Colorado Springs

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Expectations are everything where travel is concerned, and when I set off last July for Colorado Springs, a Victorian-era resort a mile high in the Rocky Mountains, most of mine were wrong. There are no springs in town, for one thing, so no park takes shape around them, no pattern of streets and alleys converges there, no ramshackle hotels or tidy storefronts line the route to and from the waters. The famous Antlers Hotel, which conjures up visions of a shingle-style edifice crammed with hunting trophies, turns out to be a high-rise built in 1962, its two previous incarnations having long ago been destroyed. I drove the city’s clean, wide avenues for half an hour before giving up and asking where the center of town was, only to find I was in it.

Within a day or so I’d found the touchstones I was looking for; they just were scattered. I shouldn’t have been surprised. Colorado Springs began as that phenomenon we’ve all read about—a resort created out of thin mountain air by the railroads.

Colorado Springs was founded by William Jackson Palmer, who was engaged in building the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad. Raised in Philadelphia, Palmer in 1870 married an Easterner accustomed to the pleasures of Newport and Saratoga; Colorado Springs, the story goes, grew out of his determination to build a resort rivaling these for his bride.

Palmer bought up some ten thousand acres on a plateau just east of Pikes Peak in 1871 and laid out streets in a grid, naming them for streams and mountain ranges along his rail line. With a developer’s reach for the romantic, he named the town itself for some springs in Manitou, five miles away. Today, driving the thoroughfares he platted on the empty plains, you sense both his foresight and his presumption. “What we have out here is sky,” said Debbie Kovalik, who works at the tourist bureau, as she showed me around. And she’s right. It’s no wonder the Air Force decided in 1954 to build its academy here. Its soaring, ultramodern chapel draws more visitors than any nearby natural or historic site.

In its early years Colorado Springs prospered or declined with the fortunes of nearby mining camps. But that it would finally thrive seems to have been clear almost from the beginning. Isabella Bird, an Englishwoman who arrived on horseback in 1873, grasped the future even then, although her letters home to her sister dwelt more on the present. “From the top of one of the Foot Hill ridges,” she writes in one of them, “I saw the bleak-looking scattered houses of the ambitious watering place of Colorado Springs, the goal of my journey of 150 miles.…A queer embryo-looking place it is, out on the bare Plains, yet it is rising and likely to rise, and has some big hotels much resorted to.…To me no place could be more unattractive than Colorado Springs, from its utter treelessness.”

Palmer addressed the tree problem at once, planting cottonwoods and running irrigation ditches the length of town to keep them watered. He outlawed industry and alcohol (the city would remain dry until the repeal of Prohibition in 1933) and advertised the region’s clean air and scenic wonders. Before long tuberculosis patients began arriving. The Colorado Springs Hotel went up in 1872, the Antlers a decade later; theater and opera, golf and polo would follow.

Despite his efforts, Palmer’s wife never spent much time in Colorado Springs, but other Easterners and Europeans responded to his vision. And they’re still arriving; many of the places we visit today are the very ones he vigorously promoted. Then, as now, tourists could climb Pikes Peak, made more accessible after 1891, when a cog railway began carrying passengers to the summit. A round trip takes three hours and costs seventeen dollars; next time I’d save the money and invest the time in a hike up the Barr Trail, the entrance to which is just beyond the parking lot. You may not make it to the top, but you’ll know you’re in the mountains.

Only slightly less celebrated than the Peak is the Garden of the Gods, part of a red sandstone rock formation that extends across sections of Colorado and Wyoming. A lawyer from Kansas City christened the place in 1859, and although its high-flown name almost guarantees disappointment, I felt no sense of letdown. The rocks looked to me like great dinosaurs; to the more eloquent Helen Hunt Jackson, a novelist and journalist whose writings in the 1870s helped draw visitors, they appeared “like elephants, like gargoyles…all motionless and silent, with a strange look of having been stopped and held back in the very climax of some supernatural catastrophe.”

A number of attractions have been added to the region since Palmer’s day. The best of these is the Colorado Pioneers’ Museum, founded in 1937 and located since 1979 in the handsome El Paso County Courthouse. The high ceilings and birdcage elevator of the courthouse, built in 1903, make a fine setting for this miniature Smithsonian of local history. After a tour of the museum, it’s not far to Giuseppe’s, a restaurant in the old Denver and Rio Grande depot, where you can have lunch overlooking the railroad tracks and watch the freight trains rumble by.