William Jackson Palmer (1836–1909) was a Civil War general, railroad tycoon, and founder of Colorado Springs. Though a Quaker from Delaware, Palmer fought for the Union Army during the Civil War. After the war, he moved west and became a civil engineer and philanthropist who played an integral part in Colorado’s development. As the founder and owner of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad, Palmer helped stimulate economic growth as well as the expansion of transportation in the American West during the late nineteenth century. Palmer is also well known for his philanthropy, which included the founding of the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and other institutions for the public benefit.
Civil War General
Scholars debate how to reconcile Palmer’s Quakerism with his involvement in the Civil War. A pacifist by religion, Palmer received a Medal of Honor for his leadership of a cavalry unit during a battle at Red Hill, Alabama, in 1865. With fewer than 200 men, he attacked and defeated a larger enemy force, captured the fieldpiece, and took 100 prisoners—all without losing a man. Palmer’s military record seems to contradict his Quakerism, but historian Leah Davis-Witherow believes that Palmer fought for the Union because of his commitment to pacifism, not in spite of it. She argues that fighting for the Union served Palmer’s religious obligations since it helped put an end to slavery, an abominable form of organized violence.
After the war, Palmer joined the Kansas-Pacific Railroad, which he helped bring to Denver in 1870. In Denver, Palmer married Mary Lincoln Mellon, and on their honeymoon he saw a narrow-gauge railroad for the first time. He was impressed by its cheap cost, sharp turning radius and capacity to climb steep hills. Realizing that this kind transportation met the challenges of Colorado’s mountainous landscape, Palmer, upon his return home, together with Dr. William Bell founded the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad. The first narrow-gauge railroad line was completed on October 21, 1871. It ran from Denver to what later became Colorado Springs, opening up trade between both municipalities as well as the rest of the country. In the early days, the rail line was essential for transporting gold and fuel from the Pikes Peak mines to Denver, which was rapidly becoming a hub of commerce. By ensuring that gold and coal from mines made it to market, Palmer’s railroad became an important part of Colorado’s developing economy.
Founding of Colorado Springs
As their railroad dreams came to fruition, Palmer and Bell founded the Fountain Colony at the foot of Pikes Peak in 1871. By 1879 the town had been renamed Colorado Springs after the numerous hot springs in the surrounding area. Palmer hoped to use his railroad to bring tuberculosis sufferers from the eastern part of the United States to his new town so they could enjoy the health benefits of the nearby hot springs. His plan worked to perfection. By 1900, Palmer’s town was known as “America’s Playground” and was one of the most popular vacation and health destinations in the United States.
Palmer had a lasting impact on the state of Colorado, especially on Colorado Springs. He founded Colorado Springs, now the second largest city in Colorado, retired and died there in 1909. As a philanthropist, Palmer established the Colorado School for the Deaf and Blind. He also helped to found a tuberculosis hospital and the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. In addition to these facilities, many southwestern Colorado institutions have been named after him or dedicated in his honor. These include the William J. Palmer high school in Colorado Springs, the social sciences building on the Colorado College campus, and a statue in downtown Colorado Springs at the intersection of Nevada and Platte Avenues. The Colorado Cultural Resources survey describes that the statue as “William Jackson Palmer and his favorite horse, Diablo. The statue faces south, with the General (in civilian attire) in a relaxed pose facing southwest towards Pike Peak.” Without Palmer, Colorado Springs might not have been brought into existence, and the town certainly would not have developed into the educational and cultural hub it is today.