Like many Colorado homeowners, I’ve tracked local real estate prices with disbelief.
Is this a continuing boom, a bubble ready to burst — or something else? Something we’ve never experienced in the Pikes Peak region is a prolonged real estate shortage, a mismatch of supply and demand. Booms in the past have usually ended as financing became more difficult, inventories mounted and sellers had to accept less. That may yet happen, but it’s hard to imagine that it’ll be anytime soon.
Yet Colorado has oscillated between boom and bust since the Pikes Peak gold rush in 1858-59, when tens of thousands of adventurous souls sought their fortunes in the mountains of the western Kansas Territory. A fortunate few made it big, some stayed and prospered and many left empty-handed. Our history may center upon the rich and lucky, but our individual and family narratives are deeper and wider. We may have come here for a job, for a brief visit or to make a fortune — but reality intervenes and our lives don’t go as planned.
Consider my great-grandfather Charlie Farnsworth, an adventurous 23-year-old from Norwich, Connecticut who headed west to the Colorado gold fields in 1860. Sure that the region would prosper, Charlie tried his hand at prospecting, fantasized about buying real estate and enjoyed the danger and freedom of Denver City.
“We have given up our proposed speculation, at least I have concluded it won’t pay at present,” Farnsworth wrote in a letter to his mother from Denver City, dated April 1, 1860. “[Although] sometimes I think I will stay here and run my chances. I have no doubt that a fortune can be made here in many things. Denver is bound to be the great center of all business from the East and large fortunes will be made speculating in lots, although they are held very high even now. … Last Spring when I came here that corner lot could have been bought for $500, that block for the same and now you can’t buy it for 10 times that amount. But we cannot see into the future, and must trust to luck.”
As it happened, Charlie’s luck would run out. He returned to Norwich when the Civil War broke out in April 1861, joined the Union army and served valiantly before being wounded, captured and confined at Libby Prison. He survived but never returned to Colorado, choosing instead to start a business in Savannah, Georgia. He drowned during an ill-advised attempt to cross the flooding Ogeechee River on April 15, 1867.
His widow, Harriet, and his son and namesake, born in Connecticut two months after his untimely death, would eventually come to Colorado. Harriet stayed in Norwich until young Charles contracted tuberculosis while in college. Seeking a curative climate, they were on their way to California when they stopped in Colorado Springs.
They never left. Charles regained his health and married Edith Winslow, a young woman from Massachusetts who had come here to take care of her tubercular younger brother. Perhaps inspired by his father’s unsuccessful prospecting, Charles started several mining companies in Cripple Creek. Although some were funded by public stock offerings, none were particularly successful.
Yet life was good. In a letter dated July 28, 1901, written to her yet unborn great-grandchildren and placed in the Century Chest, Harriet described her life on the eve of the city’s 30th anniversary.
“My little home has a wonderful view of Cheyenne Mountain and Pikes Peak,” she wrote. “The everlasting hills will be the same to you as to me, which is a pleasant thought. … This town is very cosmopolitan. It is busy in its social life, in its business life as well — the rich mines of Cripple Creek giving out their golden treasure to some, withholding from others.”
Charles didn’t strike it rich. Like his father he died young, succumbing to TB in 1906, followed by Harriet 10 years later. Edith stayed in the Springs and raised their four children.
Opened on Jan. 1, 2001, the Century Chest contained letters, photos and memorabilia from scores of local residents. The letters are buoyantly optimistic, affectionate blessings from a vanished time.
They remind us to enjoy our lives, contribute to community and forget about real estate prices. Yet I wonder what a plot in in Evergreen Cemetery goes for these days… Maybe they can slide me in next to Charles and Harriet!