It’s our sesquicentennial year, one that should be full of cheerful events, boring speeches, tedious histories and drinks for all — especially if the pandemic exits stage right! And even if we have to make do with virtual events, we can lift a glass or two at home and thank those who preceded us. Colorado Springs is a vast, continuing communal project, one in which we all participate and from which we should all benefit. Like every human endeavor, our city is imperfect, incomplete and constantly changing. We don’t know what the city will be 150 years hence, but we can look back on the last 150. For what it’s worth, here are five 19th-century drivers of our history, listed chronologically.
1810-2021: Authors, journalists, filmmakers, real estate promoters and PR flacks promote the Pikes Peak region. First out of the gate was Zebulon Pike, who published The Expeditions of Zebulon Montgomery Pike in 1810. It was apparently an international bestseller, translated into French, German and Dutch. Pike was followed by Edwin James’ 1823 Account of an Expedition from Pittsburgh to the Rocky Mountains, the official history of the Long Expedition of 1820. These distinguished explorers and their successors created our foundational myth, that of a healthful and beautiful land ready to welcome industrious newcomers.
1870: Working as Gen. William Palmer’s agents, Alexander Hunt and Irving Howbert contracted to buy 9,312.27 acres in the Pikes Peak region, including 2,000 acres for a town site at the confluence of Monument and Fountain creeks as well as the “soda springs” a few miles to the west and 480 acres surrounding them. Palmer funded the deal with “Agricultural College Scrip” which could be used to buy any federal lands at $1.25 an acre. There was a lot of scrip available at a discount, so Palmer paid only 75 cents an acre for the town site. That’s our heritage; a brilliant real estate deal.
1871: On Aug. 4, 1871 (a mere four days after the city’s first stake was driven), Palmer’s Colorado Springs Company contracted to build the El Paso Canal, diverting water from Fountain Creek west of Colorado City to irrigate the new city. As John Harner pointed out in an early draft of his magisterial new history Profiting from the Peak; Landscape and Liberty in Colorado Springs, “The founders were in the business of selling land, and land with trees, lawns and a steady supply of water was far more valuable than the dry and bleak mesa the first visitors saw.” Palmer sold the unpolluted air, the mountains and the view, capping it with a water-guzzling green oasis that endures to this day.
1885: Eliza Rollins became the first Black student to graduate from Colorado Springs High School. Thanks to Gen. Palmer, the city’s public school system was open to students of all races. The city’s Black community was the largest in the state by the turn of the century. In 1925, the Ku Klux Klan announced its presence by burning a 30-foot cross on top of Pikes Peak, but two years later Springs voters rejected Klan-supported candidates for City Council. Yet de facto segregation endured in the city for decades, as Palmer’s egalitarianism gave way to a kind of unspoken separatist racism. Those structures were themselves challenged, changed and discarded, but we still have plenty to do. Want to know more? Read John Holley’s The Invisible People of the Pikes Peak Region, originally published in 1990 and just updated and reissued by the Pioneers Museum.
1891: Gold discovered in Cripple Creek, and the great Colorado gold rush begins! It would dramatically change life in Colorado Springs, as Palmer’s genteel little city became a rip-roaring boomtown. The city’s population would nearly double, going from 11,140 in 1890 to 21,085 in 1900, while Cripple Creek and Victor went from zero to 10,147 and 4,986. Colorado City became a manufacturing and industrial center, while newly minted mining moguls built fine homes in Colorado Springs. Bankers, stockbrokers, merchants and professionals prospered, as did builders and real estate brokers. Philadelphia aristocrat Spencer Penrose and Springs carpenter W.S. Stratton both made fortunes in the Creek, and both conferred lasting benefits on our city. It was a great party — but it ended around 1906. Having doubled its population from 1890 to 1900, the city would keep on growing, but would not double for another 40 years.
Next week: the 20th century...