The Fresh Air Cure in Colorado

The Fresh Air Cure

Many things shaped the city of Colorado Springs that we know and love today. One of the most unexpected was a raging disease.

In the late 1860s, an industrious, entrepreneurial Civil War veteran by the name of William Jackson Palmer, besotted with the natural beauty of the Garden of the Gods area, set his mind to establishing a city. To some, it may have seemed like a dry, treeless landscape, but for Palmer, it inspired visions of a resort town. Almost at its inception, word began to spread of the region’s high mountain desert climate, clean air, and frequent sunny skies—all of which were recommended curative forces against tuberculosis (TB), the bacterial infection casting a suffocating pall across the globe.

Around the turn of the 20th century, one third of the area’s population suffered from TB (also known as the white plague and consumption). It is reported that, at one time, more people who died from TB were buried in Evergreen Cemetery than were living in town. Before the widespread use of antibiotics beginning around 1944, the most popular recommended treatments for TB were rest, heliotherapy, and a parched climate. With abundant beautiful scenery, dry air, and unabashed sunshine, Colorado Springs quickly became the premier destination for the affluent to convalesce. Movers and shakers, such as politician and art collector Louis Ehrich who wrote, “Colorado Springs is the best resort on the face of the globe for an invalid with lung disease,” began heralding Colorado Springs as the “city of sunshine.” Soon, sick people became our biggest commodity.

“Colorado Springs is on no river at all, and it never cared until World War II to be the center of anything useful. It was created in a high, fragrant wilderness of spectacular beauty for the sole purpose of making men and women comfortable—not just any men and women, but those souls who wanted to be happy first, and successful later on, if ever.” —Marshall Sprague

Some of those who converged upon Colorado Springs to lounge in the sun, breath mountain air, and drink healing mineral waters included wealthy socialites, such as Constance Pulitzer (daughter of publisher Joseph Pulitzer); east coast financiers, such as Henry Chase Stone; and writers and artists, such as Marshall Sprague, Helen Hunt Jackson, Robert Reid, and Artus Van Briggle.

The contributions of this population shaped our community in such a profound way that it is virtually impossible to separate our city’s modern identity from the influence of TB. It can be seen in the architecture of the Victorian homes lining the streets of the Old North End with their large sleeping porches made for resting and healing; the eight-sided TB huts, inspired by Ute teepees, discreetly tucked away in the occasional westside backyard or shopping district; and the gently hued, matte-glazed decorative Van Briggle tiles adorning the flower beds around downtown or inside the homes of the Old North End (the terminally ill potter spent the last few years of his short life not only shaping Art Nouveau in America but becoming synonymous with Colorado Springs art). The Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center and Colorado College received significant contributions from Alice Bemis Taylor, who arrived here as a child with her ailing mother. Ft. Carson, the Air Force Academy, and other military bases are here, in large part, because of Banker Henry Chase Stone, who after recovering from TB, championed bringing a military presence to Colorado Springs; this became one of the city’s most significant economic generators.

By the early 1900s, hospital-like facilities called sanatoriums, designed to isolate and treat “lungers” (TB patients), were built around the outskirts of town. At one time, as many as 17 sanatoriums were operating in Colorado Springs. Many of these evolved into quintessential Colorado Springs entities, such as the Olympic Training Center, Penrose Hospital, Miramont Castle, and UCCS. These facilities ranged from the easily accessible, like the free treatment offered at the Modern Woodmen Tuberculosis Sanitorium, to the opulent resort-like Cragmor, meant to treat those deemed curable and affluent.

Douglas R. McKay’s book Asylum of the Gilded Pill details the glorious rise and dispirited fall of Cragmor’s bawdy, Oscar Wilde-ian institution and the impassioned doctors who ran it. According to McKay, Cragmor in its heyday was considered one of the country’s finest sanatoriums. It had its own newspaper publication, minted coins (used to gamble away during late night games), and was said to host the most exciting concerts and soirees in town.

From Colorado Springs’ threshold, with its bright azure skies and healing resources, wellness has been an architect of our past that will undoubtedly see us into our future.