As COVID19 forces us all to “shelter in place” (one of the many irritating neologisms that the pandemic has spawned), our lives have changed dramatically.
As a couple whose kids left the nest decades ago, we’re lucky to be comfortably sheltering in our Westside Victorian. No more commuting to work, going to meetings, movies or sporting events, eating out with friends, shopping or hitting our favorite bars for after-work drinks.
So what do we do with all those extra hours, other than grumble on social media, walk the dogs, clean house, work in the yard, cook, wash dishes and repeat?
I read. Like most bibliophiles I rarely discard a book and constantly add to my library. And since Gov. Jared Polis shut down the bookstores, once I’m done with The Gazette, The Denver Post and The New York Times, I shop my bookshelves.
This morning I pulled out local history books and read about the respiratory disease that propped up the early economy of Colorado Springs. In the 19th century, tuberculosis was slow to develop and slow to kill. There was no cure. Like COVID-19, TB was highly contagious, spread through coughing, spitting or sneezing.
TB was prevalent in the crowded, polluted cities of the industrial East and Midwest, affecting rich and poor alike. Those who could left town, believing that the clear air, dry climate and high altitude of the Mountain West would at least slow the progress of the disease.
Gen. William Palmer’s little colony on the banks of Fountain Creek quickly became a preferred destination.
Among those who came was Frances Bass, who had to care for her newborn child and her ailing husband when they arrived here in 1877. A dazzling beauty married to New York Congressman Lyman Bass, used to attending Washington dinner parties where she often sat next to President Ulysses Grant, she was thrust into a new world. There were no more dinner parties, no more mansions, no more fluted champagne glasses, no more Worth gowns and not much money — but Frances embraced her new life.
While her husband “met the ennui of banishment with a smile of noble indulgence,” Frances didn’t want to sit idly around and play cards with the invalids in the shabby Manitou Springs hotel where they first lodged.
“I felt rebellion at tough meat and canned vegetables served in dismal soup dishes — all was hateful,” she wrote 50 years later in her autobiography.
So she hitched a ride to Colorado Springs, found a cottage for rent, bought used furniture and moved in with husband and baby. The night they moved in her new nextdoor neighbor and soon-to-be best friend Helen Hunt Jackson brought the little family “a tureen of oyster soup seasoned with mace.” The climate quickly invigorated Lyman, who gave up his card games and went to work for Palmer as general counsel for the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad. He represented the D&RG before the Supreme Court in a successful suit against the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe regarding the right of way through the Royal Gorge.
Their lives and fortune rebuilt, Frances and Lyman constructed Edgeplain, a fine stone house on Nevada Avenue, entertained former President Grant at a lavish dinner party and lived happily ever after — until Lyman died of TB in 1889.
Lyman’s experience was replicated by my grandfather and great uncle, who came to Colorado Springs to recover from TB in the 1880s. Both found improved health for a few years, but eventually succumbed.
Yet TB anchored the economy of Colorado Springs for many decades. At the turn of the century a third of the city’s population were “lungers.” They bought houses, started businesses, spent time in one of the city’s many TB sanitaria and consulted with nationally prominent resident physicians.
Can something similar happen with COVID-19? Nope, not a chance. Even cities desperately seeking economic development would pass on the opportunity to become the world’s premier destination for coronavirus sufferers. In Colorado Springs, our diseased past is a quaint historical relic, not a present-day danger. And as we sit and fume in our home offices, we can reasonably hope that the COVID-19 era will soon end.
And even though we’ll eventually share the fate of Lyman Bass, my grandfather and my great uncle, let’s survive this one!