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Meet the man behind Bishop Castle, whose Colorado creation is a source of public envy and private ruin

August 28, 2016 Updated: June 13, 2017 at 1:35 pm
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photo - For about 50 years, Jim Bishop has been building Bishop Castle stone by stone. Bishop Castle is located in south central Colorado on State Highway 165 in the Wet Mountains of Southern Colorado. The 72-year-old was able to defy a terminal cancer diagnosis and is now back at the castle continuing his project of decades.  photo by Jerilee Bennett/The Gazette
For about 50 years, Jim Bishop has been building Bishop Castle stone by stone. Bishop Castle is located in south central Colorado on State Highway 165 in the Wet Mountains of Southern Colorado. The 72-year-old was able to defy a terminal cancer diagnosis and is now back at the castle continuing his project of decades. photo by Jerilee Bennett/The Gazette 

Editor's note: This story contains offensive language.

Custer County - Jim Bishop is not dead. That's the first thing he wants people to know.

The cancer that was supposed to kill him did not. So, when people come to his castle, they can stop already with the questions about when he passed. Merkel cell carcinoma was no match for him. "Carcinoma means incurable," the 72-year-old says, hauling rock one recent afternoon. "Incurable, my ass!"

The second thing he'd like people to know is they can find him here, at his castle, Bishop Castle, which, by the way, is his castle and nobody else's. That legal dispute from last year? That man who made headlines for becoming the new owner while Bishop was dying? A judge ruled in Bishop's favor. So, yes, the castle he started building almost 50 years ago on his family's property is still his, and he continues to build, and it remains free for all to see.

And the third thing he'd like people to know is he'll take this dirt and rock in his front loader and dump it in the middle of the road, smack-dab on Colorado 165 as traffic winds through the mountains of San Isabel National Forest.

"You think I won't?" he asks the curious castle visitors who surround him. "Watch me! Get this on camera!"

Bishop Castle
Bishop Castle photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette 

Many had been recording. They'd been snickering behind their phones as he went on one of his rants - about "our legal criminals in Washington, D.C.," about an inevitable genocide, about the corrupt House of David, about his fear when he's working on his castle 30 years from now and his clones show up claiming to be the true castle builders.

As he carries on, Bishop sings and dances and waves his arms, and visitors get the show they've come to expect. Either they know about the crazy castle man or they've heard about him.

"I've got the power!" Bishop yells in his front loader. "I've got the power!"

RoadsideAmerica.com, an online guide to attractions and oddities, has a page for Bishop Castle that includes an alert for parents: "(It) may look like Hogwarts, but Jim Bishop is no cuddly Dumbledore. He's a tough-talking man with strong beliefs, and sometimes he expresses them bluntly and loudly." And indeed, on this recent afternoon, a mother shuffled away her children as Bishop went on.

But there's no denying the castle is worth a visit. Its tallest tower soaring 160 feet, the structure sits in its stone and glass glory atop a hill in the Wet Mountains, attracting on weekends thousands who can step along the elegant, iron pathways that wrap it. It is amazing. Even more amazing is that one man built it with nothing but his hands, a cable pulley, a pickup and, he is proud to note, sheer wit. "When you don't have money for engineering," Bishop says, "you need ingenious."

Jim Bishop, 72, has been moving rocks by himself for about 50 years to build a castle. Bishop Castle is located in south central Colorado on State Highway 165 in the Wet Mountains of Southern Colorado. The 72-year-old was able to defy a terminal cancer diagnosis and is now back at the castle continuing his project of decades. photo by Jerilee Bennett/The Gazette 

And there's no denying this: Jim Bishop will go down a Colorado legend. Behold, the legend's late chapter: a man down to the 134 pounds that 36 rounds of radiation left him with, shrinking under the hunch of his back, hauling dirt and rock, and planning big, amazing things - 100-foot towers on each corner of the castle grounds, an underground tunnel system, a stone wall around the property.

His sagging flesh is cloaked in dirt. His boots and jeans are torn. "Jim Bishop, Castle Builder" reads the embroidery on the right chest of his polo.

