In 2021, Colorado Springs will turn 150. Seems like a long time, but that may depend upon your perspective. My grandmother, who lived most of her long life in Colorado Springs, was born in Boston in 1871. I was born here in 1940 and am now more than half the age of my natal city. I look upon our community as a near contemporary — I know its past and present, but its future will belong to others.
That’s because (unlike me or you) the city is self-renewing. Thanks to the 464,000 folks who live here, the city recreates itself daily — but some days and some events echo down through time.
A businessman founded Colorado Springs, and businesses have shaped our community since. What were the five most significant positive events in the business history of Colorado Springs? Here’s my take, in chronological order
1. Gen. William Palmer incorporated the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad on Oct. 27, 1870, acquired land and founded a new city at the foot of Pikes Peak on July 31, 1871. The D&RG tracks reached the city site on Oct. 21, 1871. Palmer’s team platted the city, laying out streets in an orderly geometric grid and creating evenly sized lots on each one. They marketed the lots, drilled wells, diverted irrigation water, planted trees along the streets and devised a marketing plan. It was a success, and then some. The census counted 4,226 inhabitants in 1880 and 11,140 in 1890. Palmer’s Western oasis was refined and genteel — until it wasn’t.
2. Gold! The Cripple Creek boom transformed the tranquil ranchland on the backside of Pikes Peak into the greatest gold camp in American history. Cripple Creek and Victor were founded in 1891 and 1892, respectively, and had a combined population of more than 15,000 by 1900. But much of the wealth created in these high mountain towns flowed to Colorado Springs. Working men like W.S. Stratton and Jimmie Burns and canny entrepreneurs like Spec Penrose and Charlie Tutt settled in the Springs, building mansions and starting businesses. No longer a sleepy backwater burg, Colorado Springs was home to more than 400 publicly traded mining companies (some complete scams!) and the daily volume on the Colorado Springs Stock Exchange sometimes exceeded that of the New York Stock Exchange.
3. Camp Carson was established in 1942. Colorado Springs had successfully weathered the Great Depression, although the extraordinary growth of its first 30 years had slowed. From 1910 to 1940, the city’s population grew from 29,078 to 36,789 — respectable numbers, but far from the soaring figures of the city’s first four decades. After Pearl Harbor, skilled workers were leaving for well-paid jobs elsewhere, and the city’s economy seemed ready to tank. But thanks to the skill and persistence of community leaders and philanthropists, Colorado Springs was selected as the site of a major Army base in 1942. The Army wasted no time — the first building went up Jan. 31, 1942, and 11,500 workers were eventually employed there. About 100,000 soldiers trained there during the war, and the city boomed.
4. On June 24, 1954, the Air Force selected Colorado Springs as the site of the Air Force Academy. Once again, our crafty community leaders had brought the city a major plum, this time in an open national competition. Nearly 600 sites were considered, three finalists were selected and the Springs prevailed. In that same year, Camp Carson (which had dwindled to 600 soldiers in 1946) became Fort Carson, guaranteeing its future as a substantial Army post. In subsequent decades, many more military installations have called the Springs home, and thousands of defense contractors have strengthened the regional business community. We ride on the shoulders of those who came before us, and it astonishes that a dozen small-town business owners and elected officials were able to put these deals together. Beating out every city in the country for Carson and the AFA? That’s like a No. 16 seed winning the NCAA tournament twice!
5. John Bonforte ignited the city’s suburban housing boom in the late 1940s and early ’50s. Derided by traditionalists and architects, Bonnyville’s affordable tract houses brought suburbia to Colorado Springs — and suburbia exploded. Housing developments radiated in every direction from the city’s historic core and quickly defined the built landscape of Colorado Springs. Midwestern immigrants loved the expansive views, the clear air, the brilliant sunlight and the safe, pleasant streets of their new neighborhoods — and still do.
Tune in next week for the five worst business events in the city’s history.