Words: Susan Fletcher
Images Provided by Glen Eyrie
“I have just arisen from sleep in the cabin of our beautiful Glen [Eyrie], and have had a most refreshing bath in one of the pools of the canyon. It is a cool, pleasant morning: one feels as though he were living a true life without a single artificial encumbrance. What happy days we shall spend here, planning and working to improve our lovely home.”
From the wilderness of Colorado, General William Jackson Palmer wrote the above words in a letter to his wife, Queen, in July 1871. For the next 38 years, General Palmer would indeed spend many days developing his home nestled in the valley near Garden of the Gods. His estate grew into a property that includes a castle, carriage house and beautiful gardens. Today, Glen Eyrie is a reminder of the rich heritage of the Colorado Springs region and the generous legacy of our city’s founder.
After the end of the Civil War, General Palmer left his post as the commanding officer of the 15th Pennsylvania Volunteer Cavalry and returned to civilian life. He went back to his pre-war career in the railroad industry. During a survey trip in Colorado for the Kansas Pacific Railroad in July 1869, Palmer saw Pikes Peak for the first time and fell in love with the area. He found a small glen near what we now know as Garden of The Gods. It was an ideal place to build his future home.
Over the next two years, Palmer developed a vision for his own railroad and a resort colony at the base of Pikes Peak. In 1870, Palmer returned East to marry his fiancé Mary “Queen” Lincoln Mellen. A year later, they came back to the Pikes Peak Region and began to implement their plans for Denver and Rio Grande Railroad, the new Fountain Colony and their own house.
The people who worked on and visited the Palmers’ land were enchanted. Their landscape architect, John Blair, named the place Glen Eyrie - ”Valley of the Eagle’s Nest.” During autumn, author Rose Kingsley made friends with the Palmers and came to visit them.
In her book about her adventures in the West, Kingsley remarked, “At the very mouth of the Canyon they are building a most charming large house, but till it is finished they live in a sort of picnic way, in rooms 10x10, partitioned off from the loft over the stable. There was just room for us all four to sit at tea, and we had great fun. There were four cups, but no saucers, and we had borrowed two forks from the restaurant, so that we each had one” (Rose Kingsley, South by West).
A few months later, construction on a large twenty-two room house reached completion. John Blair built rustic bridges that spanned beautiful ponds fed by Camp Creek, and the aptly named plumber Drinkwater channeled the creek water into an elaborate waterworks system.
Over the years, the Palmers would continue improving their estate. Palmer remodeled the house in 1881, adding a tower room and enlarging the structure. By the early 1900s, the buildings on the property included a carriage house, a schoolhouse, several barns, ponds, a swimming pool, orchard, reservoirs and cottages for the servants.
Sadly, the Palmers’ story did not turn out to be as happy as the general had anticipated. At age 34, Queen suffered a mild heart attack coming home from Leadville. Her doctors advised her to move to a lower elevation. Trying to find a geographical location that would be conducive to her recovery, Queen moved her three young daughters to New York in 1884, where they stayed for two winters with no beneficial effects. They eventually settled in England. In the moderate climate of England, Queen found a circle of literary and artistic friends to cheer her up while General Palmer remained in the United States to attend to his railroad business. The general visited his family several times each year, but he maintained his primary residence at Glen Eyrie.
After Queen’s death at the age of 44 in 1894, General Palmer brought his daughters Elsie, Dorothy, and Marjorie back home to Colorado Springs. At 22 years of age, Elsie had a slight advantage over her younger sisters, because she spent the majority of her early childhood at Glen Eyrie. Colorado was largely unfamiliar to Dorothy, 14 years old, and Marjorie, who was 13.
In 1903 Palmer decided to transform his house at Glen Eyrie into a beautiful Tudor-Revival manor. His crew of architects, craftsmen and landscapers completed the “castle” during the next year. Palmer and his daughters hosted friends and visitors from all over the world in their new home. After a riding accident paralyzed him in 1906, Palmer bought two automobiles so a chauffeur could drive him around his beloved valley and Colorado Springs. A few days before his death on March 13, 1909, Palmer took one last ride around Glen Eyrie - all of it covered in several feet of glistening white snow.
After General Palmer’s death, his daughters sought a buyer for the property. In 1916, a syndicate of investors from Oklahoma purchased the estate with the intent to subdivide the land into 100 miniature villas. The chaos of WWI and an influenza epidemic was not conducive to the sale of luxury villas, and the development plan failed. Two years later, Glen Eyrie went back on the market.
Alexander Smith Cochran, one of the wealthiest men in America, purchased Glen Eyrie for $450,000 in 1918. Cochran spent very little time at the estate, and two Palmer-era staff members maintained the property on his behalf. After a brief and stormy marriage to Polish opera singer Ganna Walska, he looked for a way to divest himself of the Glen, and the estate went up for public auction. The highest bidder at the auction didn’t close on the property, and Cochran died two years later. He willed Glen Eyrie to his nephew Thomas, who also died unexpectedly, and the property sat vacant for nearly ten years.
In 1938, George Strake - the owner of Strake Petroleum of Houston - purchased Glen Eyrie for $350,000. He transformed the neglected estate into a magnificent summer home for his family. The Strakes spent thousands of dollars rebuilding Palmer’s water system, improving the lawns and roads, adding several outbuildings, and rebuilding the stone bridges. Each summer, the family left humid Houston in favor of the cool air at Glen Eyrie. After a devastating flash flood in May 1947, the estate decreased in value to only $100,000 salvage. Strake decided to sell Glen Eyrie in 1953.
When Strake found out that the Billy Graham Association and The Navigators were interested in purchasing the property, Strake lowered the purchase price from $500,000 to $300,000. Billy Graham decided to pull out of the deal, so Graham turned over the option to buy solely to The Navigators, a Christian discipleship ministry based in California. The asking price was much higher than the ministry’s annual budget, and they began an emergency fundraising campaign for the down payment of $100,000. Their supporters responded and the organization raised the exact amount that they needed. The Navigators moved their operations to Glen Eyrie in 1954.
Today, The Navigators operate the property as a full time conference and retreat center, and the property is accessible to the public through a variety of programs. Although public hiking on the property and canyon has been discontinued until further notice due to the damage of the Waldo Canyon Fire, guests can participate in the life of Glen Eyrie in many other ways. With prior reservations, visitors can take a guided tour of the historic Glen Eyrie Castle and learn more about the Palmer story. Guests can also reserve tea in the music room or terrace, featuring a delicious assortment of savory and sweet treats. Overnight stays at Glen Eyrie feature a number of accommodations - from simple rooms in one of the lodges to luxurious spaces in Palmer’s castle. In the summer, Eagle Lake Camps offer an on-site day camp for students. The Navigators offer a variety of spiritual retreats as well, from marriage getaways to prayer retreats.
Glen Eyrie is a special place to spend the holiday season. During the month of December, the Great Hall is transformed into a 16th-century style castle for the Madrigal Banquet. The Madrigal is a lavish 16th-century style banquet that includes a four-course meal paired with period-inspired entertainment. For the 2015 holiday season, Glen Eyrie will also host the musical group Acoustic Eidolon on December 6th and 27th.
Glen Eyrie is significant in the grand scheme of American History. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the property ties the Pikes Peak Region to the larger American story of Westward expansion, industrialization, the railroad and other broad trends of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. For Colorado Springs, no other property represents the story of our city so well. Guests to the estate can participate in the unfolding future of the community as they visit this historic, beautiful land tucked away in the Front Range mountains of Southern Colorado.
3820 N. 30th St.,
Colorado Springs, CO 80904