COBWEB CORNERS: General Palmer comes West

By Mel McFarland

       In the spring of 1867, a Kansas railroad company made the decision to explore a route toward California. In grand style, it announced a great expedition to find a route to the Pacific, to be led by William J. Palmer. It was this announcement that attracted an English physician, Dr. William A. Bell, to the group. He was keenly interested in seeing the West. He discovered the expedition was in need of a photographer. Bell was able to purchase the needed equipment. He served doubly as photographer and physician. Bell was not exceptional as a photographer, and unfortunately, nearly all of his work has since been lost or destroyed
       Palmer led three teams totaling 48 engineers and a staff of 10. The men set out from the end of track on the Kansas prairie. The first goal was the Arkansas River in Colorado. The expedition broke into three teams with their own separate assignments and directions, once in Colorado. The goal was to find the best way to use the Santa Fe Trail as a railroad right of way. The teams would periodically meet to relay plans and reports. Palmer's own group set out following the Purgatoire River, which branched off at present-day La Junta. It was here Palmer first saw Pike's Peak, much as Pike had done almost 60 years before. But Palmer headed the other way! His team included Bell, a geologist, entomologist, botanist, three quartermasters, his secretary and a newsman representing the Philadelphia press. By Aug. 7, 1867, Palmer had traveled as far as Trinidad, Colo., roughly 600 miles. There he found a small settlement of two hundred people. The village was composed of "adobe and palisade houses" and had trebled in size in the previous six months. The town was surviving on business from traders and travelers using an improved Raton Pass.
       Palmer sent his team to explore the mountains south of Trinidad. They discovered outcroppings of coal. While on this trip he thought about building a railroad, with a network of branch lines feeding it. He imagined a development much like in his home state of Pennsylvania, but the coal fields of Trinidad and Raton, New Mexico, would not be developed for many years.
       Palmer continued to California as planned, only to have the Kansas railroad decide to cancel the survey. Not until 1869 did Palmer see Colorado City and the neighboring area where he would build his town.