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GUEST COLUMN: City needs an academic study of its history

By: Alex Johnson
April 22, 2014 Updated: April 22, 2014 at 8:50 am
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We savvy Colorado Springs folk know the less-than-hidden secrets of our city: abundant parks and trails, stunning natural beauty, thriving local arts and culture, quaint small businesses rich with character, affordable cost of living and comparatively low costs to starting a business.

These tangible and intangible assets aside, this community is a great place to live, work, and grow up, as I've pointed out before. As such, and as the largest city in the largest county in Colorado, the Springs deserves a proper academic study. By an academic study, I mean one by local historians/political scientists/citizens that examines the city to learn how and why it has become what it is.

Studying Colorado Springs in a methodical, academic way will allow us to better understand ourselves. To know who we are, we need to know who and where we came from.

There's an idea in history called path dependence - it states, in essence, that it is simpler to follow an established course than to do something new or untried. This idea may help explain some of this city's trends and tendencies; will a decision be made in a certain way because that's how it's always been done? Believers in path dependence might say so. The bottom line is that on a fundamental level, history matters.

We hear the stereotypes all the time. Who among us hasn't been asked why the Springs is so evangelical? Or so conservative? And so dominated by the military and churches? These engrossed and simplified caricatures aside, the Springs, like every other large city, is a complicated entity with countless factions, movements and structures that affect our politics, economy, culture and development. Some of our institutions in town - like the El Paso County Republican Party, El Pomar Foundation and The Broadmoor hotel have been around for generations. Others are just getting established.

Similarly, some local historians stand out from decades past; Marshall Sprague was an admired and prolific writer who wrote extensively on the Springs and Cripple Creek. His works are a must for anyone interested in beginning an investigation into local history. Other histories have been written on General William Jackson Palmer, Spencer Penrose, Winfield Scott Stratton and Helen Hunt Jackson, but biographical works often fail to explain the idiosyncrasies and the historical/political development of the city.

I'm not suggesting government commission a study on the city, but rather that this interest must be sparked from the inquisitive and ambitious minds of our local students, educators and all those with a long-term interest in Colorado Springs.

Maybe I'm a nerd, but I find local history to be incessantly fascinating, and I know that if others knew the stories and lore of old, they would be fascinated, too. Stories of colorful men and women emerge from old copies of The Gazette, or the Colorado City Iris, or any of the other newspapers that used to exist (Side Streets is a modern incarnation of this phenomenon of local storytelling); tales of courage, intrigue, innovation, ambition and adversity shaped our past in the region. Over our 140 years of history and in our successive transitions from a mining and rail hub, to a tourist destination, to a military-anchored city, many local tales emerge to captivate the imagination of those who seek them out.

Winston Churchill said, "History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it." We all have a role in shaping not only our future, but the futures of those around us. Some of us shape the future via the political process. Others do it by leading a business that revolutionizes the way we live, interact with each other or see the world.

By setting an example for our peers, colleagues and children, we can positively shape the way others think and act, and by doing so, influence the future.

The people of Colorado Springs deserve a fair academic treatment of the city's history, politics, factions and institutions to better understand ourselves. The people of Colorado Springs also deserve a demonym to shape our geographic identity, like Denverites or Manitoids, but that's a different issue.


Alex Johnson, a DU senior, spends every free moment in Colorado Springs, his hometown. He serves on two Springs civic boards and will return to work in the Springs after graduation from college.

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