Pikes Peak Colorado: America’s Mountain

Katherine Bates stood atop Pikes Peak Colorado and wrote a poem that would eventually become the song “America the Beautiful”. If you have ever visited this icon of the old west, then you know how moved she was looking out over this vast new territory. Living in this region of Colorado, I am looking out my window at Pikes Peak as I write. The above photo was taken from our property. What a beautiful view of “the Peak”!

It makes me wonder what Zebulon Pike felt when he first saw the mountain that would bear his name. I have come upon a great deal of Pikes Peak Pre-history, mystery, and legend surrounding this mountain.  For instance:

Native Americans thrived here centuries before any explorer arrived. Ute Indians considered “the Peak” sacred.  Many Native American ceremonial sites are in the shadow of the mountain.

Explorers came to the area as early as 1776, and the first written word about the mountain’s history was penned. Fur trappers and traders found the great bounty of the region. Early settlers and pioneers made their way west for adventure and settled in the plains area.

Gold was discovered here in 1859 and a great migration began to the region.  People made or lost fortunes. Many towns flourished during this gold mining period and are still around today.  Some became ghost towns just as easily. Ghosts and hauntings are very real.  I have experienced a few specters myself at a historic site that was transformed into a restaurant.

Railroads arrived with the discovery of gold and many tracks were laid that spread to the Pacific. The Pikes Peak Cog Railway carried tourists to the summit of Pikes Peak Colorado as early as 1891. This is a beautiful and mysterious area of Colorado. The mountain has been here millions of years and will continue for millions more.

Now, let’s investigate some of the interesting histories of the Pikes Peak region.

Pikes Peak Cog Railway

If you’ve visited Colorado, chances are you have ridden this modern train to the summit of Pikes Peak.  We have, several times.  The views are incredible, the wildlife spectacular and once you get to the summit, your breath is taken away.

To get you to the top of the peak, the train traveled on, what looked like, regular tracks.  But if you look in the middle of the tracks, you will see a strip of steel with “teeth” in it.  This is the cog that lines up with the same steel strip under the train and pulls it up the mountain.

The tracks on either side are only there to steady the train on the ride up. So as you look out at the 360-degree views around you, did you ever think about how the railway came to be?  The hard work in laying the first tracks?  The first tourists?

Well, in case you were wondering, I’ll tell you all about my research into the Pikes Peak Cog Railway. First of all, the early explorers struck their own trails to scale the summit of Pikes Peak and find gold and other treasures. But in the 1800s a well-defined trail to the summit of Pikes Peak was needed. Many people were settling the area and like all curious folks, they wanted to see what was up that mountain.

With the new settlement of Colorado Springs, laid out in July 1871, the Fremont Trail was established to get from Mt. Manitou then on west to the peak. There was some construction at the lower part of the trail and travel was made by mule or burro to the summit.  This was the Bear Creek Trail and the future route of the Pikes Peak Cog Railway.

Also in 1873, a U.S. Army Signal Service (future National Weather Service station) building was constructed at the top of Pikes Peak.  It consisted of a telegraph line that ran from the summit to Colorado Springs. Travel up Pikes Peak was only possible during the summer months using the new trail.  So another trail was needed.

A good trail was discovered along Ruxton Creek and ran through Engelmann Canyon.  This trail was developed by the Manitou and Pikes Peak Toll Road Company on September 15, 1877. In 1878, the trail was finished and joined up with the Bear Creek Trail to continue on to the top of the mountain.

Conquering Pikes Peak

Along the way of this trail, homes, hotels, and campgrounds sprung up along the slopes of Pikes Peak. Tourists and travelers came by horseback and burros to make the long trek.  On their way, they found accommodations, food, and rest. The Halfway House, owned by the Palsgrove family, was the most popular destination because it was halfway up the mountain and a good place to take a break.

On one of these treks, a tourist from Wisconsin, Zalmon Simmons, who manufactured mattresses, had a very painful burro ride from Manitou Springs up to the summit of Pikes Peak and back down. He vowed that there had to be a better and more comfortable way to travel as well as enjoy the sights and sounds of the peak. And so, in 1891, Mr. Simmons formed and financed the Manitou and Pikes Peak Cog Railway.

Tracks started being laid in 1889 at the summit and later worked down to Manitou Springs.  Regular tracks were laid along with the toothed “cog rail” to help pull the train up steep grades.

