|IN 1541, Francisco
Vasquez de Coronado led a band of Spaniards through the Golden West in search of the seven
wealthy cities of Cibola, which were supposed to have streets paved with turquoise and
houses of gold.
After many weary months of aimless wanderings fraught with the hardships and privations of
a barren wilderness, Coronado and those of his cavalcade who had not perished, returned to
Mexico disgraced for failure to find what has since literally come to pass.
The wooden crosses which had been sent to Mexico by Scout Estevan to prove that the cities
existed, and the wonderful tales of an Indian, El Turco who had filled Coronado's ears
with glowing accounts of Gran Quivera, the greatest of the seven wealthy cities, had led
but to disillusionment. Ere he was put to death, El Turco confessed that it was but a
trick to lead the rapacious Spaniards to death in the wilderness.
Today there are many Gran Quiveras in Colorado and New Mexico, almost within the shadows
of the Mount of
Holy Cross, where perpetual snows have fashioned, in the God-made ravines in its side,
a perfect cross-the symbol of promise to the Golden West. While their streets are not
paved with turquois, or their houses built of gold, the inexhaustible treasures that
Coronado and his band of Conquistadores failed to find in this wilderness, have
truly built them. The Land of Promise that the last of the great Conquistadores found but
a wilderness of desolation, of barren plains and forbidding mountains, has yielded to a
modern and more powerful means of conquest- the indomitable conquest of iron and steam,
Since June 23, 1870, when the first locomotive, manned by rugged pioneers, rolled into the
little frontier village of Denver over iron rails that had crossed the Indian infested
plains to give this fertile wilderness permanent and rapid intercommunication with the
civilized world, the vitalizing effect of their iron embrace has developed "Gran
Quiveras" by the score.
It was a great day for Denver when the
little Denver Pacific train arrived from the north at the humble stone passenger and
freight depot that had been built on Wazee, between "K" and "L"
streets. The hardships that had been suffered by the builders of this connecting link line
between the trunk line at Cheyenne and Denver, was partially repaid by the demonstration
of the town's entire population who were out to welcome the primitive locomotive with its
huge funnel-shaped smokestack and big, square kerosene-burning headlight when it wheezed
into the station in a cloud of billowing smoke. Bands played, people cheered. Horses
hitched to broughams, surreys, berlins, sulkeys and phaetons pranced and snorted
All the territory surrounding Denver was interested in this transportation event. Prior to
this the only transportation facilities were stage lines. The "Smokey Hill"
route from Kansas, the Platte and South Platte were the routes of overland travel. A line
from Denver south to Pueblo connected that little Mexican village with three stages each
way a week, serving Colorado City, the only intermediate point of any consequence.
first stage coach of the Leavenworth and Pikes Peak Express Company arrived in Denver May
7, 1859. The first post office collected twenty-five cents per letter from or to the
outside world. This charge was paid in gold dust, the only currency of the country at that
time. Clerks weighed out the payment on scales.
From 25 to 100 letters constituted the daily receipts of the post office. After the coming
of the railroads this increased to 700 to 800 letters daily.
A pony express carried the news of Lincoln's election to Denver from St. Joseph, a
distance of nearly 700 miles. We are told that the trip was made in 69 hours, and that the
last stage of the journey, a distance of ten miles, was made in thirty-one minutes.
A letter by Pony Express cost $5.00. This was the swiftest means of communication for
Denver with the outside world up to 1861, when the Pacific Overland Telegraph Company
strung a line from Omaha to San Francisco. Denver's messages for a time had to be relayed
by Pony Express from Julesburg, as the telegraph wires only came that close to Denver. The
first telegraph wire to reach Denver was ready for business October 10, 1863. Mayor Amos
Steck received the first message over it, which was a congratulatory wire from the mayor
of Omaha. The message rates for ten words were $7 to St. Louis, and $9.00 to New York or
Denver's real growth, its greatest forward strides, began in 1870, when the tentacles of
railroad transportation with its iron horses replaced the sturdy little broncos that had
so faithfully moved its passenger, freight and mail traffic up to that time.
There were only 1500 buildings in Denver in 1870, when the Denver Pacific completed its
line from Cheyenne. The population was less than 5,000, trappers, miners, tradesmen and a
few idle speculators and gamblers who had answered the call of gold. A population that was
held back in the way of commercial and industrial progress by the lack of adequate
When a railroad was built across the plains toward the coast through Nebraska and Wyoming
in 1869, it left Denver isolated 106 miles to the south. The Denver Board of Trade, which
was organized by Governor John Evans, and the city's first Chamber of Commerce, called a
mass meeting of citizens.
An issue of bonds to raise funds to build a railroad of Denver's own, from Denver to
Cheyenne to connect with the line from the East, was heartily endorsed at this meeting.
Arapahoe County voted $500,000 of bonds for this purpose, and in the fall of 1867 a
company was organized to build the road. Capitalists from abroad were interested, and in
all $4,000,000 was raised. The road was completed in June 1870, the first train run over
it on June 23, which was met with the reception described previously in this article.
Among the directors and officers of the Denver Pacific whose names stand out in Colorado's
history as the builders of their state, were John Evans, D. H. Moffat, Walter S. Cheesman,
General William J. Palmer.
In the eventful years following, Evans, Cheesman, Palmer, Jerome B. Chaffee, Henry M.
