COBWEB CORNERS: Palmer’s first look at Colorado

By Mel McFarland

       A while back I talked about when General Palmer arrived in the Pike's Peak Region, but what actually brought him here? After the Civil War there were far too many officers in the army, and most went back to ordinary life. General William Jackson Palmer of Pennsylvania wanted to see the West. He found a railroad company in Missouri that was looking for someone to head up its survey department. In the spring of 1867 the railroad sent him and a team to explore a route toward California. It was this expedition that attracted an English physician, Dr. William A. Bell. He served doubly as photographer and physician. He and Palmer would become good friends.
       Palmer led 48 engineers and a staff of 10. The men set out onto the Kansas prairie. The first goal was the Arkansas River in Colorado. The expedition broke into three teams with separate assignments and directions once in Colorado. The teams would periodically meet to relay plans and reports. Palmer coordinated the specific areas each team had been assigned. His own group set out following the Purgatoire River, as it left the Arkansas. His team included Bell, a geologist, entomologist, botanist, three quartermasters, his secretary and a newsman representing the Philadelphia press.
       By August 7, 1867 Palmer had traveled as far as Trinidad, Colorado, roughly 600 miles into the trip. There, he found a settlement of 200 people. The village had trebled in size in the previous six months, surviving on business from traders and travelers using Raton Pass.
       Palmer sent his team to look in the mountains south of Trinidad. There were six passes over the mountains from Trinidad to Santa Fe. Another stop was Gray's Ranch, a "way station" on Raton Pass below Trinidad. Palmer's team then worked west around the south side of Raton Mesa, finding visible coal deposits well into New Mexico. They traveled to Santa Fe and out into the deserts of Arizona to California. His brief look at Colorado would bring him back again a year later, including a visit in Denver.