In 1893, poet and author Katharine Lee Bates boarded a train in Massachusetts headed to Colorado Springs. Escaping the sweltering New England summer, she planned to soak up the region’s dry, mild climate and serve as a guest lecturer at Colorado College. During her stay, she made her way to the top of nearby Pikes Peak where she stood in awe of the scenic grandeur of the surrounding mountains and plains. This view from the summit inspired her to write the poem “America the Beautiful.” Once set to music, her vivid descriptions of “purple mountain’s majesty” and “amber waves of grain” became, for many, our national anthem.
The first American official to encounter the mountain was a dashing young Army lieutenant named Zebulon Montgomery Pike. In 1806, as Lewis and Clark were returning from their expedition, Pike was dispatched to explore the southwestern boundary of the newly acquired Louisiana Territory. Pike named the mountain Grand Peak when he first caught a glimpse of it looming in the distance. A few weeks later, he attempted to climb the peak in an effort to survey the surrounding landscape and chart the rivers. Deep snow deterred him from the summit, but in 1810 he published the account of his expedition and literally put the mountain on the map. As a result, his name is forever attached to the peak.
Colorado Springs was no frontier boomtown. From the start it attracted wealthy residents and capitalists, as well as intellectuals, artists, writers and inventors. It served as a destination for tens of thousands of health seekers hoping that the community’s abundant sunshine and fresh air would cure tuberculosis. After the 1891 discovery of gold in Cripple Creek, just to the west of Pikes Peak, even more wealth came to Colorado Springs. For a time, they say, the city had more millionaires per capita than any other place in the country.
The Pikes Peak region is a cultural and geographic confluence. It’s where the mountains meet the plains, where the Southwest joins the heartland, where ancient cultures converge with 21st century society, and where the past informs the future. For some, it’s stirring enough to inspire poetry.
- Matt Mayberry / Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum, 2008