General William Jackson Palmer (1836–1909) had a lasting impact on the environment of southern Colorado. Palmer’s initial impact on the Colorado environment resulted from his network of railroads through his Denver & Rio Grande Railroad Company. This, combined with the removal of indigenous people in the 1860s, allowed Coloradans to exploit the resources of the Front Range and enabled them to develop the booming industries of coal and steel. Palmer's businesses attracted new workers and spurred sprawling cityscapes such as Colorado Springs, but they came at a heavy environmental cost. Today, the legacy of Palmer's industrial entrepreneurship is found not only in cities but also in abandoned smokestacks, slag piles, and the accumulation of methane and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
In the late 1860s, Palmer led an expedition to Colorado on behalf of the Union Pacific Railroad’s Eastern Division. After reaching Denver in the fall of 1867, Palmer traveled up and down the Front Range from Denver to Colorado City. He envisioned a railroad line that traveled perpendicular to the traditional east-west design championed by the transcontinental railroads of the time. This line, Palmer believed, would allow a new generation of exploration in southern Colorado. In the summer of 1870 Palmer founded the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad (D&RG). This north-south line not only revolutionized travel in Colorado but also popularized narrow-gauge tracks, a smaller version of traditional tracks that allowed trains to travel through difficult mountain terrain.
Palmer’s new railroad network connected southern Colorado to the larger cities of Denver and Santa Fe, thus opening the southern Colorado environment to new economic opportunities. It also spawned new urban landscapes in Pueblo, Colorado Springs, and elsewhere.
Coal and Iron
Coal deposits south of Denver were rich and plentiful, if remote. With his expanding network of railroads, however, Palmer seized on the resource potential by connecting southern Colorado to supply centers and markets. In the 1880s, he opened coal mines across southern Colorado. The new mines fueled the state's industrial mining era, but they were also sites of environmental hazard, as workers inhaled coal dust all day long, as well as localized water and air pollution from the collection and transportation of coal.
The Denver & Rio Grande pushed south to Pueblo in 1872. Palmer saw potential in the city for launching a new steel industry. Under Palmer’s guidance and partial ownership, the Colorado Coal and Iron Company (later Colorado Fuel & Iron) was founded. As Pueblo grew, coal and steel traveled far from Colorado via the chugging engines they helped to power and the iron rails they helped to construct. The fruits of Palmer’s industry, then, not only developed southern Colorado but also spurred urban development across the American West.
Palmer’s phenomenal success in transforming environments near and far came with consequences, however. His steel and coal companies defined southern Colorado’s early economy, but they also fouled the air and began a legacy of air pollution across the Front Range. Mines permanently scarred landscapes of the southern Rocky Mountains. Manufacturing steel multiplied the number of mines and the mileage of tracks needed across the Rockies, connecting Pueblo to cities such as Leadville.
Palmer encouraged his partner, William A. Bell, to found a new town to disperse growing populations. Homing in on Pikes Peak as a potential tourist destination, Bell founded Manitou Springs in 1872. Multiple Native American groups believed that the natural hot springs at the foot of Pikes Peak, or Tava, as the Utes called it, held remedies for ailments ranging from indigestion to alcoholism. Bell saw these springs as a great revenue source, borrowing from Palmer’s strategy of turning the natural environment into profit. Although Palmer’s direct involvement in Pueblo was minimal, the city expanded as steel workers and their families flooded in.
Colorado Springs grew from the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad’s initial company town to Colorado’s second-largest city. Palmer took great interest in the city’s growth, funding many parks and public institutions, such as the University of Colorado–Colorado Springs. But ironically, thanks to his incessant regional development efforts, the attractive, healthful environment that was at the heart of Palmer’s initial vision for Colorado Springs was now giving way to polluting industries and urban centers. Today, Pueblo is still dealing with pollution from its era of heavy industry, as piles of slag outside its now-shuttered smelter are part of a Superfund cleanup site run by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Southern Colorado changed from arid foothills to mining centers and industrial hubs in no small part because of Palmer’s vision. His contributions to the southern Front Range created lasting economic and social legacies, largely at the expense of the environment. Nonetheless, he is a beloved figure in Colorado history. In 1929 the city of Colorado Springs unveiled a large, bronze statue of the general on a horse. The statue was placed in the middle of an intersection in downtown Colorado Springs, where it stands today. The statue’s location is incredibly inconvenient, jamming traffic daily. Nevertheless, it is fitting: a traffic-snarling statue is only a small example of the checkered legacy Palmer has left on the southern Colorado landscape.