Somehow our once-forlorn little city has become America’s beau ideal, one at or near the top of every dreary metric created to sort and classify urban areas.
We’re bike-friendly, dog-friendly, veteran-friendly, reasonably affordable and blessed with an equable climate. Our economy is booming, our schools are good, our politicians are reasonably honest and competent, our traffic problems are nothing compared to Denver’s, our residents are hardworking, upright and welcoming. Want to move here? Load up the U-Haul and head for Pikes Peak — once you arrive, you’ll never want to leave!
In the spring of 1860, my 24-year-old great-grandfather Charlie Farnsworth arrived in Denver hoping to strike it rich in the gold fields of the West. Denver City was nothing like Norwich, the quiet New England town where he’d grown up.
“I have no doubt that a fortune can be made here in many things,” Charlie wrote in a letter to his mother dated April 1, 1860. “Denver is bound to be the great center of all business from the East, and large fortunes will be made speculating in lots … but we cannot see into the future and must trust to luck.”
In a subsequent paragraph, Charlie described daily life in the Mile-High City.
“The day before I came, there was a duel fought between two men of high standing,” he wrote. “One shot the other through the thigh … he is still alive. The next day, a man shot another and was hung the next afternoon. Yesterday, a rowdy was shot down in the street. He died in 20 minutes … public opinion justifies his act, and he will be acquitted. There is no jail here and no courts. The citizens try all cases immediately upon commission and either punish the perpetrator immediately or clear in as short a time. A good deal better law than to let it go through the slow process of law.”
Alas for his descendants, Charlie didn’t stay in Denver and become a mining and real estate tycoon. He returned to Norwich, fought for the Union, got married and drowned after the war attempting to cross a river in flood. His widow, Harriet, gave birth to a son soon after and never remarried.
Young Charlie contracted tuberculosis while in law school, and Harriet took him on a trip to Switzerland and Algeria in search of a more healthful climate. That didn’t work, so they headed for California. On their way, they stopped in General William Palmer’s little colony and their voyages came to an end.
“We stopped here for a few days,” Harriet wrote in a letter deposited in the Colorado College Century Chest in 1900, “and it helped my boy so much that we have lived here since, each building a house and making a home.”
Clearly, Harriet had no interest in Denver.
Colorado Springs was an uncommon Western city, one whose founder rejected alcohol, manufacturing, coal-fired power plants and unseemly behavior. It was a place to heal the wounds of the Civil War, as one of abolitionist Charlie’s grandsons married the great-granddaughter of Confederate president Jefferson Davis.
Our heritage is still with us, but we’re no longer unique. Omaha. Albuquerque, Dallas, Denver, Colorado Springs — what’s the difference? We’re all tied to cars, commuting and crumbling highways, used to gun violence, inured to national political dysfunction and apparently unable to agree upon better ways to order our fractious society.
General Palmer rejected the violence and disorder of Colorado City, Denver and other Western boomtowns to build a new kind of city. And nearly 150 years after Colorado Springs was founded, is it time for radical change? Can we preserve what we love — the clean air, the pristine mountain backdrop, the historic parks and neighborhoods, the fizzy economy and community ties to family, friends and neighbors? Can we get rid of what traps us and reimagine the city William Palmer built?
Thanks to folks too numerous to name, we’re on our way.
Meanwhile, I’m welcoming Charlie’s descendants for a family reunion this weekend, centered on the Francis Drexel Smith exhibition at the Pioneers Museum. They’re without exception successful, interesting and fun. Charlie’s namesake and biographer (“Whirlwind & Storm” is a great read) will be here, as will a dozen more great- and great-great grandchildren.
And despite their accomplishments, I’m clearly the smartest of the bunch — I stayed in Colorado Springs!