsmokers to run up and down the mountain on Aug. 10, 1956, he just wanted to prove that smoking decreases endurance. None of the smokers finished and Suominen declared victory, not realizing that he had created a lasting regional institution in the Pikes Peak Marathon and Ascent.
But if you want to make money, use the mountain both as a cash cow and a promotional tool. Enter Spencer Penrose, who acquired and rebuilt the carriage road to Pikes Peak, launched the annual automobile race up the Peak and bought the Cog, his only competitor.
Nowadays, the city controls the highway, but the Cog is still privately owned. It might be the only passenger railroad in America that has operated for 125 years without going through bankruptcy, abandoning its right-of-way or converting to freight. It’s a great little business, and potential competitors have a problem: There’s only one Pikes Peak Summit.
So figure out something magnificent — or go find your own mountain!