Pioneer Profiles: Irving Howbert
This series, “Pioneer Profiles,” explores some of the interesting characters that define Colorado history.
How is it that many Colorado Springs natives have never heard of Irving Howbert? He did so much for the city of Colorado Springs and the County of El Paso that it is astonishing how little-known he is. Why don’t people still talk about him? Perhaps it’s mustache envy. Look at that thing! It’s glorious.
Irving Howbert left his home in Iowa for the Pikes Peak region on May 4th of 1860, when he was barely a teenager. His father and two friends fitted their wagon with a cover and packed six months of stuff because that’s as long as they planned to stay. His story is pretty typical of the “Pikes Peak or Bust” attitude: “Let’s go to Colorado, see if the rumors of gold are true, and if they are, we’ll stay.” Howbert’s Memories of a Lifetime in the Pike’s Peak Region includes this staggering statistic that shows how big the westward migration really was: “It is estimated that from 60,000 to 70,000 people went to the Rocky Mountains during the summer of 1860, more than 95 percent of whom travel by way of the Platte River. There were at least 11,000 wagons on the road between the Missouri River and Denver during the month of May and June of that year.” After traveling around South Park and near Tarryall setting up churches and doing a little placer mining, Howbert and his father moved permanently to a little town named Hamilton in Spring of 1861 where the medium of exchange was gold dust. He recalled how uneasy he was when his father trusted him to transport a pouch of gold dust to Denver to deposit it in a bank there. After his return, he felt much more adult, and at age 15, he got his first job hauling logs. He worked from 8:00am to 4:00pm for $5 a day.
Howbert participated in the Sand Creek Massacre and used his book as a platform for the defense of the actions of Col. John Chivington. He felt that Chivington had been unjustly accused of the barbarity and merciless treatment of the Ute and Arapahoe people of the area, and that Col. Tappan, as Chivington’s military rival, had deliberately inflated the activities of the skirmish to make Chivington look bad. Howbert explained in great detail exactly what he saw and encountered, which departs quite a bit from the historical representation of the events of the Massacre. It’s interesting to rhetorically evaluate Howbert’s recall of the events, because he uses a dismissive tone of voice, along with words like “savages” to describe the Native Americans. Although Howbert’s representation of events is skewed toward Chivington’s innocence, the overwhelming evidence to the contrary kept Howbert from being called to testify in Chivington’s defense at the military inquests that followed.
Howbert had little connection to politics, so when he was elected El Paso County Clerk in 1869, he was rather surprised, since the total number of voters in El Paso County was only 300. Howbert set up his office in a little log cabin right in the middle of Colorado City. That cabin is still there in the middle of Bancroft Park. Howbert related an interesting story about how his first office was so cold that he had to defrost the ink before he could get to work, and when he moved into the little cabin, the files for the entire county records fit into one box, so the move took him all of five minutes.
In 1870, Howbert met General William Jackson Palmer, who secured his help in establishing Colorado Springs as a municipality, while at the same time bringing in the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad and establishing a wagon road over Ute Pass. (Ute Pass is why our county is named “El Paso;” the Spanish translation.) In the fall of 1873, Colorado Springs was named the El Paso county seat, where Howbert remained County Clerk for the rest of the decade.
In 1874 he and his best friend, County Treasurer Benjamin Crowell, opened the First National Bank, after which Howbert married a woman named Lizzie Copeland. Over the next few years she bore him two children. While managing the bank and acting as its teller, Howbert decided to heed the call of “Silver!” in Silverton, Colorado. He still didn’t have much experience with mining, but he was interested to see what might happen if he funded a small stake there. After only three months it had a gross value of almost $500,000, making him a very rich man.
In 1882 Howbert was elected State Senator from El Paso County. During this time he was responsible for laws authorizing the purchase of land for the beginning of our city’s park system. He also passed laws to establish a forestry system within the state. Howbert also helped build the Cripple Creek Short Line to Colorado Springs, the Colorado College, and an opera house. He used his substantial fortune to help develop the municipal water supply and the first natural gas company before settling down into a quiet retirement. His wife died in 1922 and he died in 1934. They are buried in Evergreen Cemetery.
The closing lines of Howbert’s book evoke a bucolic view of life on the Front Range: “In this land that has taken on a new aspect since the white man came, there is one prominent object that remains unchanged, except for a few scars along its side made by the building of the cog railroad and the automobile highway to its summit, and that is Pike’s Peak. Standing on the border of the great plains, it was a beacon for the native races during the countless ages before the white man came; it guided the Spanish adventurer and explorer, the French trapper, the American hunter and trader, in their wanderings through this region; and the gold seeker of later years eagerly scanned the western horizon for a glimpse of it while far out on the plains. This was the peak that in the early days gave its name to all this Rocky Mountain region and still remains its most interesting feature.”
Howbert obviously felt a great deal of patriotism toward Colorado Springs and the Pikes Peak region, which he passed on to the city and county through his many civic endowments and improvements. He lived a fairly quiet life, so that may explain why he’s not more commonly known to modern residents of Colorado Springs, but his contributions continue to impact our city’s growth.