Editor's note: This July, as Colorado Springs gears up for its 150th birthday on the 31st, The Gazette has prepared a series of articles on the history of our city. Check back for fascinating glimpses into the people and events that have shaped Colorado Springs into the landmark it is today.
Birthdays aren't just for celebrating.
They're for reflecting.
That's the contention of Leah Witherow, curator of history for the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum, as the city approaches its 150th birthday on July 31.
"Anniversaries like sesquicentennials are important because they give us an opportunity to pause and think and consider," said Witherow, a history lecturer at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs.
"As we look back at the last 150 years, we see common threads, common themes. We see ourselves in the past, and it helps us make sense of the present. It allows us to consider what type of future we want to have.
"This is who we've been for the past 150 years. Who do we want to be going forward?"
The city's story so far is one of desire and innovation, state historians contend — of a city born of want, not of need.
"We are such an unusual community in the West," Witherow said. "Whereas most towns are founded at the confluence of two rivers, or two creeks, or two trails, we're a product of someone's imagination. We're completely a construct of someone's vision for this place."
That someone was Brig. Gen. William Jackson Palmer, a young railroad developer and Civil War hero — a Quaker and pacifist who chose to fight because he believed slavery to be a greater evil than war.
That vision was formulated two years before the city's founding — in July 1869, when Palmer was traveling across the U.S. "looking for opportunity" in the West "like thousands of young men," Witherow said.
After lunch with his traveling companions in present-day Woodmen Valley, the trio went for a walk, sizing up the area's semi-arid features like yucca plants and native grasses.
"It's hardly a place that looks hospitable for the community," Witherow said, adding that a companion told him there wasn't enough water for a settlement.
"Palmer says, 'No, I'm going to make my home here.'"
When Palmer's vision for Colorado Springs was born that summer, "everyone was building railroads to get easterners out west," said Jason Hanson, a historian and chief creative officer and director of interpretation and research with History Colorado. "All the railroads are racing to come west in 1871. Palmer's central insight is, 'We might want to move north to south within the West.' He starts building a railroad oriented the other direction.
"I think that's his stroke of genius."
Old Colorado City, founded in 1859 and later absorbed into Colorado Springs, was a mining camp when Palmer first came through, Hanson said. Colorado Springs could have arisen as just another mining camp, but "Palmer looks at the area and says, 'No, this is going to be a place where people live because it's so lovely to live, they're just going to want to.' He created a town, a city, really, at that point, based on that premises.
"He leapt out and maybe foresaw the future as accurately as anyone ever has in Colorado history."
Without Palmer's foresight, Colorado Springs would have never been realized, Witherow contends.
"We don't have a Colorado Springs unless this man has a vision. Other people thought, 'There aren't enough resources here to develop a community.' He's really a born engineer, so he'll engineer a solution. He built the El Paso Canal, had trees planted.
"We're a different kind of community. We're not formed organically. We're formed consciously."
Palmer designed the city to "bring the best of the East, but leave the problems and challenges of the industrial area behind," Withrow said. "There will be wide streets, not narrow streets, trees and parks."
In his mind, the city would be void of overcrowding and other issues of industrialized areas, Witherow said, "an antidote to the problems of the modern age."
The city's birthday — and Palmer's vision of the city two summers before, documented in a letter to his then fiancée, Mary Lincoln “Queen” Mellen — are just two defining moments in what would become a lengthy timeline of events that shaped the city, local historians say.
Other events have included the building of the original Antlers Hotel in 1883, with a goal to attract wealthy business owners to the area for its health benefits and beauty, and the claiming of the nearby Independence Mine in 1891, an event that would morph the city into "the world's largest and busiest mining stock exchange," Witherow said.
Another: the establishment of Fort Carson in 1942, which would forever reshape the city, Witherow said, turning it into the military hub troops around the country fall in love with and return to for retirement.
She also cites the founding of a Hewlett Packard branch in Colorado Springs in the 1960s as a pivotal moment, as it ushered in an era of the city competing with California's "silicon valley," vying to become "silicon mountain." Founder David Packard would work with officials to launch the University of Colorado Colorado Springs as we know it today, Witherow said, calling it a "game changer."
In the same vein, 1977 was also a hallmark year, as the city convinced the U.S. Olympic Committee to make Colorado Springs its home, she added.
Just what the city will become in the next 150 years — and beyond — depends on the imagination of its citizens, Witherow said.
"It's a place of continual reinvention," she said. "We do not have a fixed identity. We are a community that continues to draw newcomers, and, as a result, we're constantly changing, evolving."
"We're a work in progress."