Where the city of Colorado Springs now stands is a place that has drawn people for thousands of years. As the city celebrates its 150th birthday, it is important to recognize that it has been inhabited for much longer than that, says Matt Mayberry, director of the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum. “There have always been people here—people like the Utes, who say they have always lived here—and we have the archeological evidence to prove it, going back 5,000 years,” he says.
As the populated West grew, a Civil War veteran and railroad magnate discovered this idyllic spot at the foot of Pikes Peak for himself and decided to bring his railway here and build a city that could compete with anything he’d left back East. Gen. William Jackson Palmer founded the city on July 31, 1871.
Marketing for his new city at the base of the Rocky Mountains emphasized that it was a dry town (no alcohol), a planned development with broad streets and newly planted trees, and a good place to raise a family with culture, arts, and a healthful climate. It was not the “wild West” or a mining town. “Neither was it really a ranching community, though that happened in the area. It just had a different feel and a sense of itself,” Mayberry says.
He adds that the marketing also “emphasized the high, dry climate and the remarkable number of days of sunshine.” That’s why one of its first draws was to asthmatics and tuberculosis sufferers. Many came and were restored to health, and word spread. Others came to enjoy the natural beauty and attractions, such as Garden of the Gods and Pikes Peak, accessible by foot or mule-drawn wagon in those early days. It inspired one woman, Katharine Lee Bates, who wrote “America the Beautiful,” which sang the city’s fame far and wide.
Since the city was founded, people have come to enjoy the climate and beauty of the region, “and then they come back—or they just stay,” Mayberry says. “From my way of thinking, that first period of growth was the resort town era, until gold was discovered in Cripple Creek. Then, that became a big draw.”
Over the past 150 years, the city “has had to reinvent itself every 20 years or so to accommodate changes in the economy,” Mayberry says. The military has played a major role in why some came here, and high-tech industries have been courted by city officials in recent decades.
Our Unique History
“As a historian, I feel fortunate to live in a place with such an interesting history—and surprises,” Mayberry says. “With the sesquicentennial, I want to explore new themes and reveal some of those surprises.” Anniversaries are important, he adds, a time for us to look back at where we have been and also to envision where we are going.
Mayberry himself reflects the city’s early beginnings. A native of Iowa, he always suffered from asthma. He often visited relatives in Colorado, and he and his wife even honeymooned here. He realized early on that he simply felt better here. After graduating from college, he came back to the state, looking for a job and was lucky enough to find museum work in Denver, and then in Colorado Springs in 1994 at the Pioneers Museum.
The museum will honor the city’s history with three major exhibitions. The first, which ran through the end of 2020, is “Evidence,” a look at Palmer’s life based on archeological materials. The second, opening January 30, is titled “COS@150” and features 150 objects that exemplify the history of the city. It includes such items as a stock certificate from the original Colorado Springs Company’s earliest records to a “Black Lives Matter” placard from recent demonstrations. Other items are the time clock from Hibbard’s, a long-time downtown department store, and a baseball with an electronic beeper used by students at the Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind, so they could play the game. (Interesting note: It was invented by a local entrepreneur.) The exhibit “is a way to investigate this unique place and remind people of how we grew to be the place we are today,” Mayberry says.
The third exhibit is titled “Cultural Crossroads.” It explores who and what was here prior to the establishment of the city, both geographically and archeologically, and what prepared this place to be the Pikes Peak region as we know it today.
The museum staff worked closely with the indigenous community to represent the area accurately, Mayberry says. They also partnered with the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, which has done studies in the area about how the rise of mammals took place here after the extinction of the dinosaurs. And it involves a deep exploration of the region from the earliest times and showcases a site east of the city where archeologists have unearthed some amazing fossils. (Currently, the site is not open to the public but you can learn more about it online on a NOVA program titled “Rise of the Mammals.”)