And here he goes in his front loader, for all to record on their phones: He raises the dirt high, and he dumps it in the road. Bishop drives the debris back to the castle grounds as his audience laughs.

George Jorgenson looks on with concern. He's a longtime friend who has stayed with Bishop at the castle this summer. On this day, he encouraged Bishop to take his meds. He tried to help with work. And Bishop wanted none of it.

"If somebody sees you loading rock in my truck," he had told Jorgenson, "then the next thing you know, everybody's gonna say I didn't build this by myself."

The crazy castle man

Bishop takes pills for his anxiety in the mornings and evenings. But during the day, when he's around his castle visitors, he relents.

"In the afternoon, he's fit to be tied and he's hard to be around," Phoebe Bishop, his wife since 1967, says at their home in Pueblo.

In the afternoon, he's the crazy castle man. "It's part of the appeal," says Daniel Bishop, 43, the eldest of three children. "It's something that has taken over. ... He thrives on the attention.

"It would do him good to be a part of something," the son adds, "to have an outlet for his energy that wasn't what he's always been doing. Like a self-help group. But then, I don't know. He'd just be seen as Jim Bishop, the castle builder."

For about 50 years, Jim Bishop has been building Bishop Castle stone by stone. Bishop Castle is located in south central Colorado on State Highway 165 in the Wet Mountains of Southern Colorado. The 72-year-old was able to defy a terminal cancer diagnosis and is now back at the castle continuing his project of decades. photo by Jerilee Bennett/The Gazette 

This is a story about an ordinary man who did something extraordinary and gave up a lot to do it, including himself. Obsessions change people. Jim Bishop the castle builder is not the Jim Bishop who once was.

His wife hears about his rants, and when he comes home at night, she tries to tell him he doesn't have to be like that. "He says, 'That's how I am,'" she says. "He says, 'I'd rather be that than the zombie people knew for two years.'"

He looked dead at times in 2014. He was prescribed the meds that August, after a nervous breakdown landed him in a psychiatric ward for 11 nights. Months later, he was diagnosed with the cancer. He couldn't escape bed some days. Other days, he'd call Jorgenson for a ride to the castle. Bishop needed to work.

Those close to him have seen the castle become the man's life source, but Jorgenson notices the harmful effects of what it brings every day.

"People come up here with the idea to just piss him off," the friend says. "They say things they know are gonna make him go off. That's a crying shame. Why would you want to create aggravation in another human being?"

The nervous breakdown in 2014 followed the disappearance of Bessie, Bishop's 4-year-old cocker spaniel who he loved dearly and who never returned. He believed someone kidnapped her at the castle while he was working.

And then came the saga with David Merrill. In court, Merrill had a deed to show with his name listed as trustee of CASTLE CHURCH-For the Redemption of the Office BISHOP, with signatures from Jim and Phoebe Bishop. The apparent swap caught wide media attention, but Jim Bishop's name remained as the property owner on the Custer County assessor's website.

Merrill, who lived in Colorado Springs at the time of a judge's ruling against him last September, wrote in court filings that the castle's name change was Bishop's idea "out of his understanding about how our heritage and destiny, converging coherently, will change the world!" Merrill continued in the filings, writing of his 15-year relationship with Bishop and how the castle "is the perfect foundation and platform for ending war."

In an email responding to a request for an interview, Merrill declined but wrote that he loved the Bishops.

He is considered by Phoebe Bishop to be among the "assholes" who came to the castle over the years as her husband's mental health declined. She describes Jim Bishop as easily manipulated, and Merrill, she says, "brought these ideas to Jimmy and kept putting it in there and putting it in there and putting it in there."

She stops for a deep breath.

"I've told Jimmy to let it go in one ear and out the other," she says. "He actually told me a couple weeks ago something. He said, 'The worst thing about me is I don't have your sense of humor.'"

Back at the castle

There was "a shining light" to the dispute with Merrill, Jorgenson says. "It got Jim's butt out of bed and strong enough to get back to work. Because it was pissing him off."

The cancer entered remission. Doctors called it a miracle, but they didn't think he'd work at the castle again. They were wrong. Bishop has always gotten back to work at the castle.

