“It’s just too bad,” he said, “there’s so much history being lost.”
This gentleman and I had been talking after church when we abruptly pivoted into a short conversation on the historic building we were standing in: Saint Andrew’s Church in Manitou Springs. The handsome red brick structure was completed in early 1905 and stands prominently at Manitou’s core. While some of the building’s backstory has been preserved, other parts have fallen away over time, which is a tragedy because all residents benefit by living in a place with a good story.
Society generally does well with holding onto international history (i.e. fall of the Berlin Wall) and national history (i.e. the Battle of Gettysburg). We get a passing grade at the state level, as schools are typically mandated to teach at least some region-specific history.
But when it comes to local history, we’re failing. That matters because while many people won’t visit Berlin’s Checkpoint Charlie or the battlefields around Gettysburg, most of us walk right over interesting local history without knowing it.
Which is why I sometimes call this “sole” history: it happened where the soles of our shoes strike the ground and it’s good for the soul to know the stories that physically surround us. It connects us to those that came before, a much bigger and longer story that we’re all a part of.
Last week in this column, I wrote about a train trip my family and I recently took from Denver to Salt Lake City (and back). In doing so, we passed through Denver’s Union Station twice. It is a magnificent building, one which includes a hidden underground connection to Colorado Springs.
But before the secret part, more on the building. The Victorian “eclectic” depot was constructed in 1881 for $525,000 (in today’s dollars, about $13 million). Expanded in 1892, it underwent a major renovation and expansion from 1914 to 1917, which is largely what we see today. Over time, it’s served varying amounts of travelers, and in 1945, at the height of World War II, 80 passenger trains came through each day.
By 1958, Denver’s travelers took to the air, and that year more passengers selected planes over trains as their preferred travel choice. By 1967, Union Station was down to 23 passenger trains per day. Still, times changed again, and a new light rail era has injected life into Union Station, so that today, tens of thousands of people pass daily under the iconic, neon “Union Station Travel by Train” sign, which was hoisted atop the depot in 1953.
I had heard there was a plaque dedicated to William Jackson Palmer, founder of Colorado Springs, in Union Station. I walked around, frantically searching the walls as our departure time ticked nearer and nearer.
I asked a woman working at the train station’s hotel. She didn’t know. I asked a guy working at the coffee shop. No idea.
I was about to give up when I wandered over to the Amtrak counter and asked the person behind the glass. “Turn around,” he said, “walk down the hall to a door on your left, go through the door, down the stairs, turn right, and it’ll be on your right. You can’t miss it.”
What I found amounted to the most ornate life’s resume I’ve seen. It was a three-dimensional, gold-plated list of William Jackson Palmer’s accomplishments, a “memorial placed by a business associate honored by [Palmer’s] confidence and friendship.” It was enormous, several feet in width and height, and took up a significant piece of wall real estate.
The focal point was a raised image of Palmer, adjacent to elegant script which listed his life’s successes and Palmer’s passion for his chosen home. The artist, Evelyn Beatrice Longman, signed the work in 1925.
As I stood in front of that sign, I wondered, how many people walk in and out of Union Station every day and will never know about this beautiful bit of history?
On my way out, I passed a historical marker in front of the station, which included a comment from a Denver resident: “Union Station belongs to all of us.”
To that I would add: “if we only care enough to learn its history.”