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Manitou Springs Historic District
Wikimedia/Photo by Curtis Burga
Manitou Springs Historic District

A town of uneasy neighborliness

Lighting Out | In the mountain resort town of Manitou Springs, believers and militant anti-Christians live side-by-side

MANITOU SPRINGS, Colo.—From Tucumcari, N.M., we headed north, crossed into Colorado at Raton Pass, a famous landmark on the “mountain route” of the Santa Fe Trail, and continued north to our final destination, Manitou Springs, Colo.

If Asheville, near where my trip started, is one of the biggest hippy towns in the East, surely Manitou Springs, where my trip ended, is one of the biggest hippy towns in the West. Like Asheville, Manitou Springs is a strange brew of bittersweet influences. Railroad magnate and former Civil War General William Jackson Palmer founded it in 1872, locating many of the town’s original buildings around mineral springs in the area. Manitou Springs immediately became a destination for wealthy tourists and those desperate for cures. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a number of luxury hotels sprang up, and some of the residents reported remarkable cures as they walked from one spring to the other, imbibing the water as they went. Modern medicine suggests the walking, rather than the waters, contributed more to the cures.

Palmer, who also was one of the founders of adjacent Colorado Springs, is one of those fascinating characters of American history often overlooked by the textbooks. As a young boy, he learned all he could about railroad engineering and got a job with the Pennsylvania Railroad, moving up quickly through the ranks. In the pre-Civil War era, many locomotives burned wood harvested from the track right-of-ways. But the PRR had stripped most of the timber from its right-of-ways and faced a crisis. In the 1850s, at Palmer’s suggestion, the PRR became the first railroad in the country to convert to coal. 

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Raised a Quaker, Palmer’s passion for the abolition of slavery overcame his pacifist upbringing, and in 1861 he took a commission as a colonel in the Union Army, helping to form the 15th Pennsylvania Volunteer Cavalry. He won the Medal of Honor for leading the 15th at Red Hill, Ala., on Jan. 14, 1865 where—according to his official commendation—“with less than 200 men, [he] attacked and defeated a superior force of the enemy, captured their fieldpiece and about 100 prisoners without losing a man.” 

After the war, he became a major benefactor of Hampton University, a school created by the American Missionary Association for educating freed slaves. Hampton’s Palmer Hall commemorates his gifts to the school. He also resumed his railroad career, and in the late 19th century that necessarily meant heading west. After founding Colorado Springs and Manitou Springs—and accumulating magnificent wealth—he built his dream home, Glen Eyrie. He was a donor to many early churches and benevolence societies in Colorado Springs, and today Christian ministry The Navigators manages Glen Eyrie as a conference center. It’s not an exaggeration to say Colorado Springs’ reputation as a center for Christian work can trace its roots to Palmer, who combined a deep Christian faith with innovation and entrepreneurship.

But time and cultural change have alloyed Palmer’s original vision. For example, Palmer donated land in Colorado Springs for the establishment of Colorado College. He also served on the school’s first board of trustees. Colorado College, established in 1874, was to be in the tradition of Oberlin College, most famous then for its recently retired second president, the revivalist Charles Finney. Today, both Oberlin and Colorado College are among the most liberal and secular universities in the country. The conservative group Foundation for Individual Rights in Education recently placed Colorado College on its “Red Alert” list because of its poor treatment of conservative students who protested the college’s Feminist and Gender Studies program.

All of which is to say that conservatives and liberals, the solidly evangelical and the militantly anti-Christian, live together in Manitou Springs and Colorado Springs in a sometimes uneasy neighborliness. 

But that’s why I love coming here. I’m the scholar-in-residence for the month of June at Summit Ministries, which attracts about 2,000 teens and twenty-somethings each summer to study apologetics and Christian worldview. The sessions last two-weeks and meet in the main ballroom of the old Grandview Hotel. Built in 1891, it was one of the last grand hotels built in Manitou Springs during its era as a spa retreat for the wealthy. It’s likely Palmer himself enjoyed meals in the same ballroom in which students today discuss Jesus, Thomas Aquinas, G.K. Chesterton, and C.S. Lewis.

I’ve been teaching here for seven years, and this is my second year as scholar-in-residence. Summit puts me up in a comfortable two-bedroom cabin I share with my wife and daughter, my companions on this road trip. It’s one of more than a dozen homes and cabins Summit has accumulated during its more than 50 years in Manitou Springs. The neighborhood around the old Grandview Hotel is now called Summit Village.

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