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Early Colorado Motoring

I love a good roadtrip, and driving through the mountains is an expierience not to be missed, though it was a bit different before I-70 was built. This is what I read in researching the route up to St. Mary's Glacier where our fair Ms. Bonnie may or maynot have dumped the poisoned body of her betrothed.

Behind the Wheel: Early Motoring in Colorado

The mists of time, in the guise of clouds of exhaust, have made it difficult to determine exactly who operated the first motorized vehicle in Colorado. Depending on the account, the horseless carriage’s first appearance in the 1890s was as either a circus attraction or a hobbyist’s backyard project.

The distinction of being the first in a long line of Colorado motorists appears to belong to a carnival performer, Achille Philion. During June 1892, Philion and his four-wheel, steam-operated carriage chugged around the Manhattan Beach amusement park on the northwest shore of Sloan’s Lake in Denver. An advertisement in the June 11, 1892, Denver Times heralded the steam carriage’s arrival as “a grand day for Denver.” Illustrations of the steam carriage show it to be little more than a chair attached to four bicycle wheels with a boiler placed precariously in the middle. There is no record of how fast Philion’s contraption traveled, or if it ever ventured off the grounds of Manhattan Beach. (Miller, 1999: 25).

A diary makes the case for Denver’s David W. Brunton being the state’s first automobile owner. A mining engineer, Brunton became intrigued after viewing an exhibition of motorized vehicles in Boston. On October 14, 1898, Brunton wrote: “Went to automobile show at Mechanics Institute, Boston, and tested several motor cars.” A few months later in May 1899, Brunton noted in his diary: “May 7. Left Butte [Montana], reaching Denver on the 9th. Found Columbia electric automobile awaiting me. Spent day setting it up. May 10. Ran electric carriage on the streets in Denver” (Hafen, 1931: 2).

In the wake of Brunton’s initial trip in his Columbia, the first decade of the new century saw motorists attempting to drive to almost every corner of the state. In September 1900, entrepreneur John Brisben Walker failed in his attempt to ascend Pike’s Peak by car. Walker’s tenhorsepower “mobile steamer” reached an elevation of 11,000—just 3,114 feet short of the summit —and set the record for the highest altitude yet reached by any car and driver. Walker later recounted that the drive back down was similar to “plummeting down a toboggan chute” (Miller, 1999: 26). On August 12, 1901, W.B. Felker and C.A. Yount of Denver attempted to reach the summit of Pike’s Peak. Above timberline, the steep road offered a challenge to the duo’s Locomobile, and at one point, the pair had to lift the machine over a snowdrift. The Locomobile reached the summit just as the 3:20 p.m. cog train left from Pike’s Peak for Manitou Springs. A week later, on August 28, J.E. Barnes crossed “the Crest of the Continent” when his horseless carriage reached Leadville. At times on the journey from Denver to the Divide, Barnes wrapped 1⁄2inch rope around the rear wheels to prevent his car from slipping on the steep grades (Miller, 1999: 26-7).

Stories of the horseless carriage soon filled Denver’s newspapers as well as the files in police stations and municipal courts. In January 1902, a Denver police court fined a driver for operating “his machine along the streets of the city at a speed which endangered the lives of the pedestrians.” Clocked at 40 miles per hour by a police officer on 16th Street, the judge fined the speeder $25 and costs (Hafen, 1931:5-6).

For the first decade-and-a-half after its arrival in Colorado, the automobile remained the province of wealthy, white males. Regarding the control of the state’s steering wheels in the hands of one group, in November 1902, The Denver Post commented, “Out of the 200 owners of machines in town today about a dozen women only have had the courage to take their levers and their destinies in their own hands, and face the world.” The report failed to note if any of the women owned a vehicle outright (Hafen, 1931: 6).

The Romance of the Open Road: Beginnings of Automobile Touring

The automobile liberated Americans to travel whenever and nearly wherever they pleased. Unfortunately, the roads of the early twentieth century could only take a driver so far, as none of the states could boast of a comprehensive highway system designed for auto travel.

