COBWEB CORNERS: What brought General Palmer here?
By Mel McFarland
Above is a question I get asked every now and then. If you are not familiar with William Palmer's early history, here is a quick look at it. Raised on a farm in eastern Pennsylvania, he started working as a surveyor's apprentice with the Hempfield Railroad in western Pennsylvania in 1853. In 1857 he joined the Pennsylvania Railroad as personal secretary to the company president, learning railroad management while traveling with J. Edgar Thompson. At the time, steam locomotives primarily used wood as fuel. With an abundance of coal available in the state, could steam locomotives use it? Palmer was given a job to see if coal would work as locomotive fuel. Railroading, and the use of coal in America, centered around the results of his findings and a little book he wrote.
In August 1865, after getting out of the Army, he became secretary-treasurer of the Union Pacific Eastern Division's construction company. Building across Kansas, the line was stalled after only a few miles, and he worked to solve the deep financial problems. In the spring of 1867, the UPED made the decision to explore toward California. In grand style, the railroad announced a great expedition to find a route to the Pacific, to be led by Palmer. It was this announcement that attracted an English physician, William A. Bell to the group. He was keenly interested in seeing the west. Palmer led three teams totaling forty-eight engineers and a staff of ten. The survey team set out from the end of track on the Kansas prairie.
Months later, after returning from California, Palmer became chief surveyor and overall director of the railroad's construction to Denver. In the summer of 1869, Palmer and Bell made their first visit to Colorado City. They looked at the area and discussed the railroad's ideas. This trip helped inspire Palmer to seriously consider his own north and south railroad. The two were introduced to young Irving Howbert, El Paso County Clerk, an area resident for ten years. The two shared some of their ideas and invited him to help develop their project. This grew into the Denver and Rio Grande railroad, and eventually to the start of Colorado Springs, Manitou and Glen Eyrie.
Palmer almost built his home in the area now known as the Air Force Academy! He liked the canyon north of the Garden of the Gods better and later named Queen's Canyon in honor of his wife.