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Side Streets: Descendant of pioneering families leaving Colorado Springs with cherished memento

By: Bill Vogrin
January 19, 2014 Updated: January 20, 2014 at 12:28 pm
photo - Anna Magee in her portrait for her 1953 graduation from Colorado Springs High School, now Palmer High.
Anna Magee in her portrait for her 1953 graduation from Colorado Springs High School, now Palmer High. 

In a week or so, Anna Lee Magee will pack up Samson, her stuffed trophy brown trout, her easel and drawings of wolves and other animals, along with her tintype family photos and leave the only home she has ever known.

It's a traumatic time for Anna, 78, because of what she's leaving behind: her beloved Pikes Peak, the Garden of the Gods and her lilac-lined street and her cozy little home - a nearly 150-year-old sheepherders cabin built before the founding of Colorado Springs.

When she goes, we'll all lose something precious: a direct link to two of the region's pioneer families whose members prospected for silver as a friend of Bob Womack, gardened at Glen Eyrie for Springs founder Gen. William Jackson Palmer, mined for coal, homesteaded ranches and left their mark from Yoder to Fountain to Cripple Creek and points across the Pikes Peak region.

Luckily, Anna is leaving an important piece of family history behind for the benefit of us all. More on that in a minute.

First, let me tell you about Anna, who was milling about her round, oak dining room table as I came in her home north of downtown. She called out for me to duck my head as I walked through due to the low ceilings.

She pointed to the arched doorway and told how her father, Henry Magee, had opened up the wall to find split logs and a note.

"It said: 'This cabin was built by Louis Sanchez and his son in the year 1868,'?" Anna said. "They were sheepherders and built this long, narrow, three-room cabin."

Those rooms make up the center of her little home, which was added onto frequently over the years. She doesn't know how long Sanchez lived in the cabin. But it has been in her family for the better part of a century.

Her grandfather, coal miner William Elliott, bought the house around 1900 when the street out front was known as Crescent. After his daughter, Eva, married Henry Magee in 1920, the couple eventually bought the house from him and lived in it the rest of their lives.

Early on, Henry planted lilac bushes along both sides of the street. They must have been a colorful buffer from trains that frequently rolled past. The front door of the cabin is just 30 yards from where the Santa Fe Railway tracks crossed a bridge over the Rock Island Railroad line.

The lilacs became such a landmark that when the city was adjusting street names a few years later, they renamed it Lilac Street. And for decades, it was the northern edge of Colorado Springs.

Those trains figure into many of Anna's earliest memories.

"Every time I'd hear the train coming, I'd run to the ditch and I'd wave and wave," Anna said, laughing at the memory and waving her hand over her head as if it were the 1940s again.

"I saw many troop trains leave," she said. "I'd wave and they'd all yell out the windows and wave back. Of course, I had no idea where they were going."

In those days, the trains were coal-fired steam engines, and that had serious consequences.

"Often, mom would be doing the wash and have clothes out on the line," Anna said. "We'd hear the trains and she'd holler: 'Get the washing in.' We'd run and take the wash off the clothes line. The smoke and soot would turn them black."

The marriage of Eva Elliott and Henry Magee brought together two families with deep roots in the settlement of the Pikes Peak region.

While it was coal that brought William Elliott to the area and provided him work for years, later he went to work for Palmer, gardening at the Civil War hero's Glen Eyrie castle, Anna said.

Mining also played a big role in the life of the Magee family. Anna's other grandfather, Robert H. Magee, was a prospector whose family settled in Fountain in the early 1870s. He had silver fever, which led him to spend years searching around the Mount Pisgah area.

In fact, Anna still has a leather-bound journal, fragile from age, in which Robert Magee wrote of prospecting trips up Pikes Peak he made in July and August 1874.

His handwritten entry from July 23 read: "Start early on our last days prospecting. Grub played out and are successful in finding what we have long been looking for - 'Silver Mines'. Gathered some specimens of ore to take back to have tested and look at surrounding country and then start for camp. Arrive in time to get supper over before it rains."

