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A Quick History of Colorado Springs
Vacations are the reason Colorado Springs was built.

The history of the town starts with General William Jackson Palmer, who first thought the area would make a great place for a summer resort.

Through the years, other sources of prosperity have helped to make Colorado Springs a thriving city, but the original great tourist attractions still offer vacationing families fun travel options.

Photo: Families visiting the Air Force Academy catch sight of the famous chapel on the trail from the Air Force Academy Visitor Center.

Did You Know?

A passenger railway runs from just outside of Colorado Springs to the top of Pikes Peak.

Families have been enjoying the trip since 1891.


Photo: Pikes Peak rises at the eastern edge of the Colorado Rockies. It has been a landmark for hundreds of years.
The First Coloradoans

The Pikes Peak area of Colorado was home to prehistoric hunters as long as 10,000 ago. By around 1500, the Ute people were foraging and hunting in the mountains west of Colorado Springs.

The Utes developed excellent equestrian skills and used their horses to hunt bison, which wandered from the plains into the mountains along a path just North of Pikes Peak. Now known as Ute Pass, (US Highway 24), the route leaves Colorado Springs, passes Manitou Springs, and climbs into South Park.

Spanish Campaign

In 1779, Spanish Lieutenant-Colonel Juan Bautista de Anza, in a campaign against Comanche raiders, traveled from South Park down Ute Pass and then southward along the Front Range through what is now Colorado Springs.

Zebulon Pike

But it wasn’t until 1806 that American Lieutenant Zebulon Pike camped at the base of the peak. He was on an expedition to discover the southwestern part of what America had bought with the Louisiana Purchase.

In late November Pike and three others left their gear and food in camp (expecting to return that evening), and attempted to climb the snowy mountain. Distances proved to be deceiving, and they ended up spending a bad couple of nights on the side of the peak without making it to the top.

White men from the East didn’t climb the mountain until 1820, when three men from the Stephen Long expedition made a summertime ascent and reached the summit on July 14.

Pikes Peak or Bust Gold Rush

In 1859, the Pikes Peak or Bust gold rush brought thousands to the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, but most of them went to the settlement on Cherry Creek, where Denver now stands, before prospecting in the high country.

Still, Ute Pass proved a useful route to South Park’s gold camps, and by 1860, over 300 buildings stood in Colorado City, on the eastern foot of Pikes Peak.

Colorado City - The First Territorial Capital

In 1861, when Congress created the Colorado Territory, members of the first general assemble voted to make Colorado City the territorial capital. After meeting there for a few days in 1862, they thought better of their decision and voted to make the territorial capital be in Golden, Colorado. (Finally in 1867, Denver was established as the permanent capital city.)

Eventually, competing routes, gold camp busts, Indian troubles, and other factors contributed to the decline of Colorado City, which was mostly a strip of saloons by 1871, when General William J. Palmer founded Colorado Springs, nearby.

General William Jackson Palmer

Palmer was a railroad man, Superintendent of Construction for the Kansas Pacific Railway. As he scouted the way through Colorado Territory for his company, he fell in love with the scenic beauty of the lands at the foot of Pikes Peak. He got the idea that as soon as he finished his project with the Kansas Pacific Railway, he’d build a railroad south along the Front Range of the Rockies.

In those days, when railroads pushed into undeveloped lands, they brought capital and investment opportunities. Often the railroad men themselves were the chief investors in land along the routes. Palmer and his friends were no different.

When they planned the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad route, they didn’t head for Colorado City (which was struggling and could have used the help); instead they aimed just to the east and plotted their own city, Colorado Springs.

Resort and Leisure

The General had conceived of a new city, Colorado Springs, that was to become a resort and leisure destination, and hardscrabble towns, like Colorado City, had no place in his dream. Colorado Springs was officially founded in 1871, and Palmer and an English friend, Dr. Bell attracted many visitors from Britain. The city became known for its culture, eventually acquiring the nickname, Little London.

Tourist Attractions

Tourism continued to be a mainstay of Colorado Springs’ economy, and area attractions developed. Hotels and other resort facilities were built near the bubbling waters of Manitou Springs, a tutor and his two students went exploring in the hills above Manitou and discovered the Cave of the Winds, and the famous views of Garden of the Gods continued to attract visitors.

On Top of Pikes Peak

Colorado Springs entrepreneurs had been staging guided burro and carriage rides to the top of Pikes Peak since the early 1870’s, when the United States Signal Service – later the Weather Bureau – operated a station at the summit of the mountain. By 1891, a cog railroad was laid to the top of Pikes Peak as well.

On August 12, 1901, W.B. Felker and C. A. Yont drove (and pushed, and coaxed) a Locomobile up an old wagon road to take the first automobile up Pikes Peak. By July of 1916, with money from gold king Spencer Penrose, the automobile highway was complete. That September, the first “Pikes Peak Hill Climb” automobile race roared up the sides of the mountain.


In January of 1891, a cowhand, Bob Womack, rode into Colorado Springs with a sample of ore he’d picked up just west of Pikes Peak. What he found turned out to launch the last of Colorado’s great gold strikes and the boom towns of Cripple Creek and Victor. Eventually, a peak of $20,000,000 a year was pulled from the ground there.

Money, Money, Money

Money poured into Colorado Springs, which became a supply town for the gold camps and a haven for those who made enough money to escape the rough mining towns.

The population of Colorado Springs tripled in ten years, and multimillionaires like Winfield Scott Stratton infused the place with cash. He donated land for a new city hall and for a post office and contributed capital for a streetcar system. He is said to have bought a bicycle for every laundry girl in town.

When he died an early death at age fifty-four, Stratton’s estate went to the building and endowment of the Myron Stratton Home, to house poor orphans and elderly people.

By 1917, the gold in Cripple Creek was playing out, the United States was involved in World War I, and Colorado Springs was in an economic slump.

Spencer and Julie Penrose

Spencer Penrose, a fellow from Philadelphia, had made millions in Cripple Creek and also as the largest individual stockholder of Utah’s Kennecott Copper Corporation. He saw the tourism potential of Colorado Springs and poured money into such attractions as the Pikes Peak Highway and the Manitou Incline.

Together with his wife, Julie, Spencer Penrose built the posh Broadmoor Hotel to attract well-to-do visitors to the area.

Military Presence

Colorado Springs’ economy relieved itself of dependence on tourism by attracting military bases to the area.

In 1942, the army established Camp Carson south of Colorado Springs. The same year, the Colorado Springs Municipal Airport saw the Colorado Springs Army Air Base (later renamed Peterson Field) established at its location.

In 1951, Ent Air Force Base was started in downtown Colorado Springs in union with the Air Force’s Air Defense Command. The North American Aerospace Defense (NORAD) facility in Cheyenne Mountain began operations in 1966.

In 1947, an act of Congress officially designated the United States Air Force. In 1954, Congress authorized the creation of an Air Force Academy, an institution of higher education and training for Air Force officers. By 1955, construction began at the chosen site near Colorado Springs.

In more recent years, space research and other high tech firms have been attracted to Colorado Springs, as have large evangelical Christian organizations. The military, however, continues to be the biggest employer.

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Colorado Destinations for Vacationing Families
Colorado Springs
Best Colorado Springs Attractions for Kids