Teller, an d William A. H. Loveland builded other lines that have figured largely in the
development of Colorado and the West. These lines were the Denver and Boulder Valley which
connected Boulder with the Denver Pacific; the Colorado Central connecting Denver with
Golden later extended into the Clear Creek Mineral district the South Park, and the Union
Pacific, Denver and Gulf, the latter giving Denver a direct outlet to the Gulf of Mexico.
G ENERAL PALMER was unquestionably the
outstanding builder of these early times, the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad which he
conceived and for the most part executed has without doubt exerted a greater influence on
the internal economy of Colorado, especially the southern and western parts, than any
other system of railways.
When the Kansas Pacific, the second railroad to furnish rail communication with the east,
reached Denver August 15, 1870, the country south and west of Denver was little more than
a barren wilderness. Between Denver and Pueblo, and west and south of the latter point
there was little besides open, uncultivated, undeveloped plains and mountains. There was
no Colorado Springs, no Manitou, not a hamlet or town save a few struggling cabins at
Colorado City and Fountain; no evidence of the remarkable resources of this region that
have since been developed. Pueblo was nothing more than a village of a few hundred
inhabitants, without commercial importance. There was no Minnequa, or El Moro; no coal or
iron mines opened; Trinidad and Walsenburg were but small Mexican settlements; Canon City
scarcely more than an abandoned townsite; the wonderful resources of Leadville
undiscovered; Durango, Buena Vista, Salida, Grand Junction., Montrose, Glenwood Springs
and Aspen unoccupied; the rich valleys beyond the Marshall Pass were a part of the Ute
Indian Reservation; the San Juan region, though known, was comparatively unsettled; the
San Luis Valley, with the exception of the Mexican towns of Conejos and Costilla in its
primitive state; Santa Fe was as remote and unapproachable by lines of commerce as the
City of Mexico itself.
Golden was but a settlement of a few hundred people, and Boulder was but little, if any,
larger. These were the only towns of any consequence, with the exception of Denver, that
existed in Colorado at that time.
We might also say, in picturing the barrenness of the New West at that time, that between
the Overland Trail through Wyoming on the north and the Santa Fe Trail in New Mexico on
the south, there extended from the westerly margin of the Great Plains for several hundred
miles westward, an unsurveyed, but little explored and apparently impenetrable mountainous
area covering 120,000 square miles full of mystery and natural resources of unknown
magnitude. The sole source of information concerning this region was embodied in the
observations of wandering prospectors, and even these were disseminated by word of mouth
and comprised only a series of disjointed and unrelated tales and narratives as full of
myths as were the tales that Coronado had listened to when he came through this very
region in search of Gran Quivera and the six other wealthy cities of the Cibolo.
CORONADO surveyed this wild, broken
surface of the earth's crust and gave up in despair. In it he could see no promise of
wealth. He looked for cities ready built with turquoise streets and houses of gold. The
mountains held only terror for him and his followers. Their granites cliffs, impassible
snow-swept sides, and dizzy altitudes mockingly guarded the golden treasures he and his
cavalcade sought, and despairingly returned without.
General William J. Palmer surveyed this same unpromising wilderness with the eye of a
conquerer. He was not seeking wealth without work, or guilded cities ready built. The
mountains did not freighten him. Their dizzy heights their rugged snow-swept sides and
dangerous gorges did not baffle him. Broadly comprehending their forbidding massiveness he
laudably aspired to master all the latitudes and longitudes of the many intricate problems
and Herculean obstacles that they presented to his mind, and make them give up their
hidden treasures for the benefit of mankind.
When he publicly announced his intention to tame this wilderness with railroad iron, he
was laughed at by the people at large. On October 27, 1870, he boldly organized the Denver
and Rio Grande Railroad. Filing with the Secretary of the Territory of Colorado articles
of incorporation which anticipated so much that seemed impossible to the people, his
project was jeeringly called "Palmer's doubtful experiment."
The work he had mapped out in these articles of incorporation was prodigious, but Palmer
set about with the greatest energy to carry out his plans, which, as they unfolded in the
years following, and their benificent influence upon the settlement and progress of the
barren and uninviting country his lines traversed came to be understood, the people who
had laughed at him changed their attitude toward his project.
As they viewed the early scenes of his operations and the procession of great consequences
which followed in the wake of his engineers and tracklayers through deep gorges and
canyons; penetrating valleys and plains; surmounting what had been deemed impracticable
grades; mounting to heights theretofore unattempted; regenerating and fructifying the
waste places; opening mines of coal and iron and precious metals; great quarries of stone,
lime and other merchantable supplies; building cities and towns that have since literally
become the Gran Quiveras that Coronado searched for on his crimson trail of conquest
through the Golden West, they began to see that a new and prodigious force had come among
them for the universal good. They saw in him the epitome of progressive vitality, who
raised millions abroad and expended them in Colorado in a time when markets were stagnant
and confidence in the Far West nearing its lowest tide, and winning success with an
untried experiment - the first narrow gauge railroad in America -which the orthodox
builders of the time regarded with doubt and suspicion, because it was a radical
innovation of established usage, having no part in their education and experience.
G E NERAL WILLIAM J. PALMER, the father of the Rio Grande, immortalized himself in the
works of the West by the courageous part lie played in taming its wilderness, and our next
installment will deal with his early struggles in the surmounting of physical, financial,
social and industrial obstacles the parallel of which has never before occurred.
General Palmer and Some of the Semmingly Impassible
Barriers He Conguered with Iron and Steel.