After fast start, Springs’ growth took a breather

Filed under: News |

With the exception of a few additional buildings, including the post office and the Mining Exchange Building, the view looking west down Pike Peak Avenue changed little between 1890 and 1933.

Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-story series that will consider the history of growth and development in Colorado Springs. Part 1 will focus on the years from the city’s founding in 1871 until 1950. Part II will consider the years from 1950 to the present, when growth transformed a small town into a regional metropolis. We’ll explore the underlying conditions that enabled the city to grow and prosper, and consider the questions — Will it continue? Can we continue on the same path or have the rules of the game changed?
Colorado Springs is, unlike Denver or Pueblo, an artificial city.
Pueblo began as a trading post, and, thanks to east-west rail and nearby deposits of coal and iron, became an industrial city — the Pittsburgh of the Rocky Mountains.
Denver, located at the confluence of Cherry Creek and the Platte River, was a natural site for settlement. Beginning in 1858, when the first settlers arrived, the city grew rapidly and haphazardly.
Nobody planned Denver — it grew organically and unpredictably, as thousands of speculators, merchants, dreamers and swindlers each sought to translate his vision into brick and stone.
But Colorado Springs was different. Located on a barren, treeless swath of land east of Monument Creek, there was no reason to build a city — unless you were William Jackson Palmer.
Palmer’s plan to extend his railroad south from Denver was based upon a land play. By so doing, he’d dramatically increase the value of millions of acres owned by English land speculators — who would, in turn, raise the money to buy the bonds to finance the railroad.
Palmer had decided to create a city to which he could bring his fussy young bride, and Colorado Springs seemed to be the ideal location.
It would be a genteel, pleasant place — a city of broad boulevards and a cultivated citizenry, from which everything that displeased Palmer would be banned. No drinking, no gambling, no dance halls, no prostitutes, no smoky factories — it would be a quiet, beautiful place, a western refuge for the aristocratic few.
Growth in Palmer’s de facto gated community was measured, controlled and restricted.
Anyone could buy land — as long as they were “possessed of a good moral character and are of strict temperance habits …” Moreover, according to the prospectus of the Colorado Springs Co., “The profits from the sale of lots … will be devoted exclusively to public improvements … such as irrigation canals, parks, streets, bridges … erecting a town hall and school houses …”

This aerial photo taken during the 1940s shows the plains east of Colorado Springs, including buildings and runways at Peterson Field.

