COBWEB CORNERS: So how tall IS it?
By Mel McFarland
How tall is Pikes Peak? As a cog railway conductor, I get this question often. Zebulon Pike thought it was 18,000 feet. He was high by a few thousand feet, but what is the right answer?
If you remember your basic geometry, knowing the height of two objects and their distances apart lets you figure the height of a third object. Back in the 1880s, surveyors gauged the elevation at about 14,200 feet. It was a short time later defined as 14,147 feet. The United States Geological Society gave it a height of 14,109 in 1913. The running joke in Colorado Springs became, "It is because all those tourists took rocks home with them." Actually it was just more accurate measuring. One newspaper story blamed the shoe leather wear from the many tourists who rode on the cog railway. It was suggested that perhaps the railway ought to haul in a few thousand loads of replacement rocks.
The cog railroad has never had freight cars, so just how those rocks would get up there was a puzzle. Actually, every year the cog has to haul rocks and gravel up to the top. They fill in holes caused by erosion from melting snow and rain by hauling up rock from lower on the mountain. They only take up a couple of buckets full at a time, anyway! The mountain would certainly have taken on a strange look if they had tried to get it back up to 14,147. It would have put a point on the flat top.
In the 1940s the measurement went back up, to 14,110 feet. The joke was that they had hauled up some rocks to even it out! A few years ago, 14,115 was announced, using GPS measurements. A few signs, and trinkets now show the new altitude, but the signs on top where all the tourists stand still says 14,110.
That brings up another question. I have seen several locations for the actual summit. Over the years there must have been a couple dozen spots identified as the true summit. Some were signs, a couple were structures made of stones. I know a couple of these were destroyed when spring snow was plowed out of the parking lot! There is a USGS medallion in the rocks not far from the site of the old highway summit house. Oh yes, there have been several different summit houses. From 1916 until about 1960 there were two, one for the highway, one for the railway!