COLORADO SPRINGS — There is a lot to learn about the history of Colorado Springs and its founder General William Jackson Palmer at the COS@150 exhibit at the Pioneers Museum, but a great way to appreciate that legacy is to simply take a walk outdoors.
"To know and understand Gen. William Jackson Palmer, you have to understand how much he loved nature," said Leah Davis Witherow, the museum's curator of history. "He believed that people needed nature for their physical, mental, spiritual wellbeing."
She believes that General Palmer's love of nature developed at a young age. Palmer grew up in Philadelphia, at the time the second-largest city in the US and highly industrialized. Working for the Pennsylvania Railroad as a teenager, he was able to travel on horseback through the Allegheny Mountains and fell in love with them.
"So, when he comes to Colorado in 1869, sees the Rocky Mountains for himself, he falls in love with this place and says I'm going to build my home here soon and he does," Davis Witherow said.
She explained that Palmer's conservation work began as he developed the city. He famously planted some 10,000 trees and hired the city's first forester which helped establish the urban canopy that the city enjoys today. Palmer also hired noted landscape architect John Blair to plant gardens and create the roads and parkways of the city.
Davis Witherow said Palmer knew that Pikes Peak and the foothills were always going to be the city's biggest attribute and he developed the city to be framed by that natural beauty as a way of attracting people here.
"I think one of the most interesting gifts he ever made was a 10,000-acre gift to Colorado College, along with Dr. William A Bell, his business partner, to found the first school of forestry in the state of Colorado," Davis Witherow said.
Another example of his passion for nature can be found in Monument Valley Park. The land where the park exists, near the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad Depot and Antler's Hotel, used to be a trash heap.
"If you think about all the folks coming down from Denver on the train and looking out right before they get to the station, the Rio Grande Station, looking out at a junk heap," Davis Witherow said. "Palmer purchased that land from individual landowners, and then over a series of years, reimagined it as a beautiful urban park."
During his lifetime, Palmer donated more than 2,000 acres of parkland to the City of Colorado Springs, including the park which bears his name. Davis Witherow said that while Palmer purchased the land and paid for the park to be developed, he didn't seek recognition for his efforts. The park was named in his honor while he was away on vacation.
His passion for nature and conservation makes Palmer unique for someone whose business interests were those of a Guilded Age industrialist.
"He wasn't just one thing, he was very complex. He was both a capitalist developing both the resources, coal, fuel, railroads, timber and a conservationist at the same time," said Witherow Davis.
That uniqueness continues to benefit the city today.
"We're still enjoying those places that he set aside. I think that's a remarkable gift to us on our sesquicentennial."
The Colorado Springs Pioneer Museum is open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Admission is free. Visit online at