150 years ago to the day, on July 31, 1871, Colorado Springs was born with a stake-driving ceremony at what is now the intersection of Cascade and Pikes Peak Avenues, two major downtown streets, the latter in line with the eponymous mountain seen in the featured photo. Originally founded and known as Fountain Colony, the town plot surrounded the confluence of Fountain and Monument Creeks.
The settlement wasn’t the area’s first. Various Native tribes, including Ute, Cheyenne, Arapahoe, Comanche, Kiowa, and Apache considered (and still consider) the region part of their homeland, and nomadic bands traversed and inhabited it for portions of the year.
Old Colorado City, the first permanent community a few miles west of the future Colorado Springs, started in 1859 in the wake of the Colorado gold rush. Traces of the precious metal were discovered near present-day Denver in 1858, but gold seekers also flocked to the foot of Pikes Peak because “Pikes Peak or Bust” became one of the mottoes for hopeful prospectors, as the local fourteener was one of the few known landmarks in what was then still part of Kansas Territory (Colorado became a territory in 1861 and a state in 1876). After stocking up on supplies in Colorado City, the prospective miners continued to journey west along Ute Pass, one of the natural openings in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.
Zebulon Montgomery Pike had traveled through the area in 1806 while surveying the southwest portion of the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. Even though he attempted to climb the peak that would later bear his name, he did not succeed. November snows, inadequate uniforms, and miscalculations prevented him and his men from summitting. The mountain didn’t officially become known as Pikes Peak until the 1840s. To read more about Pikes Peak, which is known as “Tava Kahv” (Sun Mountain) by the Utes, click here: https://tanjabrittonwriter.com/2018/05/23/pikes-peak/.
One of earliest groups in search of gold that arrived at the foot of Pikes Peak in the summer of 1858 hailed from Kansas and included Julia Archibald Holmes. She is considered the first White woman to have summitted Pikes Peak with her husband and brother on August 5 of that year. A writer, abolitionist, suffragist, and Bloomer Girl, she was the topic of one of my previous posts: https://tanjabrittonwriter.com/2017/10/12/a-bloomer-girl-on-pikes-peak/.
General William Jackson Palmer is celebrated as the founding father of Colorado Springs. Multifaceted and multitalented, he was born into a Quaker family, became a fervent abolitionist, overcame the qualms of his pacifist upbringing, and volunteered for the Union during the Civil War because he considered slavery a greater wrong than war. He led the 15th Pennsylvania volunteer Cavalry, was promoted to Brevet Brigadier General, and served for the duration of the conflict.
Afterward he set his sights west. Returning to his prewar profession in railroads, he established his own Denver and Rio Grande Railroad and founded Colorado Springs with the help of the Colorado Springs Company. He and his beloved, “Queen” Palmer, resided at Glen Eyrie until Queen’s health forced her to move to a lower elevation. He also became a generous benefactor, donating much land to be set aside for parks and open spaces. His equestrian sculpture occupies a prominent spot in downtown Colorado Springs whence he perpetually glances at Pikes Peak, one of the landmarks that enticed him to create a community in this spot.
Among the region’s earliest health seekers, Helen Hunt came to Colorado Springs for its dry and sunny climate in 1873. A famous poet who had suffered a series of heartbreaking losses, she made Colorado Springs her home and married Mr. Sharpless Jackson. She became best-known for her scathing criticism of the genocide committed by the United States against its Indigenous populations and for her novel “Ramona.” I have delved into her remarkable life in a previous post: https://tanjabrittonwriter.com/2017/07/13/the-original-helen-hunt/.
An English professor at Wellesley College. Katherine Lee Bates was invited to teach at Colorado College during the summer semester in 1893. A brief visit to the top of Pikes Peak inspired a long-lived poem which became known as “America the Beautiful.” It helped advertise Colorado Springs, made Pikes Peak known as “America’s Mountain,” and has long been suggested as an alternative to the national anthem. I have written about her trip to the top of Pikes Peak before: https://tanjabrittonwriter.com/2020/08/19/america-the-beautiful/.
Pikes Peak looms large from nearly every vantage point in the region. Without the imposing and awe-inspiring presence of our local fourteener, General Palmer might not have fallen in love with this place where the Great Plains meet the Rocky Mountains. But the natural beauty of the landscape and its ideal location as a hub for his beloved railroad were responsible for the founding of Colorado Springs on July 31, 1871. Happy Sesquicentennial, Colorado Springs.