Like property owners in a new subdivision, residents had comply with regulations that sound a lot like those of a modern-day homeowners’ association. Residents were required to burn “straw, shavings and paper,” and not allow them to collect in the irrigation ditches; horses could not be hitched to trees; and homeowners were required to “bury tin cans in pits dug for the purpose.”
It was a winning formula. Lot sales, listless at first, soon took off, as scores of wealthy easterners moved to Colorado Springs, built substantial houses, and joined “Little London’s” genteel society.
But in the early 1890’s, Palmer’s dream ended. The discovery of gold in Cripple Creek created scores of overnight millionaires, introducing dramatic change.
In 10 years, the city’s population doubled. It was no longer a sleepy little resort at the foot of Pikes Peak, dependent for its prosperity on tourism and a wealthy leisure class. It was a real city, brawling and diverse, too large for any single developer to control.
On the west side, enormous mills ran 24 hours a day, extracting gold from the ore transported from Cripple Creek by three different railroads. Thirty-eight passenger trains a day stopped in the Springs, bringing the men and women who built the new city.
The mansions whose near-downtown location made them suddenly undesirable as private residences were converted to guest houses, or torn down to accommodate frenzied commercial building.
In a message to the residents of Colorado Springs in 1902 — perhaps the first “State of the City” speech — Mayor John Robinson expressed the unquenchable optimism of the time:
“… many timid souls continue to ask, ‘Is it possible for the city to continue to grow? What will support it? Will there not soon come a re-action? Real estate surely cannot remain at its present high figure …
“To all those who doubt the permanency of Colorado Springs, or its future growth … a few facts. The growth of Colorado Springs has been steady and uninterrupted. It grew when the outside world was remote … It grew when there was no special business outlook for its citizens … It grew during the most disastrous panic in the nation’s history … While elsewhere banks and business houses toppled into ruins, ours stood firm …
“The results are here now. We are beyond the experimental stage. The foundation of our prosperity and growth is being constantly broadened and strengthened. When we predict that Colorado Springs will be a large city, our prediction is based on the operation of causes which have produced results, and are still in operation …”
Scarcely a year after Robinson’s exuberant forecasts, Colorado Springs fell into a prolonged depression.
Between 1900 and 1910, the nation’s population grew from 76 million to 92 million, a 17 percent increase — but the Springs lost more than a thousand residents. Of Cripple Creek’s 475 mining companies, more than 450 were bankrupt, as were the railroads that had once transported their ore to the now-shuttered mills.
Count Pourtales’ baronial Broadmoor development went spectacularly broke. According to “Newport in the Rockies” by Marshall Sprague “The empty (Broadmoor) hotel was a pigeon-roost, and the once-refulgent casino was dilapidated … the Stratton estate had bought all of Pourtales’ Broadmoor in 1909, including the casino and hundreds of unsold lots … the whole Pikes Peak region was in a state of economic paralysis.”
While the Springs stagnated, Denver and Pueblo grew and prospered.
The difference? In both cities, energetic, growth-oriented businessmen and politicians continued to drive public policy. The bankers, newspaper publishers and business owners understood that the prosperity of their own enterprises depended upon continued growth, and did what they could to create and promote such growth.
But in Colorado Springs, the prominent local businessmen who had grown rich from Cripple Creek were either long gone or broke. The remaining wealthy constituted a kind of foreign leisure class, uninvolved in city politics or business.
Forerunners of today’s “trust-fund babies,” few of them derived their income from local businesses. They liked things just as they were — with one powerful exception.
Spencer Penrose, who had made a fortune in Cripple Creek and then parlayed it into a second, vastly greater fortune in Utah copper, single-handedly created two of the region’s enduring engines of growth in the three years between 1915 and 1918 — the Pikes Peak highway and today’s Broadmoor Hotel.
Together, these two enterprises — neither of which were successful as stand-alone businesses for some years — gave the region’s tourist-based economy a powerful stimulus. The Springs emerged from its long depression, but it could scarcely be called a prosperous city.
There were few substantial businesses in the city. To the extent that there was a business community, it consisted of small shopkeepers, motel owners and restaurateurs. Businesses either catered to locals or to the seasonal tourist. There were no manufacturers, no large employers and no export-based businesses.
Life went on — but, judging from the reports of the city’s daily newspaper, the Evening Telegraph, Springs residents found it difficult to make ends meet.
On July 25, 1921, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the city’s founding, the Telegraph ran a long story about the discovery of a still, “Huge Still and 100 Gallons of Mash Captured on West Side.” The distiller was identified as Charles Strausenbeck, who later founded the Garden of the Gods Trading Post, suggesting that even prominent citizens were hard-pressed to make a buck legally.
Sinton’s Dairy ran an ad offering a $25 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of anyone stealing milk — a crime driven more by hunger than avarice. And the 3-year-old Broadmoor Hotel offered rooms without baths for $9 a night — far cheaper than Denver’s Brown Palace.
The Great Depression brought widespread unemployment, business failures and economic stagnation to the Pikes Peak region. Farmers, ranchers and businessmen all suffered, as did the leisure class. Incomes shrank, inheritances diminished and by the mid-1930s at least one Cascade Avenue mansion was shuttered and abandoned.
World War II brought employment and prosperity, but it disappeared as quickly as it came. By the late 1940s, Camp Carson was a nearly-empty Army base, with fewer than 600 soldiers, and Peterson Field was essentially closed. The city needed leadership — and a new generation of businessmen, unencumbered by the “servant mentality” of their predecessors, was ready to take command.
Except for the frenzied decade of the Cripple Creek boom, Colorado Springs had scarcely grown since the turn of the century. In 1900, the city had a surface area of 4,800 acres and a population of 30,000. Fifty years later, the city’s area had increased to 6,000 acres, and its population to 50,000 — a rate of increase of less than 1 percent annually.
Real estate prices had been stagnant, or worse, for decades. In 1950, a Cascade Avenue house which had cost $20,000 to build in 1902 sold for $18,000 — a decline, in real terms, of more than 60 percent.
Dismayed but not dispirited, Colorado Springs civic leaders began to meet regularly to discuss ways to strengthen the local economy.
“This is the most beautiful city in America,” said First National Bank President H. Chase Stone in 1950. “And when people come here, they never want to leave. No businessman, given the choice between doing business in Colorado Springs and doing business anywhere else, could fail to choose Colorado Springs.”
Although Stone couldn’t have known it, his remarks echoed those of Mayor Robinson half a century earlier.
Throughout the summer of 1950, Stone met with the city’s business leaders, and devised a strategy for advancing economic development.
By today’s sophisticated standards, it wasn’t a strategy at all. Businessmen, particularly members of the Chamber of Commerce, were exhorted to read newspapers and magazines, to talk to their peers when they traveled and to be on the lookout for opportunities.
But it was better than nothing — and who knew? Maybe something would turn up.
Next week: The strategy succeeds — and Colorado Springs begins half a century of growth and prosperity.