Robert Magee is mentioned in several Gazette stories, including a September 1874 story about his role in the formation of the Mount Pisgah Mining District. The story reported "rich ore samples sent to town are creating excitement" and described a miner meeting in August to write rules for the new district.

Of course, silver never was a major producer. And the area didn't take off until 1890 when Womack discovered gold in Poverty Gulch, leading to the boomtowns of Cripple Creek and Victor. Robert Magee later owned a saloon there, but it was destroyed by fire and a partner cheated him out of a mining claim, prompting him to return to Colorado Springs and look for work.

He's mentioned in an 1892 Gazette story about his work as the "pioneer mail carrier" in the town. The same title was in the headline of his 1913 obituary.

Anna's father, Henry, was a farmer who sold milk at the Cragmor Sanitorium where he met employee Eva Elliott. After they married, he would become well-known for his work driving tourists through Garden of the Gods and up Pikes Peak in the late 1920s, as well as for his gardening work, growing flowers in a greenhouse he built on their home for city parks, the mansions along North Nevada Avenue and other customers. Henry also built rose trellises, and many ended up in Evergreen Cemetery to decorate graves.

Anna graduated from Colorado Springs High School in 1953 and eventually went to work for Vicon Instrument Co. at their hearing aid manufacturing facility on Eighth Street.

Turns out she would have one more memorable passing of the trains. This time during the Korean War when her fiance shipped out on a troop train.

"I stood and waved," she said, this time knowing what he might face. Although he did eventually return, they never married and she remained single all her life.

"I wrote him so often I still remember his serial number," Anna said, quickly reciting it.

She stayed with Vicon until it closed in 1983. Then she went into business repairing hearing aids, working from home so she could care for her elderly mother.

Eva died in 1986, and Anna worked soldering hearing aids until about 1995.

Over the years, she and her sister, Lela, would retrace their grandfathers' steps. They looked for the Elliott mine near Yoder and for the Magee silver mine on Mount Pisgah. But they never found much. They couldn't even find the remains of Magee Street in Cripple Creek.

"That's why it's so hard to leave this place," Anna said wistfully. "We have so much history here.

"And I can't imagine life without seeing my Pikes Peak and my Garden of the Gods."

But the house is becoming too much to manage, and she longs to be near relatives, which is leading her to relocate to Ohio.

Which brings me to the important things she is leaving behind.

First, there's the lilacs. Remnants of the Magee lilacs still grow along the street. Anna hopes they always will.

In hopes of ensuring they survive, her handyman, Jon Torley, dug up a clump and transplanted them to his home where he intends to nurture them.

Then there's the journal.

As a history buff, I felt a sense of awe as I lifted the journal out of its tin box where Anna has stored it. I removed it from its plastic bag and gently opened the cover, which fell apart in my hands and revealed tattered, yellowed pages.

"It's not in very good shape," Anna cautioned.

My eye immediately went to the beautifully written signature "Robt. H. Magee, Fountain City, Colorado Ter." and the date, July 28, '74. There were random notes and specific, detailed entries about his mining activities.

Deeper inside I read about a trip to Kansas City, Mo., he made in November 1874. And there were lists of groceries and prices: “Cakes, apples & pies 1.90”

I've long marveled at old cabins built high in the mountains and abandoned mining ruins on sheer cliffs. I've tried to imagine the lives of the men who dragged equipment and supplies on burros, dug mines by hand and risked everything to strike it rich. Here I was, holding the personal thoughts of one of those prospectors. And someone who knew the famous Bob Womack, no less.

I thanked Anna for sharing the journal with me and told her I considered it a valuable museum piece.

Anna nodded and said she hated to take it to Ohio where it had no significance to anyone.

I mentioned that the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum might be interested in acquiring it. She worried there wouldn't be time before she moves to deal with it. I offered to make a call.

Within 24 hours, the donation was arranged.

"I'm just so happy the journal is going to be here forever," Anna said. "It means so much to know it will be where everyone can appreciate it."

Having gently thumbed through the journal, I'm thrilled to know it will be available to tell future generations about the miners who settled the region. It's a rare window into the daily lives of prospectors and how they dealt with "grub" and rain and ore.

Most of all, it will be a permanent reminder of Anna Magee's family and all it contributed.


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