Not long after automobiles first began appearing on the nation’s streets and county lanes, a loose alliance of motorists, automobile industry executives, community boosters, and business speculators envisioned the construction of a transcontinental automobile highway. On August 1, 1912, Colorado congressional representative Edward T. Taylor introduced a bill “establishing the Lincoln memorial highway from Boston, Mass. to San Francisco, Cal.” The bill died in the House Agriculture Committee, but the name caught the nation’s attention (Wolfe, 1999: 4). A little more than a month later on September 6, Carl G. Fisher, developer of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, presented his plans for the creation of a coast-to-coast highway to an approving audience of automobile manufacturers. In less than a year, various individuals and groups pledged $4 million toward construction. In July 1913, Fisher and the other organizers agreed to call their venture the Lincoln Highway Association (AASHO, 1952: 109).

The association planned to build an automobile highway along the most direct route from New York to San Francisco. The highway planners of the mid-1910s faced a dilemma similar to the one confronted by the leadership of the Union Pacific Railroad during the late 1860s—how to build a transcontinental road that would safely and economically cross the Rocky Mountains. Like the Union Pacific, the Lincoln Highway Association selected South Pass in southern Wyoming as the most practical route over the Continental Divide. Not wanting to lose tourist dollars to Wyoming, the Denver Chamber of Commerce and Colorado Governor Elias M. Ammons attempted to broker a deal with the association’s leadership. In discussions with the association, the governor and Denver’s boosters pressed for recognition of a spur route of the Lincoln Highway. The alternate route would run from Julesburg in northeastern Colorado along the path of today’s US 138 and 6 to Denver. From Denver, the proposed route ran north to Fort Collins where it followed the NorthSouth Highway back to Cheyenne and a return to the main Lincoln Highway. The state promised to maintain the road at no cost to the Lincoln Highway Association. A rough and rocky drive by Lincoln Highway officials through western Colorado did not help the state’s chances and soon the association’s leadership viewed Colorado as a “state full of malcontents.” Relations worsened to the point where the Lincoln Highway Association eventually warned travelers to avoid the loop— and consequently Colorado—in its 1916 auto guide (Wolfe, 1999: 12-13, 17, 19).

In 1924, Thomas MacDonald, director of the federal Bureau of Public Roads, initiated a nationwide system of numbered highways in place of the overlapping network of named interstate routes. The Lincoln Highway now left New York as US 1 then switched to US 30 as it crossed America into Wyoming. From there the highway’s identity further suffered as it became first Routes 305, 530 and 40 through Utah, then State Highway 2 in Nevada, before being designated US 50 to Sacramento, briefly changing to US 99, and finally becoming US 48 as it terminated in Oakland. A romantic era in auto touring disappeared.

The Dawn of Auto Tourism in Colorado

Those able to afford an automobile naturally wanted to see how fast and how far their new toy could travel. Colorado’s scenery made the state a logical journey’s end for the initial generation of car owners. In 1903, the first automobile to venture from San Francisco to New York passed through Colorado. Driven by E.T. Fetch, with M.C. Krarup as passenger, the twelve-horsepower, one-cylinder Packard crossed the state by way of Grand Junction, Glenwood Springs, and Colorado Springs before reaching Denver on July 20. When asked by the Denver Post about the drive over rocky, hilly mountain trails, Krarup responded, “At times the sand has been so deep that canvas had to be spread in front of the machine in order that it might be moved. Heavy chains were necessary to be wrapped around the wheels at other times in order that the steep mountain grades might be overcome” (Hafen, 1931: 10).

During the summer of 1911, a rumor spread that Colorado charged out-of-state motorists $15 for a state travel permit and $20 for extended stays beyond a month. In the vernacular of the day, the “bleaching” of tourists had the State Highway Commission’s leadership feverishly writing neighboring Good Roads Associations to quash the erroneous stories. In June 1911, Highway Commissioner C.P. Allen notified Nebraska’s OmahaDenver Good Roads Association of Colorado’s concerns in a comment that subsequently became a state mantra, “Colorado is looking for all the tourists she can get” (Colorado Department of Highways, 1911(b)).

