When I worked on Pikes Peak, a common question was, “So is it 14,110 or 14,115 feet?” Some signs say one, some say the other, but it is 14,115 feet high, by the latest measurement. As the technology behind measuring such things becomes more accurate, the measurements change, and this latest change came back about 2005. A hundred years ago, a change in the peak’s measurement caused major confusion.
The United State Geological Survey (USGS) is constantly working to make the most accurate maps possible. In 1913, America’s Mountain was measured at 14,109 feet. In 1910, it was measured at 14,147 feet. Prior to this, in the 1880s, it had been measured at 14,908 feet. In 1913, there were still official markers up showing these heights, all within a few feet of each other! Up in Cripple Creek, as well as in Colorado Springs, stories popped up in the newspapers that the mountain was shrinking. In a few years it would be gone!
The USGS, in a dispatch from Washington, D.C., notified local papers to confirm the mountain was indeed not shrinking, they were only releasing more accurate measurements. They reported that probably at one time the mountain was bigger, but not the 18,000-foot tall peak Zebulon Pike had estimated.
As geologists develop their theories as to how these mountains were formed, the estimate of height changes. My favorite theory is that Pikes Peak is a small portion of a huge volcano that stood over Cripple Creek a million years ago. At some point it pulled a “Mount St. Helens” and exploded, leaving bits here and there. Then in the ice age, 10,000 years ago or so, it was formed into the shape we recognize. The height we see from down here at 6,000 feet above sea level gives it an impressive look. When Pike guessed its height, he was standing somewhere on the back of Cheyenne Mountain and underestimated how far away it was.
My favorite story is the one that circulated in Colorado Springs in 1948 when the peak was announced to be 14,110 feet tall. Locals joked it was because of how they had restacked the rocks on the top. In fact, today it is about 14,200 or more, from the spoil piles left when digging the hole for the new summit house.
I have had people ask if they could get higher up on the mountain. Yes, if you climb up on the roof. The new summit house includes making the building taller, about three stories, but it actually will be clinging to the south side of the mountain, with the entrance sticking up out of the roof!
E.M. “Mel” McFarland is an artist, historian and railroad enthusiast. Mel is a Pikes Peak region native and has written a handful of books and guides highlighting the area’s rich history. With questions and ideas for his column, contact Mel at email@example.com.