Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Colorado Springs, Colorado, between 1880 and 1910

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Colorado Springs, although dominated by and identified with Pikes Peak, is located on the western edge of the Great Plains. The city was founded in 1871 by a consortium of investors led by William Jackson Palmer, a Civil War hero and railroad builder. Since then Colorado Springs has grown from a small tourist town to a metropolitan area of over half a million people.

Prior to the 1850s the area was traversed by Native Americans, fur trappers, and Spanish military expeditions. Zebulon Pike led the first U.S. government exploration to this region in 1806. Later explorers included Stephen Long in 1820 and Kit Carson and John Charles Frémont in the 1840s. Anglo-American ranchers and a few merchants settled in the area after the discovery of gold to the north in 1859.

Colorado Springs was the crown jewel of Palmer's north–south railroad, the Denver and Rio Grande. He oversaw the development of the initial 2,000-acre plat and championed Colorado Springs as a well-planned community. The town's treeless prairie environment was modified through an active tree-planting program that transformed the appearance of its wide thoroughfares. An extensive irrigation works was constructed, and large tracts of land were donated for city parks and Colorado College. As the city grew steadily in its first two decades, Palmer invested in opulent hotels and sanitariums.

In the early 1890s gold was discovered at Cripple Creek to the west of Pikes Peak. Colorado Springs was transformed, as it provided transportation, milling services, and coal for the gold mines. During a thirty-year mining boom the city, home to fifty millionaires by 1900, became an internationally known health resort, playground, and elite enclave. Philanthropic millionaires such as Spencer Penrose and Winfield Scott Stratton established institutions that are still important today. Penrose, for example, was instrumental in forming the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo and the Fine Arts Center, and Stratton founded the Myron Stratton Home for orphaned children. New elite neighborhoods such as the upscale suburb of Broadmoor, which included a lavish casino and recreation complex, were developed. Tourism continued to be an important part of the economy. The health benefits of the climate were extolled for victims of tuberculosis, leading to the development of several tuberculosis sanitariums. During the Great Depression the so-called lungers were an essential part of the city's economic base.

World War II signaled another change in the city's economy with the establishment of Camp Carson, later Fort Carson, as an army training center, bringing almost 30,000 soldiers into the area. The military fueled much of the economic and population growth for the remainder of the twentieth century. Two U.S. Air Force bases, the North American Air Defense Command, and the United States Air Force Academy became the engine of the regional economy and infused millions of dollars into the local economy annually. The growth and development of the community thus became linked to national policy and government largesse. In addition, high-tech firms associated with the military/industrial complex were attracted to the city by billions of Defense Department contract dollars. The rapid population growth of the city has led to the development of low-density suburbs, spreading eastward on the Plains. Consequently, infrastructure problems, especially transportation issues, and associated air pollution problems are important issues today.

See also EDUCATION: United States Air Force Academy.

Steven Jennings Robert P. Larkin University of Colorado at Colorado Springs

Huber, Thomas P. Colorado: The Place of Nature, the Nature of Place. Niwot: University Press of Colorado, 1993.

Sprague, Marshall. Newport in the Rockies: The Life and Good Times of Colorado Springs. Athens: Ohio University Press/Swallow Press, 1987.

Wyckoff, William. Creating Colorado: The Making of a Western American Landscape 1860-1940. New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 1999.

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