During the 1910s, each driver venturing across Colorado came back with varying opinions—from splendid to treacherous—regarding the quality of the state’s roads. A seventy-five-mile auto trip between Denver and Colorado Springs—part of

the Great North South Highway—took five hours and twenty minutes over gravel, steep grades, sharp turns, ruts and chuckholes. Despite those obstacles along the state’s primary north-south route, drivers kept coming. By 1915, traffic between Denver and Colorado Springs averaged 253 cars per day, with 85 of those vehicles from out-of-state (Colorado Highways, April 1929(a): 8).

Colorado suffered only briefly from the sting of being left off the Lincoln Highway. By 1916, a number of named interstate roads entered the state from all directions. Some, like the National Roosevelt Middle Trail and the Victory Highway, followed the route of modern US Highway 40 over the plains into Denver and on to the Western Slope. Mostly tracing modern US 50, the National Old Trails Highway served as the primary auto highway for southern Colorado while the Great North-South Highway ran south from the Wyoming border to the New Mexico state line. Along the Omaha-Lincoln-Denver (OLD) Road, early drivers could easily stay on course by following the 18-inch-wide band of white paint on telephone poles or fence posts. The president of the Omaha-Denver Good Roads Association, W.A. Taylor, wrote to Colorado Highway Commission Chairman C.P. Allen with praise for how wellmarked the road was west of the NebraskaColorado line. Taylor’s comments recall the “frontier” era of auto travel when only the brave motorist ventured on rough roads without the aid of traffic or direction signs, reliant only on painted posts to guide his way:

“From Fleming on westward, the road is quite well marked. I found on my way coming home traveling along the road that there was wonderful satisfaction whenever I was in sight of the white band on the telephone pole or post, and I am satisfied that tourists who are strangers through the country will have very much the same feeling in regard to it as I did” (Colorado Department of Highways, 1911(a)).

Colorado’s Private Auto Roads

Some of Colorado’s first important auto roads were built by the wealthy for the wealthy. Two men—Frelan Stanley and Spencer Penrose— symbolized the elitist nature of the automobile’s first decade in the state.

In 1903, one of the inventors of the Stanley Steamer automobile, Frelan Stanley, successfully drove his self-propelled namesake from Denver to Estes Park, then an exclusive resort near Long’s Peak. Upon completing his journey, Stanley concluded that the Rocky Mountains should be the highlight of every automobile owner’s crosscountry travels. Stanley proceeded to clear a huge tract of land in Estes Park, build a hotel, and operate a fleet of Stanley Steamers to ferry guests from Denver and other Front Range cities to his new resort. During the ensuing decade, a torrent of visitors to the Stanley Hotel turned Estes Park from an isolated retreat for wealthy hunters to one of the leading tourist attractions in the state. By 1913, Estes Park welcomed 50,000 visitors a year (Thomas, 1996: 55-6).

Another well-to-do car owner took his passion for speed in a different direction. Colorado Springs mining baron Spencer Penrose boasted a fleet of cars at a time when many Coloradans had yet to see their first. The Colorado Springs Gazette noted in 1910 that Penrose built an oversized garage to house his four canary-colored Lozier cars costing some $5,000 each (Breckenridge, 1985: 186). When not out buying automobiles, Penrose stayed active in the Colorado chapter of the National Good Roads Association and the Rocky Mountain Highway Association, while playing a role in the creation of the State Highway Commission in 1909. Penrose also spent a quarter of a million dollars transforming an old carriage road into the Pike’s Peak Auto Highway. After completion in July 1915, Penrose sponsored an annual auto race to the peak’s summit to demonstrate the practicality of auto travel in the mountains. The first Pikes Peak Hill Climb on Labor Day 1915 brought thousands of spectators to cheer the nation’s best drivers as they roared along the narrow shelf road only inches from sheer drops of 1,000 feet. The first hill-climb winner, Ray Lentz of Seattle, drove his Romano Special to the top of Pike’s Peak in just under twenty-one minutes (Breckenridge: 187). The toll road continues to operate under the management of the city of Colorado Springs.

