Here are four unlikely business proposals:
Charge people money to look at a waterfall.
Charge people money to crawl into a cave.
Charge people money to look at fake cliff dwellings.
Charge people money to ride a tiny little train to the top of a mountain.
It’s difficult to believe that anyone would promote such ventures, let alone invest in them. But the exuberant optimists who settled in Colorado Springs during the late 19th century were undeterred, and, as they might have put it, invested good cash money in all four.
In retrospect, the reckless promoters and imprudent investors were farsighted visionaries, who created four of the most successful small businesses in the Pikes Peak region. It’s a measure of their success that, during a century since their founding, all of them continue to operate under their original business models.
The Pikes Peak Cog Railway, Seven Falls, the Cave of the Winds and the Manitou Cliff Dwellings were designed to be summer tourist attractions — destinations that would appeal to visitors who came here to escape the stifling Midwestern heat in the days before air conditioning.
Terry Sullivan, the CEO of Experience Colorado Springs at Pikes Peak, said that the four historic attractions have not only survived, but thrived, for two reasons.
“They’re genuinely interesting — when I take folks from Texas up south Cheyenne Canyon to Seven Falls, they’re just in awe,” he said. “It was once called ‘the grandest mile of scenery in Colorado.’ And those four attractions were created when there wasn’t any competition — there weren’t 50 other attractions. So, they benefit from word of mouth from generation to generation, and I think that makes a big difference.”
Visitors to the Manitou Cliff Dwellings, perhaps the most audaciously conceived of the four, are often surprised to learn that no cliff dwellers ever dwelt there.
The buildings were constructed during 1906-07 by W.S. Crosby, who moved a million pounds of rock from an Anasazi ruin near Mesa Verde, fancifully recreating them beneath a sandstone ledge above Manitou Springs.
A 1907 prospectus described the venture: “Cliff Canyon, near Manitou, is an exact counterpart of many of the canyons of southern Colorado where the cliff dwellings were made … only the ignorant or malicious-minded will tell you that a visit to these ruins is not worthwhile because the prehistoric cliff dwellers did not build them here personally!”
Today, the company’s Web site characterizes the structures as “rare historical treasures …. Preserved under a protective red sandstone overhang, authentic Anasazi cliff dwellings, built more than 700 years ago, await you here.”
A hundred years later, visitors still come. Many of them, judging from reviews posted on Yelp.com, Yahoo and other sites, find the experience worth while, but some do not.
Lillian K. from Fremont, Calif., wrote that the cliff dwellings are “a tourist attraction cash grab in the purest sense of the phrase, you basically pay a steep price to climb around a fake cliff dwelling for 10 minutes, then browse an epically huge multi-level gift shop that’s three times the size of the supposed attraction you paid for …”
Price of admission: adults (12 and older), $9.50; kids (7 to 11), $7.50. Younger than 7 or older than 100, free.
Seven Falls, so named because the waterfall consists of seven separate cascades, has been operated as an attraction since the 1880s.
Then-owner James Hull built a road through south Cheyenne Canyon and constructed a staircase alongside the falls. For decades, visitors struggled up the steep and narrow stairs to the top of the falls until current owner Lyda Hill created a “mountain elevator” by “blast(ing) 14 stories straight up through solid granite to the ‘Eagles Nest’ platform, where the most spectacular view of Seven Falls is experienced.”
During summer nights, “the entire canyon is illuminated in a veil of light, culminating with the Seven Falls in a brilliant display of color.”
The price of the light show? $10.50 for adults, $6.50 for kids.
The Cave of the Winds, first discovered by a pair of teenagers during 1878, has been operated as an attraction since 1880.
The first intrepid visitors braved red mud, swarms of bats and claustrophobia for the chance to view multi-colored formations of flowstone, stalagtites and stalagmites lit by candles and kerosene lanterns. Nowadays, customers can choose among several different tours, ranging from a pleasant walk through the classic cave to a true caving experience.
The so-called lantern tour involves venturing “deep underground, exploring raw cave passages equipped with only a hand-held lantern to light the way. Your tour guide will relay some frightening folklore and share stories about “unexplained phenomena.”
Sounds scary, but it’s all finished in an hour and a half. Cost? $22 for adults, $12 for kids.
And how did the caves get there? They exist, geologists say, because the carbonated waters which gave Manitou Springs its name, dissolved the limestone formations of Williams Canyon, creating the Cave of the Winds — a case, perhaps, of one tourist attraction contributing to another.
The cave even made an appearance on “South Park,” during an episode satirizing Al Gore’s movie, “An Inconvenient Truth.”
In the episode, Al Gore visits South Park Elementary School, and takes the boys to the Cave of the Winds in search of the terrible “manbearpig” (half man, half bear, half pig). While bizarre and funny, the episode, not surprisingly, goes unmentioned on the Cave of the Winds’ Web site.
Construction of the Pikes Peak Cog Railway began during 1889, financed by Zalmon Simmons, founder of the eponymous mattress company. Reputedly, Simmons decided upon the venture after taking two days to ride a mule to the mountain’s summit, reasoning that visitors would be willing to pay for (relative) speed and comfort.
Track workers were paid well, for the era — the then-princely sum of 25 cents an hour. Six workers died during blasting and construction accidents. On the afternoon of June 30, 1891, the first passenger train, carrying a church choir from Denver, made it to the summit.
During the summer months, trains run every 80 minutes between 8 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. The diesel-powered articulated railcars can carry up to 200 people, or as many as 1,600 daily.
Dave Donetta, the railway’s traffic manager, says the Cog carries about 200,000 passengers annually, which, at a price of $32.50 for a round-trip fare, should provide a decent revenue base. The company also operates a gift shop at its Manitou depot, and doesn’t allow passengers to bring their own food or drink on the train. Box lunches are available, at a price.
The secret of the railway’s 117 years of success?
“We carry people to the summit of America’s Mountain,” he said. “That’s what people wanted then, and that’s what people want now.”
And, according to Sullivan, the owners enjoy the blessings of prosperous, financially sound companies.
“Those four, the ones that are deeply rooted in the region, they do just fine,” he said. “The people who run those attractions, who own them, they live very good lives. Why there’s one guy, I won’t name him, he’s my age, and I swear he’s never worked a day in his life.”