Bishop Castle
Bishop Castle photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette 

He worked through the '70s and '80s when finances were tight, the only income being what he made with his ornamental iron business in Pueblo, income that largely went toward castle construction.

He worked with a chainsaw one afternoon in 1988, his eldest son helping out. They were clearing the woods for parking spaces. Bishop's third child played nearby.

A tree fell on the boy. Roy died at the age of 4.

That year, Bishop finished the castle's glass roof - "to catch his tears," his wife says.

Building the castle

On this secluded land in the mountains, a family was supposed to live quietly. That was the Bishops' plan. It was here in 1966 where Jimmy asked Phoebe to be his girl, a week after they'd met in Pueblo and shared a Coke. He was 21, in very good shape from weightlifting. She was 17, uninterested in boys before meeting him. They were both quiet. "We just meshed," Phoebe Bishop says. "We were soul mates." They married in a matter of months.

On this secluded land in the mountains, Bishop began building a home, a stone cottage. Then someone stopped on Colorado 165 and asked if he was building a castle because the stone and arching design looked that way. More stopped with the same question. No, he'd tell them. He was building a home. More kept coming because they heard a castle was being built.

"The people want a castle," he told his wife one night around a campfire at the property, where they'd been living in a tin shack while the cottage was under construction. "I think I need to build them a castle."

So the cottage would be a castle. The high school dropout would do something amazing, something his alcoholic father never could do. And he would do it for poor families like the one he grew up in, for those needing something to enjoy for free. He ignored people who told him he could profit on the idea. To this day, the cost of tourist attractions angers him.

In the castle's early years, he became dismayed by bureaucracy: The Internal Revenue Service telling him his land couldn't simply be tax-exempt because he felt he was doing something good for people; the Bureau of Land Management telling him he couldn't simply take rocks from a national forest; Custer County telling him his plans were not according to code; the Department of Transportation telling him he couldn't post signs on the highway.

"The highway signs were a big push for him going fanatical," Daniel Bishop says. "He saw signs for ski resorts, the big-business, big-money places, and he couldn't understand why there couldn't be signs for people who couldn't afford to ski."

Jim Bishop pressed on, ignoring bureaucracy, essentially becoming an outlaw. He eventually put out donation cans that remain around the castle. And as the castle grew in popularity, he grew frustrated. There were some breakdowns where he'd punch himself in the head and knock himself out, and there were other breakdowns where his son had to punch him in the head.

Daniel Bishop is asked what life would be like if the castle never happened. Maybe there would've been more money growing up. Maybe there wouldn't have been times where he had to punch his father. Maybe it would be like it was when he was young, just them in the woods, hunting peacefully.

Surely, Daniel Bishop would not have carried this pain, this guilt that came after helping his father with parking spaces at the castle one afternoon, that came after he cut down a tree, and saw Roy die.

"I don't like to think about should've, could've, would've," the son says.

Phoebe Bishop doesn't like to think about the way her husband is at the castle. The rants there don't last long at home.

"I won't have it," she says.

She is fighting cancer, and she wants their days together to be calm. She remains deeply in love with her soul mate. He is still the quiet, strapping boy who took her out for a Coke all those years ago.

She doesn't go to the castle much. She waits at home for Jim Bishop to return, the one who is not the crazy castle man.

Doing it for Roy

For a moment at the castle, Jim Bishop is alone, putting together a jungle gym for kids. Gone are the people snickering behind their phones.

Around those people, he was asked why he keeps working on the castle. And now, as he is alone, the question does not elicit a rant.

"My ego," he says, softly and simply.

There's something else. He chokes up trying to explain.

He talks about Roy, his little boy who died nearby, where there is now space for parking.

"It was the day after Mother's Day," he says, sobbing, his voice rising. "I'll tell you what, we've been through years of s--- up here, and people say, 'How can you stay here?' Well, what am I gonna run to?! Roy loved this place. He loved this place."

Bishop wipes at his dirty face with his dirty hands. "Dammit," he says, turning back to the jungle gym. "I gotta get to work."

­­-

Contact Seth Boster:

636-0332

Twitter: @SethBoster­­

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