The entire track was finished in October 1890 and the first steam engine train reached the summit of Pikes Peak on June 30, 1891. Now travelers had a comfortable way to ascend the mountain.  And at the top, the old signal house was transformed into a hotel. Food was served and a gift shop was established.  The views were fabulous, word of mouth spread, and tourists started flocking to the Pikes Peak region for their health after hearing about the healing waters of Manitou Springs.

A new western expansion had begun –  tourism. There are many canyons, lakes, small mountains, old towns and settlements, and such as you ascend the peak. One particular stretch along the route is called “Son of a Gun Hill”, which got its name from a steam engine fireman who had to shovel a lot of coal into the engine to get the train up the 25% incline.

The Pikes Peak Daily News had a building that took names of passengers on their way up the mountain and by the time they were on their return trip, the paper had been published with their names in it. This was also a stop for the steam engine to take on the water both up and down the peak.  All that is left is an old water tank.

Snow removal was difficult when the trains started running all year round.  An engine would push a flat, wedged car in front of it to clear the tracks, but men would still be needed to shovel the snow from the flatcar. And that pretty much tells the story of the Pikes Peak Cog Railway in old west Colorado.

So next time you happen to be here visiting, take a trip on the modern train up to the summit and think back about how it was not really so long ago. When all that was there were footpaths, then trails only big enough for a horse or burro and finally tracks laid and the first train puffing up the ascent.

Take a look at the Cog Railway website to find hours of operation and train schedules. It’s a trip worth taking!

Pikes Peak Prehistory

Starting off with Pikes Peak prehistory, we see the volcanic eruption millions of years ago that formed the Rocky Mountain range from Canada to Mexico.

Lava, noxious gas and great boulders were thrown about like pebbles as the earth cracked and pushed the great mountain range toward the sky. Nothing could live in this environment.  Eventually, meaning millions of years later, the earth cooled, rains came and made oceans, lakes, and streams, and life emerged in all forms.

The human race developed in Asia and migrated to other parts of the world. North America, uninhabited, was traversed by indigenous people from Asia who decided to stay and were the first founders of our country. All of North America was bountiful, but since we are talking about Colorado and Pikes Peak prehistory, we will look at what went on here.

These first settlers were the Indians, who came over the land bridge of the Bering Strait from now Russia to Alaska and down into the U.S., They climbed Pikes Peak, hunted, and lived there.  They also worshiped the Peak, having ceremonies atop the pinnacle and leaving offerings to the great mountain. For thousands of years, the Indians lived here in their own world without interference by outside sources. Suddenly, in the early 17th century, Europe started looking into the land that was the Colorado territory.

The Spaniards, coming in from Mexico, were very interested in this land. They called it the new world. An explorer named de Vaca was exploring around what is now the Texas coast and had been told of seven cities of gold by the Native Americans he came in contact with. Many tried to find these lost cities, but none were found.  FYI: The name Colorado means “red” in Spanish.

In 1776, the Dominguez-Escalante expedition took off to find a route overland from New Mexico to California. They set out and traversed into Colorado. The group soon found that the country was very difficult to travel to the west and soon gave up. This expedition piqued the curiosity of the new Americans who had been wondering what was west of the Mississippi River.

The writer of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, had heard from French fur trappers of the bounty of pelts and furs that would be traded with the Native Americans. He was also interested in the plants and animals of the region, that he had been told were different from the eastern variety.  This new territory piqued his curiosity so much, that he kept dwelling on it for years.

When Jefferson became President, he instrumented the Louisiana Purchase, which included the western territories.  He sent Lewis and Clark on a trip to map a route to the Pacific Northwest. All of this leads up to the first American to set eyes on Pikes Peak.

In 1806, Jefferson decided to send Zebulon Pike out west to discover the source of the Mississippi.  That is how he discovered Pikes Peak, the mountain named for him. Later on, because of the war of 1812, President Jefferson did not follow up on Pike’s discoveries.

However, in 1820, after the war, Jefferson started sending expeditions into the “new west” and the history of Pikes Peak and Colorado were chronicled.  Pikes Peak prehistory actually shows the interest in the entire state and surrounding areas and why they were discovered a very long time ago.

Now we’ll begin looking into the colorful and exciting centuries of Pikes Peak and old west Colorado.