History of the Cañon

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North Cheyenne Cañon is rich with both elements of man-made and natural surroundings on the 1,600 acres of this regional park, owned by the City of Colorado Springs. Included on it are two Visitors Centers including the Starsmore Discovery Center and “The Cub”, or Helen Hunt Falls Visitors Center, both of which are open to visitors in the summer months and are a great place to start learning the area by getting a trail and nature map.

From Colorado Springs’ founding by General Palmer in the 1870s up until the present, this park has been shaped by its various changes in ownership and use. The Cañon area was a refuge for Colorado Springs residents from the hot, arid surroundings of a virtually treeless landscape. With the natural streams, waterfalls and wooded areas, it provided a weekend escape for many early settlers of the Colorado Springs area.

By 1883 the park, then owned by Colorado College Land Company, was called Colorado College Park. They developed the first wagon road into the Cañon to complement the existing footpath trails. The park was open to the public daily for a short time. However the President of Colorado College put up a gate and closed the park on Sundays due to litter and damage issues, high use, and lack of park employees available on Sundays. However, the working people of Colorado Springs often only had Sunday available to enjoy the Cañon and a grassroots effort began to purchase the Park by the City of Colorado Springs. Helen Hunt Jackson, a local author and community activist, joined in this campaign culminating in the purchased 640 acres in 1885 to be used as a city park. At this time, the park was renamed Cheyenne Park, making North Cheyenne Cañon Park one of the oldest Parks in Colorado Springs.

Helen Hunt Jackson, also known for her advocacy of Native America rights, poet and author of countless short stories and books including Ramona, lived in Colorado Springs with her second husband, William Jackson in the 1880s. Her love of the cañon expressed through her writings, is the reason that the falls just below Silver Falls at the top of the cañon were named in her honor. Although the lower falls were called Helen Hunt Falls from the early 1900s, it was not until 1966 that the name was made official.

In the early 1900s, two cottages were built at the entrance of the park to house the caretaker’s residence and storage for the park’s maintenance equipment. These two buildings burned down in the 1960s although new buildings for these purposes now exist within the park.

William Palmer, the founder of the City of Colorado Springs, donated an additional 480 acres to the park in 1907. The donated land included a carriage road through the Cañon and over High Drive, a shelter pavilion, and even an established Mt. Cutler Trail, along with various other trails. Located on the donated property was the original Bruin Inn, constructed in 1881 to be the residence for Mr. Tenney, the President of Colorado College. The Bruin Inn was a popular place for Colorado College events over the years and often housed caretakers on site. During a 1916 remodeling of the Bruin Inn, an additional smaller building, known as the “Cub” was built for storage, a horse and hay barn. Over the years the Cub became repurposed to house a visitor center. The loss of the Bruin Inn to a fire in the late 1950’s left the park with only the use of the Cub at the upper falls for the next 50 years. In the early 2000’s the Friends of Cheyenne Cañon began a long-term capital fundraising effort to replace the Cub, which had fallen into considerable disrepair. This effort culminated in October 2013 with the grand re-opening of the Cub as the Helen Hunt Falls Visitor Center. This effort by local citizens, reminiscent of the original Park purchase effort, brought together local businesses, in-kind support by local contractors, and plenty of heavy lifting, fundraiser support, and PR by our Friends of Cheyenne Cañon membership.

Additional changes in the park included a 1913 effort by the U.S. Forest Service. They planted 700,000 two to four year-old trees to reforest the slopes of the Cañon. The project was completed in only three months. Park and trail maintenance has continued to be a key part of this beloved Park throughout it’s history. Today the Friends of Cheyenne Cañon along with our many park and trail partners continue to work with the City to keep our Park healthy and safe for all visitors both now and into the future.
Off trail, the progression continued in 1914 when the first stone bridge was constructed, followed by several others the following year. In 1917, automobiles were first allowed into the park. Previously only horse drawn carriages would carry tourists up the long Cañon road. Of course the automobile brought the end to the footpath being on the same road and thus began the 1919 building of the Columbine Trail which now connects the two visitor centers and provides a safe and scenic trail for all. By 1921 we were already contending with washed out roads during high rains. The road was rebuilt to allow two cars to pass and some turnaround areas. Later a street car system then a bus system were used. We continue to contend with erosion on both our roads and trails. A common site today also includes many bicyclists sharing the Cañon roads.

A big change to the park was made in 1990 when the historic Starsmore House of Colorado Springs was moved to the base of the Cañon to house the Starsmore Discovery Center. The Visitor Center houses the City Staff that supports the Park through education programs, historical and environment displays, trail and safety education to visitors, and in co-hosting many events with their partners, The Friends of Cheyenne Cañon.

Through community and political involvement, the surrounding areas of North Cheyenne Cañon Park continue to be protected. Stratton Open Space, acquired in 1998, is one of our newest open space neighbors and work on a mountain bike trail connecting Stratton Open Space and Cheyenne Cañon continues today. We must also continue to maintain the trails that we have, ensure adequate fire and flood mitigation, and share our story with the children of our community to ensure future public support. And be ready for the opening of the new Mt Muscoco Trail coming Spring 2015!

With this considerable rich history, you can understand why on July 8, 2009 North Cheyenne Cañon Park was registered in the National Register of Historic Places. Be sure to visit your park soon and in the mean time you may reflect upon the words of Ms. Helen Hunt Jackson,

“As I looked up from the ford to the mouth of the canyon, I was reminded of some of the grand old altar-pieces of the early centuries, where, lest the pictures of saints and angels and divine beings should seem too remote, too solemn and overawing, the painters used to set at the base, rows of human children, gay and mirthful, leaping and laughing or playing viols. So lay this sunny belt of sparkling water, glistening sand, and joyous blue blossom, at the base of the picture made by the dark mouth of the canyon, where two great mountains had recoiled and fallen apart from each other, leaving a chasm, midway in which rose a smaller mountain of sharp rocks, like a giant sentry disputing the way. Forests of pines fill the rift on either side this rock, and their darklines stretch high up, right and left, nearly to the top of each mountain. Higher and ruggeder peaks rise beyond, looking as if they must shut the canyon sharply, as a gate closes an alley; but they do not. Past them, among them, in spite of them, the creek took its rightof way, the mountains and rocks yielded, and the canyon winds.”
– Bits of Travel at Home (1878) by Helen Hunt Jackson