Municipal Mountain Parks

Looking west from the offices and municipal buildings of downtown Denver, the city’s business and political leaders viewed the mountains differently after the first automobiles passed through town. Denver’s power brokers realized that automobile tourism held unlimited economic potential for both the city and other Front Range communities. Recognizing an opportunity to gather an unprecedented amount of tourist dollars, Denver’s municipal leadership devised a plan to link the city with the mountains.

In 1909, Mayor Robert Speer used the occasion of a Chamber of Commerce banquet to propose the possibility of bringing the high country to the city through the annexation of a chain of mountain parks west of Denver (Author Unknown, n.d.(a): 1). Four years later, the city obtained an amendment to the State Constitution allowing the purchase of land in neighboring counties. To acquire land for parks and mountain roads, primarily in Jefferson County, the city proposed that Denver property owners invest one-fifth of a mill over a five-year period. Subsequent negotiations with Jefferson County proceeded smoothly. Speer commissioned a scion of the renowned Brookline, Massachusetts, landscape design family, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., to plan the city’s mountain parks and scenic roads.

Olmsted initially ruffled a few feathers with his proposal that the Denver Tramway Company build trolley lines to the mountain parks. The city administration vetoed Olmsted’s suggestion outright as his idea did little to lure well-off motor tourists. Olmsted claimed a victory when he blocked Denver Mountain Park’s Superintendent Edward S. Letts’ plan to level the summit of Genesee Mountain, the city’s first mountain park, to make it more accessible to automobiles (Noel, 1987: 44). Olmsted did design almost nine miles of mountain roads. The roads he recommended included a passage through Mount Vernon Canyon, near Lookout Mountain. The designer predicted that this route would “become the most direct and probably the most useful business road to the mountains from Denver.” Olmsted’s foresight was uncanny, as a half-century later, the Mount Vernon alignment served as the right-ofway for Interstate 70 west of Denver (Thomas, 1996: 87).

Within the five years mandated by the state to raise tax money for the project, Denver acquired more than five square miles of future parkland for $34,000 and invested $225,000 for construction of seventy-five miles of roads. The mountain park system expanded after the federal government sold the city several thousand acres for only $1.25 per acre.

Officially opened in 1913, Lariat Trail was the first of several scenic drives constructed as part of Denver’s mountain park system. Beginning in Golden, where two 35-foot high stone pylons mark the entry, the drive connects with Floyd Hill Road at the top of Mount Vernon Canyon. Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. completed the early designs and Saco R. DeBoer, Denver’s noted landscape architect of the period, prepared the survey and final layout, and served as construction superintendent. Six overlooks offer scenic views as the drive switches back and forth up the steep side of Lookout Mountain.

Denver was not the only Front Range city to establish mountain parks. Begun in 1919, the Pueblo Mountain Park near Beulah offered over 600 acres of automobile accessible mountain recreation outside the urban environment. The city of Loveland opened its Loveland Mountain Park in the Big Thompson Canyon along the National Park to Park Highway (now US 34).

While the Denver city government planned its mountain park system, the municipality offered weary motorists a place to rest while in the city. In 1915, Denver built its first free municipal auto camp in City Park. In operation until 1918, the City Park camp was a welcome site to cross-country motorists. One traveler, Horace Albright, assistant director of the National Park Service, expressed his admiration for the city’s accommodations:

“It is an inspiring sight to go into a park like the beautiful City Park of Denver and see several hundred cars parked in their allotted spaces and their happy owners, many of them with large families, enjoying camp life” (Athearn, 1986: 147).

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