COLORADO SPRINGS — Trash in this city’s iconic Garden of the Gods Park is usually nothing to get excited about. It’s a regular blemish on a revered place.
But along the park’s northern edge, a heap of buried refuse — discovered during work to build a retention pond to control runoff after a wildfire swept through the area — has historians and archaeologists excited, even giddy, about the possibility of learning more about how the wealthy lived in Colorado Springs when it was was founded.
That’s because the trash probably came from the household of Gen. William Jackson Palmer, Colorado Springs’ founder and the wealthy railroad magnate who helped build up the West and lived in the Glen Eyrie castle just up the hill from the park. Officials in the city, so rich with buried history that it has an archaeologist on staff, say it’s like nothing they’ve ever seen.
“This type of an intact site that we can directly link to an individual is extraordinarily rare,” said Matt Mayberry, the city’s cultural services manager. “This just does not happen. We’ve done archaeology. Nothing like this.”
The $300,000 archaeology project is being covered by a combination of local and state coffers and federal money.
MORE: Whenever crews move dirt in the Garden of the Gods, an archaeologist helps link the present to the past
In all, about 70,000 artifacts were pulled from the site before archaeologists hired by the city finished their work last week. The hope is that the items will help fill in the gaps on Palmer’s past and give historians a better idea of what life was like in Colorado Springs at the turn of the 20th century.
“We have big events over his life, things that are well known about, but (we) don’t have the everyday,” said Michael Prouty, of Montrose-based Alpine Archeology, the senior project archaeologist on the site. “What was it like to live here? What kind of things are they eating on a day-to-day basis? What’s a regular Tuesday night at Glen Eyrie? Those are the things we are trying to hopefully kind of glean.”
The site was uncovered in 2014 as flood-mitigation crews were scouting the area for a 17-acre, stormwater-detention pond near Camp Creek.
That was after the 2012 Waldo Canyon fire, which scorched nearly 350 homes across about 18,000 acres in the mountains west of Colorado Springs. The blaze turned soil in the burn area into a hardened runoff funnel, dramatically increasing the chance of flash floods.
“It kind of laid for a bunch of years until the Natural Resources Conservation Service was out there doing a related stream-modification project, and they nicked a small portion of the site and they exposed a bunch of bottles and ceramics,” said Charles Bello, a Federal Emergency Management Agency environmental and historic-preservation adviser. “That kind of spun us off to look at the larger property.”
At first, officials weren’t sure that the site was so special. But more digging revealed the wealth of artifacts just below the surface.
Bello said it’s not necessarily unusual for items of historical significance to be found on a site where FEMA is working. In Colorado, they are typically old mining or homestead sites.
Typically, FEMA would rather avoid doing archaeology projects on this scale and instead reposition the work they are trying to do. That wasn’t an option in the Colorado Springs location because of its size.
“Most of the things that FEMA does, we would rather avoid a site because it’s costly,” Bello said. “This is big as archaeology projects go. In Hurricane Katrina, we had as-big projects, but they are relatively rare. This is one of our big projects, there’s no doubt about that.”
Also unique about the Palmer site is its makeup. It’s rare, archaeologists say, to find one site with so many artifacts linked to one person or family.
Glen Eyrie, Palmer’s home, was built in the 1870s, around the time Colorado Springs was founded. And it’s believed that Palmer used the study site — which was on his property — as a trash dump for the sprawling castle.
Palmer’s history weaves back to the Civil War, during which he won the Medal of Honor for his leadership in the Union Army. Though a Quaker, he fought, choosing his distaste for slavery over his religious vow to avoid conflict of any kind.
He headed West after the war, evangelizing about the opportunities for prosperity in his new home territory and pitching the potential of rail.
The charismatic businessman formed the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad — perhaps the state’s most important — and in 1871 established Colorado Springs as a resort destination. Palmer was a philanthropist, especially when it came to his land, donating many acres of his property for the creation of parks.
He died in 1909.
“It’s really hard to overstate how important he was to Colorado as a whole,” said Samuel Bock, a public historian with History Colorado. “Really, he is known as being the founder of Colorado Springs, but Palmer’s vision was really regional, and I think a lot of the way that our state sort of evolved comes from his understanding (of its potential).
“He really is responsible for the shape of modern Colorado.”
Every fishbone, battery component, scrap of newspaper and ceramic fragment that has been retrieved from the dig site offers more details of Palmer’s complicated history.
“One of the first things that came out of the pile were intact alcohol bottles,” said Mayberry, with the city of Colorado Springs. “For historians, that’s not a huge surprise, but that’s an interesting opportunity for us. Palmer founded Colorado Springs as a dry community — you could not drink in Colorado Springs; there were no bars. So the founder of this community was apparently serving drinks. We have Palmer’s words about alcohol. Now we have his objects. Maybe there is some nuance to that.”
Just last week, a corked beer bottle — with its liquid still inside — was discovered.
Oyster and clam shells were also discovered, as well as what appeared to be bones from a halibut steak — indicating that Palmer was shipping seafood on ice to Colorado Springs. (Those were not foods others in the town would have had access to, Prouty said.)
“To me, it’s the small things — the buttons, the cuff links — that start to really talk about who these people were and how they lived their lives,” Prouty said. “We can actually see — or, hopefully, we can see — how they’re emulating aristocratic society in England, which was very common in the Victorian Period. And how that is the example for miners who are now making millions out of Cripple Creek, or coming out of Leadville, and trying to emulate Palmer’s worth. It’s this really intricate, but really fascinating, project.”
In some ways, historians say, the artifacts in the trash heap show how Palmer’s influence in Colorado led the state to where it is today — objects from afar that highlight his work to draw people from the East Coast. “His vision was all about bringing people from the East to Colorado,” said Bock, the historian. “He is one of these early figures in Colorado history making our state a foundational part of our broader country.’
The archaeological dig was only revealed to the public in its last week, when tours brought more than 100 observers to the site. There were fears that the work could be compromised by vandalism or looting, neither of which ultimately happened.
The dig wrapped up in the days before Thanksgiving. Over the next year, the recovered artifacts will be analyzed and cataloged. Eventually, they will be available for public viewing by the Colorado Springs community, which reveres its past.
“It’s reconstructing a past culture through the lives of the people that lived it,” Prouty said of the dig and archeology more broadly. “It’s much more complex than the big ‘wow’ moments.”
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