Downtown Colorado Springs: Mapping the Future
I often wonder, as I walk the streets of downtown Colorado Springs, what life was like here in the 1880s and ’90s, not long after General William Jackson Palmer founded our city. I imagine him strolling down the street after checking on things in his Antlers Hotel, perhaps chatting with people as he strode across the wide dirt avenue. Queen Palmer, the General’s wife, had helped name the streets in the new city: mountain ranges for the north-south streets, and rivers for the east-west ones. Robert Cameron laid out the streets amid grama grass and juniper pines. Henry McAllister, Palmer’s friend from their shared military service, gathered 3,000 cottonwoods from the Arkansas River valley and planted them up and down the streets at regular intervals, taking care to put up signs that warned people not to tie their horses to the new trees.
Palmer’s mind must have been alive with ideas about how to get people to Colorado Springs, a place where people could live in a resort-like environment free from the hustle and bustle of a big city. He also knew of the healing properties of the spring water in Manitou, and knew the climate could help the symptoms of tuberculosis, so he made it known that Colorado Springs was the place to “chase the cure.” Palmer had forward vision, because he planned early for the growth of the city. He had the streets made extra wide so drivers could turn a coach-and-six, rather than having to back up. He also planned seven parks that inter-connected so that they could be maintained by a crew that could easily travel between one and the next. If people needed a respite from their work, all they had to do was walk a few steps and they’d have a park to rest or stroll in—an idyllic reverie in the age of transcendentalism.
Of course what dominated the landscape then, and what drew thousands to our city, was Pikes Peak. Impressive as always, unless visitors experience the grandeur for themselves, it’s hard to explain how breathtaking that mountain still is, no matter what the season, but it’s easy to understand why an early city ordinance disallowed any tall buildings. The mountain dominates the western view and is snow-capped most of the year, its rose-granite face reflecting some of the most amazing sunrises anywhere. Sunsets often blaze bright orange as the Peak sets the city in shadow.
Early residents of the city must have been so awed by the beauty and majesty of the Front Range that they wished they could put it into words, as Katherine Lee Bates did in 1895 after she spent a harrowing day using a combination of wagon ride and mule to get to the top of Pikes Peak. A teacher at the Colorado College, Bates shared a love of Colorado Springs with her father, who was a minister at the First Congregational Church where she spent a summer teaching Sunday school. Many people think she wrote “America the Beautiful” from the top of the mountain as she stood there, but she only jotted a few things in her notebook to preserve the memory, noting later, “When I saw the view, I felt great joy. All the wonder of America seemed displayed there, with the sea-like expanse.” Yeah. She voiced what we all feel.
Early maps of Colorado Springs show several thriving businesses, including livery stables, butcher shops, general stores, and boarding houses, along with irrigation ditches that linked the town with nearby water supplies. Water for animals and yards was diverted from Fountain Creek, but drinking water, originally brought in barrels from Bear Creek, was carried from 15 town wells. The city originally spanned a mere six square miles; most people had everything they needed within walking or riding distance. Wind whipped through the town, with few large buildings or trees to stop it. One of the big problems was the flies that manure attracted; people either cursed the wind or were thankful for it, because there were no window screens. McAllister, who built the first brick home in the city, found the wind so powerful that he had his house’s walls built 22 inches thick. That’s part of the reason the house still stands today.
Visitors to our modern downtown area will find few tall buildings, since that old ordinance is still in effect. Residents are grateful for the wide streets and avenues, which can fit two lanes in either direction plus a center median. Buildings erected with the help of Winfield Scott Stratton, gold king and philanthropist, at the turn of the century are the landmarks of our city’s heritage. The courthouse building (now the Pioneers Museum), the Mining Exchange (now a hotel), the post office and the city hall buildings hearken back to those earlier times, when Colorado Springs was just a “queer embryo-looking place,” as Isabella Bird once put it. Some people might be creeped out if they knew the old Colorado City Cemetery was where the El Paso County Judicial Building is now.
Still, every time the wind blows through the city, or the Peak gets a fresh painting of snow, I am reminded of the early years of this city and what draws people to her. It must have been hard to start life here when there was not much to start with, but Colorado Springs has grown into one of the most livable places in America. In fact, it ranks number five on US News and World Report’s “Best Places to Live” for 2016. It’s “based on affordability, job prospects and quality of life. Colorado Springs is the only city in the top 10 to have received a perfect score.” Palmer would be proud of what she has become.