As we lurch uncertainly toward the sesquicentennial of Colorado Springs on July 31, 2021, it’ll be fun to look backwards. The city has never lacked chroniclers, reporters, self-interested autobiographers, painters, photographers, novelists, columnists, society columnists and crusading journalists. Their work is still there somewhere, ready to be unearthed for our delight.
The past may be a foreign country to which we will never travel, but we can still appreciate it. Let’s go back to July 31, 1871, and imagine ourselves at the fringes of the tiny crowd that gathered to listen to Gen. William Jackson Palmer’s close associate Gen. Robert Cameron sing the praises of the city to come after the first stake was driven at Pikes Peak and Cascade avenues.
According to Marshall Sprague’s 1961 account in Newport in the Rockies, the eloquent Cameron had taken a nip or two of whiskey before delivering his speech.
“When he spoke twice of Monument Creek as ‘the noble Cache la Poudre’ and described how ‘fruit groves will blanket these glorious hills,” Sprague wrote, “The crowd knew that the tippling orator had forgotten what he had planned to say.” In fact, Cameron was simply repeating a pitch he had perfected while working for Nathan Meeker’s Union Colony, Greeley. Cache la Poudre, Monument Creek — what’s the difference?
Yet Cameron left quite a legacy. He platted the city and laid out its street grid, named its streets and even named a prominent summit along the foothills for himself — Cameron’s Cone. When Palmer wouldn’t give him a raise, he quit and founded Fort Collins in 1883, served as warden of the state penitentiary (1885-87) and bought a farm in Cañon City. He died there in 1894, and is buried in Greenwood cemetery beneath a surprisingly modest tombstone.
Cameron’s speech was preserved for posterity and “can be read in full in the Gazette of early date,” according to Manley & Eleanor Ormes’ 1933 account in The Book of Colorado Springs. A cursory archival search was unsuccessful, but the Dec. 26, 1872, edition of Out West, the city’s earliest print pub and The Gazette’s predecessor, clearly referred to the general’s florid oratory.
“In answer to numerous enquiries,” editor J. Elsom Liller wrote, “we beg leave to state once for all that General Cameron took the “Italian Climate” away with him to Greeley and subsequently to Fort Collins, it being far too good a thing to leave behind. It is still true, however, that “the nights are always cool and refreshing,” especially about Christmas-time.”
This lighthearted tone defined early newspapering in Colorado Springs, probably because the reporters, editors, advertisers and readers were young and brash. In 1871, Out West’s owner and de facto publisher was 35-year-old Gen. Palmer. Palmer’s close friends, siblings Rose and Maurice Kingsley, were 26 and 24, Palmer’s wife, Queen, was 21, Liller was 30-something and Gen. Cameron was a geezer of 43.
Was it a fun little town? That depended on your inclinations. Liller disapproved strongly of the licentious town next door. “Our neighbor, Colorado City, is just now considerably exercised over an elephant which is quartered in their midst, in the shape of a dance-house and common brothel,” Liller editorialized in Out West. “The better portion of the city are beseeching the Town Trustees to abate the nuisance, but it seems uncertain whether their prayers will be favorably considered. How a place which aspires to be the permanent seat of a growing county can indulge hopes under such circumstances is beyond our calculation, and the sooner such dens of infamy are abolished the better.”
Liller may have been against sin, but most residents were fine with certain sinful behavior — especially if you could get a drink without making the 3-mile trek to Colorado City. Hence the Spiritual Wheel at the corner of Pikes Peak Avenue and Tejon Street, described by Sprague as “… a storeroom with a hole in the wall with a partitioned tray turning on a wheel.” Put a coin in the tray, it’d turn and a shot of whiskey would appear where the coin had been.
In the city elections of April 5, 1875, Liller enthusiastically backed a “Temperance Slate,” which won easily. Unfortunately, the crusading editor couldn’t savor his victory. The day before, Easter Sunday, he lay down to take a rest and never woke up.
He was dead, Sprague wrote, of an overdose of laudanum, the alcoholic tincture of opium.