c 2022 by Jan MacKell Collins
The Catamount Hills, which ramble along in the beautiful back country at the bottom of Pikes Peak, have a long and interesting history. The area made ideal ranching country, and was used as such beginning in the mid-to late 1800’s. One such place was known as Blandin, a.k.a. Blandon, a noted ranch with a sawmill that may have been named for Joseph C. Brandon. In 1880, Brandon lived in Colorado Springs with his family, and his occupation was noted as that of a “freighter in the mountains.” There were many other sawmills in the area a well, spanning from about midway up Ute Pass, through today’s Woodland Park and on to Manitou Park. So concentrated were logging efforts that by 1876 a Division of Forestry had been established to control logging efforts.
In the December 10, 1880 issue of the Gazette Telegraph in Colorado Springs, readers were introduced to “Catamount Charley” and his mustang, “Captain Kid”. Charley was a trapper and hunter by trade. He was a common site in Colorado Springs where he was always seen wearing “a yellow buckskin shirt and buckskin trousers, both trimmed with a fringe of buckskin cut into strips, a cartridge belt tilled with the loaded shells of a heavy repeating rifle, which he carried in his hand, a wide white sombrero on his head and moccasins on his feet.” He also had an unforgettable stature, it seems. He was described as being “tall, long-legged, with a loosely knit frame, a dark face, black eyes and a ‘flowing black beard’ that cascaded down his chest.”
Charley had remained somewhat obscure in tales about the Pikes Peak Region, until he claimed he had once killed a buffalo and three mountain lions with only two shots from his repeating rifle. His story made not just the Colorado Springs Gazette Telegraph, but also the New York Times. The story begins with Charley riding into Colorado Springs with a bale of skins to sell at a trading post called Aiken & Hunt’s museum. As Charley walked into the store to see Mr. Hunt about selling his hides, what follows is the dialogue exactly as it was written and published on December 17, 1880:
“I say boss,” remarked Charley, “I’ve got some skins yere I’d like to sell yer.” “Certainly,” said Mr. Hunt, with his usual politeness. “I shall be glad to look at them.” “Yere,” said Charley, “is a mountain bison’s hide; yere is a mountain lion’s hide; and yere are two more lion’s hides. That fust lion’s skin is the biggest I ever see. It’s 9 feet from tip to tip; the critter must weigh 500 pounds. You see it was this way. I was looking round for game back of the Peak, when all at once I heard a growlin’ and a howlin’, which reminded me that the mountain lions was not all dead yet. So I crawled around a point of rock, and I’m blamed if I didn’t see three mountain lions havin’ a fight with a monstrous bison. I tell you, it was a big fight. The lions would make a leap, and the bison would back up against a root and take them on his horns. I don’t know how the fight would have come out, but it was just too good a picnic for me to let it pass, so I drawed a bead on the fust lion as it came in range and pulled my old rifle off. The surprisin’ part of the affair was that just as I pulled one of the lions jumped in between me and the one I shot at and caught the ball just back of his ribs. It passed clean through him, and bein’ turned a bit, it cut the second lion in the throat and went on to break the neck of the bison. They all dropped in a heap, and I was so tickled that I incautiously jumped out from behind the rock, when the third lion saw me.” “Indeed,” said Mr. Hunt. “Yes,” said Charley. “The third lion he saw me, and made a jump in my direction. As I saw him comin’ I didn’t have time to take aim, but I brought my repeatin’ rifle up under my arm and took a fly shot at him. Lucky for me, I took him in the breast, and he tumbled over dead.” “Indeed!” said an excited Mr. Hunt again. “Yes,” said Charley, “he tumbled over dead. Now what will you give me for these skins, three mountain lions and one bison?”
There is no record of what Catamount Charley was paid for his skins, his eventual fate, what his real name was or whether he stayed in the region or moved on when civilization encroached upon his territory. But his story illustrates the character and hardiness of the kind of men and women who came to settle the front range of Colorado.
In 1885, Catamount was noted on a map of Pikes Peak toll road. The road was perhaps alternately known as the “Golden Stair” by 1890, which skirted through Catamount Hills and towards Pike Peak to the Morning Star Mine. Around this same time, the area was first homesteaded and began providing lumber to the Cripple Creek mines. By 1892, logging had depleted so much of the forests in the Catamount area that the Pikes Peak Timber Reserve At was enacted in February. The Division of Forestry stepped in, took control of how much timber was being cut and began reforestation efforts. Next, in 1893 according to pioneer Henry Buensle, “all mills ceased operation when the adjoining forests were placed under the administration of the forest service.”
With the Cripple Creek gold boom in full swing, mining also remained very much an interest in the Catamount Hills. In about 1905 or 1906, one prospector claimed to have struck it rich along the south fork of Catamount Creek. Some believed the man’s claims to have found ore that was “richer than anything that was ever found in Cripple Creek,” while others maintained the ore was actually stolen from Cripple Creek District mines. Just to be sure, a number of prospectors dug around the creek but failed to find any gold. Apparently the miner had brought his specimens down to the Golden Cycle Mill in Colorado Springs, but nobody could pinpoint where they were coming from for sure. Eventually the would-be prospector contracted tuberculosis. On his death bed, he was asked to tell where the mine was, but refused. “Let them find it the way I found it,” he said, “but it will be hard to do. I have planted trees on the dump.” The mystery has never been solved.
In about 1915 the YMCA began working on a camp for boys along Catamount Creek in Blandon Gulch and called it Camp Catamount. The Oak Creek Times in Routt County reported in 1917, “The camp for boys established by the YMCA on Catamount Creek near Edlowe will be open June 11 and will continue for ten days.” Local land owners began donating land to the camp, particularly during the 1940’s and into the 1950’s. By the 1980’s, the YMCA owned the entire Catamount area and sledding was still a popular pastime among locals. The sledding hills were very informal, wherein kids and adults trudged up the hills, flew down them on innertubes and sleds, and could buy a cup of hot chocolate in the shack at the bottom. At the same time, a number of reservoirs, lakes and lodges were built in the Catamount area.
In 1996, Catamount Ranch Open Space of Teller County was able to purchase much of the old YMCA camp to preserve it. The following year, the Catamount Institute was born as a private foundation. Two professors from Colorado College in Colorado Springs, Julie Francis and Howard Drossman, purchased 177 acres of the old YMCA camp for use as a “mountain campus dedicated to ecological stewardship, research, education, and leadership.” Today, the Catamount area has three cold water reservoirs for fishing, and numerous trails – one of which leads to beautiful Catamount Falls – at what is now known as the North Slope Recreation Area. If you go, keep an eye out for the ghost of old Catamount Charley, as well as the prospector’s lost gold.
For more history of the Pikes Peak Region, see Lost Ghost Towns of Teller County, Colorado.