Colorado’s First Resort Destination
The rich history of Manitou Springs is forever linked with the springs around which it was founded.
The source of these famous waters lies deep underground in a system of cavernous aquifers. As the ancient water erodes the surrounding limestone, carbonic acid is created, which gives Manitou’s springs their special effervescence. This natural carbonation forces the water back to the surface through cracks in the rocks, where it absorbs high concentrations of sodium bicarbonate (soda) and other healthy minerals.
Considering the picturesque location of the springs in a forested box canyon at the base of Pikes Peak, it is no wonder the Native Americans considered the location sacred. The eruption of bubbles in the mineral water was considered the breath of the Great Spirit, and offerings of beads and fetishes were left in gratitude. The soothing effects of the soda water on sour stomachs and dry skin attracted not only the Mountain Utes, who wintered here each year, but the Cheyenne, Arapahoe, and other Plains tribes. All were free to share in the gifts of the waters without the worry of conflict.
Lieutenant Zebulon Pike may be given credit for first writing about the peak that would bear his name, but he managed to miss the wondrous springs at its base. That privilege was left to the Long Expedition of 1820. Dr. Edwin James, the team botanist, not only discovered the health-giving mineral waters, but was also the first American to conquer the elusive peak. Thereafter, explorers made it a point to investigate the now famous “boiling” springs, so named for the rumbling sound of escaping gas rather than for their temperature. Daniel Boone’s grandson, Albert Gallatin Boone, brought his two sons here in 1833 to take the cure, to be followed by other illustrious trailblazers like John C. Fremont and Rufus Sage. Of special note was adventurer George Frederick Ruxton, an English military officer who wrote extensively about the benefits of the springs in his 1846 book, Life in the Far West, an international best seller.
Saratoga of the West
Ruxton’s book would influence General William J. Palmer and Dr. William A. Bell to visit the area in 1868 while on a railroad survey for the Kansas Pacific. Palmer planned to build a railroad from Denver to Mexico, and Bell, an English physician, saw the potential of the medicinal springs as the centerpiece for a European-style health resort that would draw passengers to this new venture. The future town of La Font was laid out in 1871, but investor William Blackmore suggested the alternative name of Manitou mentioned in the “Song of Hiawatha” by Longfellow.
The springs of Manitou did attract large numbers of tuberculosis sufferers in the early years, but the Panic of 1873 limited the success of the venture for most of the decade. Not until a railroad spur was built from Colorado Springs in 1881 did Manitou really thrive. By the 1890’s, the resort boasted of seven grand hotels, including the Cliff House, Barker House, and the Grandview, which still stand today. Smaller hotels, boarding houses, and summer rental cottages were also available for the thousands of visitors who came each season.
Guests arrived on the Denver and Rio Grande or the Midland Railroad and could take the waters at the many springs or enjoy the many attractions like the Manitou and Pikes Peak COG Railway, Rainbow Falls, or Cave of the Winds. A plunge at the Manitou Bath House was especially popular, considering there were only a few bathrooms in each hotel.
Visitors to the “Saratoga of the West” included several presidents and celebrities like P. T. Barnum, Thomas Edison, and Lillie Langtry. Jerome Wheeler, a former president of Macy’s Department Store and Aspen mining magnate, built an estate in Manitou as well as a three-story bottling plant, so the mineral water could be shipped throughout the country. To celebrate the opening of the plant, Wheeler donated the Town Clock, which stills stands in the center of town. The goddess Hebe, cupbearer to the gods of Mt. Olympus and keeper of the elixir of eternal youth, adorns the top of this generous gift.
Era of Auto Tourism
The advent of the automobile changed the type of visitor who came to Manitou Springs. Guests wanted to park their cars as close to their rooms as possible and moved on after only a few days. Thus was born the autocourt motel, of which Manitou has several fine examples. The latest attractions, including the Mt. Manitou Incline, the Crystal Park Auto Tour, and the Cliff Dwellings, catered to this increasingly transient traveler. Dance pavilions, like Hiawatha Gardens, featured some the most popular bands of the era and nationally recognized restaurants, like the Craftwood Inn, could still attract the celebrities of the day.
After decades of stagnation, Manitou began to reinvent itself based on its original strengths in the 1970’s. The formation of a National Historic District encouraged the restoration of neglected structures and an art colony began to grow in the town’s idyllic setting. The mineral springs, which had been ignored for many years, were renewed by the creation of the Mineral Springs Foundation in 1987. The charming Manitou Springs of the present owes a great deal to its illustrious past. So, please sample the famous waters, soak in some sunshine, and enjoy Manitou Springs’ historic hospitality.
Deborah Harrison, Historic Manitou, Inc.
- Cunningham, “Manitou, Saratoga of the West”
- Daniels and McConnell, “The Springs of Manitou”
- The City of Manitou Springs, “Design Guidelines Handbook”