The Life, Vision, and Legacy of General William Jackson Palmer

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At the age of 34, General Palmer founded the City of Colorado Springs. Palmer was a Civil War hero, a railroad magnate, a visionary city founder, and a generous benefactor.

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General Palmer on horseback

General Palmer. Courtesy Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum

Civil War Hero

William Jackson Palmer grew up in Philadelphia and was working for the Pennsylvania Railroad when the Civil War began in 1861. He was a Quaker and a pacifist, but believing slavery a greater sin than war, he enlisted at age 25 and led a volunteer troop that later became the 15th Pennsylvania Calvary.   He was well-respected by his soldiers and accounts of his actions tell the story of a brave and honorable leader.  He reached the rank of General and was later nominated by his soldiers and awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions.

Railroad Magnate

Palmer headed west after the war. While traveling through the Pikes Peak Region in the 1860s working for the Kansas and Pacific Railroad, he developed a unique vision for his own railroad. While everyone was focused on building railroads out west, Palmer saw the need for a north south railroad. He became the founder and president of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad, laying track from Denver to Santa Fe all the way to Mexico City. Then he built the Denver and Rio Grande West Railway to Salt Lake City.  Not coming from money, Palmer made connections and partnerships to make his visions a reality and after years of struggling financially he eventually became a millionaire.

Visionary City Founder

General Palmer and his business partners established several cities along his extensive railroad, and he could have chosen anywhere along the line to call home, but he chose this place at the foot of Pikes Peak to build his dream home.  

He was awestruck by the “most enticing scenery” and envisioned a resort town that would draw people to experience the mountains, the healthy climate and outdoor lifestyle. Where contemporaries like Greeley founder Nathan Meeker passed over the area due to the lack of water and natural resources, Palmer saw opportunity to create something great. 

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historic black and white image of Platte avenue with the statue of General Palmer in the middle of the intersection with Pikes Peak in the background. The streets and mountain are snow covered.

Platte Avenue ca. 1935. From the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum Collection.

“My theory for this place is that it should be made the most attractive place for homes in the west – a place for schools, colleges, literature, science, first class newspapers and everything that the above imply,” Palmer wrote in a 1871 letter to General Cameron, who helped Palmer establish the city.

Palmer began planning and building the city of his dreams, a sophisticated resort city known as “Little London” because it attracted many visitors from England. Palmer spent millions of dollars on the construction of roads and parks, hauled in 10,000 trees from the Arkansas Valley to make the city green, and built extravagant European-style buildings, including the first two iterations of the Antler’s Hotel. Sadly, the first was destroyed by a fire and the second was torn down in an era when modernization was favored over history.

Palmer envisioned and created a grand park system ringing the community to give residents ample opportunities to enjoy the pleasures of nature that he himself enjoyed so much.  He worked with renowned landscape architects to develop parks and gave to the city thousands of acres of parkland including Acacia Park, Antler’s Park, Monument Valley Park, Palmer Park, Pioneer Square Park, Prospect Lake, Bear Creek Cañon Park and North Cheyenne Cañon.

Generous Philanthropist & Family Man

Palmer also poured millions of his own money into community and philanthropic endeavors. He reserved land and contributed funds to establish Colorado College. He donated the land that became the Union Printers Home, the Colorado School for the Deaf and Blind, and the Cragmoor Sanatorium, which later became the University of Colorado Colorado Springs. Palmer founded the Out West newspaper, now the Colorado Springs Gazette, and also gave land to several churches in downtown Colorado Springs, as well as funds and property to open a free public library.

Palmer’s wife, Mary Lincoln “Queen” Mellen was the first teacher and opened the first public school in Colorado Springs, the beginnings of Colorado Springs School District 11.  She also helped Palmer give Colorado Springs a sense of place with her interest in culture. It was her idea to name the streets after streams General Palmer explored while working for the railroad. She also named their future home site “Glen Eyrie” after a pair of eagles nesting in the canyon.  The Palmers had three daughters: Elsie, Dorothy, and Marjory.  

Without General Palmer, Colorado Springs would not have developed into the educational and cultural hub it is today. Across town you can see the influence of his vision and legacy. Other developers and philanthropists like W.S. Stratton and Spencer Penrose also contributed a lot to Colorado Springs, but it was Palmer that laid the foundation and the guiding vision that still drives our city today.

Learn more about the General Palmer and Colorado Springs history at the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum.