Pikes Peak, America’s Mountain

c 2019 by Jan MacKell Collins

Portions of this article originally appeared in the Ute Pass Vacation Guide and The Colorado Gambler magazine.

Significant in history and world-reknowned, Pikes Peak is honored as one of the best-known landmarks in America. For centuries, the mountain looming above Colorado Springs has served as a vantage point from all directions across the state and beyond. The unmistakable landmark first guided the Indians, then the fur trappers, and later the white men who inhabit the areas around it now. In 1802, Pike’s Peak was part of the Louisiana Purchase.

When the famous explorer Zebulon Pike determined to scale the peak in 1806, his efforts were somewhat ridiculous by today’s standards. Naming the mountain Grand Peak, Pike denounced it as unclimbable and reaching a height of 18,581 feet. Had Pike chosen a better time of year (he was there in November), better clothing and a better grasp of the peak’s actual altitude of 14,110 feet, he probably would have made it to the summit. Instead, Pike had to be content with being the first white man to note the mountain on maps.

Between 1806 and 1820, the peak was alternately referred to as Grand Peak and Highest Peak. Many historians credit Major Stephen H. Long as the first white man to climb the mountain in the latter year. However, even Long gave the honor to Dr. Edwin James, himself an historian with the expedition. In reality, James was accompanied by Long and two others on the journey. Apparently, because James was first to actually set foot on the summit, Long named the mountain James Peak.

Over the next twenty years, the name of James Peak was gradually replaced with Pikes Peak. Lt. John C. Fremont sealed the official name in his travel logs. By the 1850’s, everyone seemed Pikes Peak-bound as gold booms began all over Colorado. Clothing and supply stores back east manufactured items bearing the Pike’s Peak label. Guidebooks and maps were in abundance, all describing the best ways to reach Pikes Peak country and what the traveler might find upon arrival.

As Colorado launched into its gold boom era, Julia Archibald Holmes became the first white woman to scale the peak. In 1858, Holmes, her husband John and four others from Kansas included the peak in their sight-seeing tour while prospecting for gold. So wide-spread was the quest for gold that even Denver was included in the “Pikes Peak or Bust” rush of 1859.

As thousands of miners flocked to the rocky mountains to seek their fortunes, their trek was aptly titled the Great Pikes Peak Gold Rush. The spirit of those first pioneers who sacrificed their homes and even their families to find Pikes Peak was an inspiration to others. Because of them, millions of people found the courage to come west and settle in new territory. The sight of Pikes Peak, even hundreds of miles in the distance, gave them hope. Many of those pioneers wound up at Colorado City, a supply town established at the base of the peak near Ute Pass.

When Colorado Springs sprang to life in 1871, a popular pastime was to scale the peak. A U.S. Signal Corps station, constructed from rocks, was used as a weather station. Later abandoned, the building eventually became a tourist hotel. The number of tourists to the summit escalated in 1873 with a mild gold strike on the eastern slopes. The strike turned out to be a hoax, however.

As it was, hoaxes and jokes upon the unsuspecting public seemed to be running rampant through Colorado about this time. Other such mischief included the 1876 “death” of a non-existent baby named Erin O’Keefe. One John O’Keefe claimed his infant daughter had been consumed by mountain rats atop the peak. A realistic photograph showed Erin’s grave surrounded by several mourners. Tourists flocked to the burial site to see the grave and leave trinkets before the hoax was revealed.

For the next several years, Pikes Peak gained even more notoriety. In 1884 a route was established for a railway to the summit, but was abandoned. A few years later, Dr. A.G. Lewis homesteaded 160 acres at the summit. Amazingly, Lewis was able to grow a few crops as required by the 1862 Homestead Act. Lewis’ intent was to build a tourist trap illustrating his crops. A carriage road was built in anticipation for the new business.

Unfortunately for Lewis, railroad pioneer David H. Moffat succeeded in acquiring a 99-year lease on just five acres of the summit. Lewis lost his claim in court, and a cog railway began daily excursions to the top of Pikes Peak beginning in 1891. Viewed as one of the most scenic rides in America, the train ran a distance of 8.9 miles, climbing 7,518 feet (the Pikes Peak Cog Railroad is currently closed for needed renovations, but will be open again next year). A daily guide was given to passengers, listing visitors of the day before and expounding on other interesting sites in the region.

The same year as the premier of the cog railway, the Cripple Creek District on the backside of Pikes Peak experienced the last, and one of the largest, gold booms in Colorado’s history. Numerous trails were established and there was talk of building a road to the top of Pikes Peak from the Cripple Creek side. The closest anyone came, however, was at Seven Lakes, which had opened as a resort quite some years before some seven miles below the summit.

The peak gained further popularity in 1895 when Katharine Lee Bates, a professor at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, published the anthem “America The Beautiful”. The song was based on her visit to the peak two years earlier. More and more travelers made the summit of Pikes Peak a destination spot. In fact, one might say that in the rush to see Pikes Peak, people began turning it into a race of sorts. Excursions of all kinds, from wildflower-picking expeditions to hiking trips to the first wedding in 1905, were the popular mode of the day.

There were tragedies here and there: In August of 1911, Mr. and Mrs. William A. Skinner learned a hard lesson about the perils of hiking unprepared on Pike’s Peak. Ignoring the advice of guides and the editor of the Pike’s Peak Daily News, Mrs. Skinner insisted on setting out for the summit late in the afternoon. Snow clouds looming on the horizon were soon hovering over the couple, who were poorly dressed for the trek and already tuckered out. After a two-foot snowfall during the night, the couple was found frozen to death about two miles below the summit the next day.

The unfortunate fate of the Skinners hardly stopped other hikers, or drivers. In 1916, the Pikes Peak Automobile Company opened the toll road to the summit. An annual hill climb was also established, which steadily gained world fame. The Pikes Peak Auto Hill Climb is now called the Pikes Peak International Hlil Climb and takes place each year. The event draws thousands, not to mention some very famous participants.

Other innovative news about Pikes Peak came in 1918 with the opening of Barr Trail. Built by Fred Barr, the trail took four years to construct and included a camp halfway to the summit which is still in use today. The Barr Trail opening was followed by the establishment of the AdAmAn Club in 1923. Each year, a new member is chosen to join the group, which treks to the summit on New Years’ Eve to set off fire works at midnight. In 1935, this group gained notoriety as they broadcasted greetings from the peak to Admiral Richard C. Byrd in the Antarctic. Just six years earlier, Bill Williams gained fame by pushing a peanut to the top of Pikes Peak with his nose.

It has been nearly 200 years since the first explorers spotted “America’s Mountain”, Pikes Peak, off in the distance. Since that time, untold numbers of men and women around the world have traversed the United States in search of this great landmark. They were looking for opportunity and freedom they had only imagined in their dreams. They found it, too, here in the American west where the untamed land dared the bravest to fight for peace, happiness, and the American way of life.

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