November 3, 2013 Updated: November 3, 2013 at 10:55 am
There is a place that embodies stately old Colorado Springs, "Little London," "Newport of the Rockies," it's Glen Eyrie.
The grand castle built by Gen. William Jackson Palmer, the pristine gardens and meticulously groomed meadows speak to the elegance and refinement Palmer sought when he established a city at the foot of Pikes Peak in 1872.
But this place has a history as rocky as the sandstone monoliths that tower over the glen. Floods, fires, dereliction and development - all have threatened the property since Palmer died in 1909. Since 1953, it has been the headquarters for the international ministry The Navigators.
Sept. 29 marked the 60th anniversary of The Navigators' purchase of Glen Eyrie. The group has brought stability to Glen Eyrie, while turning the quiet corner of Colorado Springs into a spiritual retreat and conference center that draws people from around the world.
And it was a purchase that almost didn't happen.
Little time to enjoy it
Glen Eyrie, which is hidden by the rocky walls and spires, is in a valley just north of Garden of the Gods. It is at the mouth of Queen's Canyon, a steep, narrow gulch running into the Rampart Range foothills.
The first stop for most visitors to Glen Eyrie, after the guard shack, is the Carriage House. It houses a gift shop and cafe.
It was here, in the first years after founding the Fountain Colony (later called Colorado Springs) that Palmer built the first home in Glen Eyrie. But it was just a temporary home as he endeavored to build a castle for his "Queen," the nickname of his young bride.
Domestic bliss was not in the cards for the Palmers, as Queen's health declined in the thin air of the Rockies. She and their daughters moved to the East Coast and then England, while Palmer remained here. The long-distance marriage ended when she died in 1894 at the age of 44.
Palmer kept up work on the castle, completing it in 1906, but he had little time left to enjoy it.
In 1906, Palmer was paralyzed in a horse-riding accident. He died three years later.
Take a walk through his castle's great hall, footsteps echoing off the high ceiling, and it's tempting to imagine Palmer brooding alone in his mansion, his family dispersed across the ocean. But history indicates he kept a large staff, saw an endless shuffle of friends and family and held numerous parties.
The Glen Eyrie parties even featured champagne, unusual for a teetotaler who banned the sale of alcohol when he founded Colorado Springs.
After his death, his daughters tried to give Glen Eyrie to the city, but city officials declined because of the cost of maintenance. So they sold the land and castle to some Oklahoma businessmen for $150,000, They envisioned a golf course resort with a tavern and up to 150 luxury homes.
With World War I raging across the ocean, few people were interested in such luxuries, and the businessmen sold Glen Eyrie in 1922 to Alexander Smith Cochran, a millionaire rug maker from New York, for $450,000. Cochran doubled the size of the estate and built the Pink House for his family's vacation home. He shuttered the castle in 1925 and it fell into disrepair. After Cochran died in 1929, Glen Eyrie remained on the market for nine years.
Doing what it takes
George W. Strake made his fortune in oil and, in 1938, came from Texas to make Glen Eyrie his vacation home. He expanded the Pink House and reopened the castle for parties. Strake put Glen Eyrie back on the market in 1950, about the same time Dawson Trotman was looking to relocate to Colorado from Los Angeles.
A former lumber yard worker, Trotman had embraced Christianity in the 1930s and helped to spread faith through the Navy during World War II. He called his organization "The Navigators," helping people to "navigate" life by introducing them to Christianity.
His focus shifted to international missionary work after the war, and, at the urging of his friend Billy Graham, Trotman looked east to Glen Eyrie for a headquarters for his growing ministry.
Trotman and Graham planned to split the purchase in 1953, but the latter backed out before closing of the deal. Strake had lowered his asking price from $500,000 to $300,000 to help the ministries buy Glen Eyrie. If Trotman still wanted the property, he would have to raise the $100,000 down payment in just six weeks.
Donations came in from all over the world, some in the thousands, but most in the $20 range. Trotman sold his car. A girl sold her wedding dress. Someone donated an accordion. A group of missionaries agreed to go a month without pay.
On Sept. 29, the day before the closing, they were $22,000 short. Somebody woke up a bank manager about a missing wire transfer. A businessman kicked in $8,000 at the last minute. And The Navigators were able to come up with the down payment.
The group also wanted Strake to sell them lakeside property above the canyon, but they couldn't strike a deal.
Strake then asked The Navigators representatives if they believed in Santa Claus. When they said "yes," he threw it in for free.
Today it is used as Eagle Lake Camp.
Natural threats, little damage
On June 25, 2012, hundreds of people were evacuated from Glen Eyrie, as the flames of the Waldo Canyon fire licked perilously close.
Some wondered if they would ever see the castle and grounds again.
As fate would have it, the weather blew the fire slightly north, and only the periphery of The Navigators' property was burned.
Said Navigators historian Susan Fletcher, "We do firmly believe it was the hand of God that was protecting the place during the fire."
Surviving the fire was only the beginning. Glen Eyrie had long experienced flooding, most seriously in 1947 and 1999. With the hillsides above denuded of trees by the fire, Glen Eyrie spent more than $1 million in drainage control.
The trail to the pools (known as the "punch bowls"), which are popular swimming holes up Queen's Canyon, is indefinitely closed, as a debris-catching net now hangs across the canyon and the trail is deemed too dangerous. A moat around the castle was expanded and hardened to move water more quickly.
The system got a serious test with the heavy rains this summer. While there have been some problems with erosion and debris, no buildings were damaged.
Glen Eyrie remains open to visitors who make reservations. Guests can reserve a room for the night or sign up to take a 90-minute walking tour of the property.
Shuttered no more
During the past six decades, The Navigators have turned Glen Eyrie into a well-known spiritual retreat, now hosting 350 conferences and 46,000 visitors a year, as well as the international headquarters of the ministry and its publishing arm.
The castle is still the epicenter of the 7,500-acre property, where people eat and hold events and those willing to spend a little more money can spend the night. Guests can also stay in the Pink House or the many lodges The Navigators have built. Palmer's old coal-burning power plant is used for offices.
Aside from a new patio and kitchen, and the removal of Palmer's bowling alley for more event space, Palmer's castle remains largely as he left it. Fletcher believes the city's founder would approve of how the organization has utilized it.
"I think Palmer would be extremely happy that people are respecting the integrity of his estate. I think he would be happy people are using it and loving it and are maintaining his buildings," Fletcher said.