Diane Giles Kenosha Press Correspondent
A wealthy entrepreneur discovers that a utopia gives brave tourists an experience – and a breathtaking view – they can’t get anywhere else, and he achieves it all.
He is daring and innovative and soon his name is all over the media related to the company.
Elon Musk? Jeff Bezos? What about Kenosha’s Zalmon Simmons?
It is traced back over 135 years, to 1884, when Simmons ran several businesses, including a cheese box factory, a windmill, a telegraph insulator manufacturing center, and a telegraph business. And, he had just incorporated his new business: The North Western Wire Mattress Company (later to become the Simmons Manufacturing Company).
His wife Emma was struggling with health issues and she found relief in the crisp, crisp mountain air of Manitou Springs, Colorado. The Cliff House, owned by a friend of Simmons’ friend Edward E. Nichols Sr., has become their getaway.
Zalmon went there in the fall of 1884 on a business trip. He had supplied a prototype wooden insulator to Western Union for a new line to the United States. Signal station at the top of Pike’s Peak. Never afraid of getting his hands dirty, Simmons wanted to see firsthand how his insulators were holding up.
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This involved making the ascent – and return – two days on the back of a mule.
When Simmons, 56, returned to Cliff House, he found it to be too stiff and sore to sit or even lie down. He spent a few days there in the Turkish bath, recovering.
While recovering, he reflected on the beautiful scenery of his trip and once again marveled at the view from the 14,100-foot peak.
There, too, he began to think about the conversation he had with one of the locals, Major John Hulbert.
Hulbert dreamed of building a railroad to the top, even though other rail companies struggled to build gravity-defying railroads in the Rockies. He had invested heavily in James Kerr’s Pike’s Peak Tramway Company.
Kerr had no faith in Colorado Springs banks, so he sold bonds and put the money in a New York bank. The bank went bankrupt the next day. This put an end to the streetcar company.
Simmons contacted Hulbert for a meeting. Simmons said he was willing to spend a million dollars so that he and the rest of the soft-bottomed humans could ascend Pike’s Peak in the greatest comfort technology can offer: a cog railway.
The cog is the key
The line would be modeled after the Mt. Washington Cog Railway in New Hampshire, a three-mile road, built in 1869, that ran to the summit of New England’s highest point. The Pike’s Peak trail was three times as long as Mount Washington, and Simmons wanted the ride to be as quick as the one on Mount Washington – 90 minutes to the top.
The Pike’s Peak version, dubbed Manitou and Pike’s Peak Cog Railway, consisted of a teapot of an engine pushing a glass-walled car up to a maximum gradient of 25%. Both the engine and the car ran on light rails, but the heart of the mechanics was a very heavy double tooth rail in the center. A large cogwheel in the engine matched the center rail and brought the two cars onto the track.
The passenger car had its own cog so that it could be stopped immediately if the engine failed and began to downshift.
Leveling of the massive project began in August 1889 after Simmons obtained permits for a right-of-way and station area on the summit from US Secretary of the Interior John W. Noble.
The ranking did not start at the bottom, but at the top. Construction was more difficult and expensive in the lower three miles, where steep slopes were more difficult to conquer than waste rock at higher elevations. The last three miles cost as much to grade as the first 5.9 miles!
It was not possible to use horses or mules in the ranking. All the work has been done with a pickaxe, a shovel and a wheelbarrow in the rarefied atmosphere. Contractors struggled to replace laborers, who deserted labor en masse, even though the labor paid the highest wages of 25 cents an hour, and 18 cents for ordinary labor.
By Christmas, 800 workers and 100 mules had made good progress in the classification, but at a tragic cost. Three men died in dynamite explosions, one was crushed by a rock and two had fatal heart attacks at high altitudes.
The following spring, Simmons rushed west. He personally helped his team clear the snow from the road.
Lay the track
When the first engine arrived in May, it was called “John Hulbert”. During his test, he got out of breath and died a few hundred meters above.
Engineer Simmons had on the project, Thomas F. Richardson, solved the problem by expanding the boiler and built three water tanks for the stops along the line. Weeks later, dark green passenger cars with stripes adorned with gold leaf and narrow seats covered in gold plush arrived: they were called “Leadville”, “Colorado Springs” and “Denver”. Later that year two more locomotives were added: “TF Richardson” and “Pike’s Peak”.
Finally, the laying of the track was completed on October 22, 1890, just four months after the start of the track work.
Then winter engulfed the Rockies and the wait began for the late spring thaw.
On the day of the first excursion – June 30, 1891, 8:23 a.m. – the John Hulbert engine began to push the Denver, filled with city officials and journalists, to the impressive rank. Simmons in his usual silk hat and haircuts, Hulbert and Nichols joined the group singing for the first mile or so until the steep slope of the canyons quickly calmed the passengers.
About an hour after the start of the trip, the train’s wheels came to a stop just past the timber line. A rock slide covered the runway and it would be hours before workers could clear it. Simmons apologized to his guests in the freezing mountain air and ordered the train back to Manitou.
A second train of dignitaries attempted the climb in the early afternoon with the same result. Finally later in the afternoon, the third train reached the summit at 5:25 pm. The passengers were the 61 members of the Highland Christian Church Choir in Denver.
It was dark when they returned, sooty and tired, to the Manitou depot. The trip had been exhilarating and a full dinner at the Iron Spring Hotel awaited them, courtesy of Zalmon Simmons.
A two-year restoration and reconstruction project was completed this year and the line reopened on May 20.
The Broadmoor Manitou and Pikes Peak cog railway still operates today. Hope to see the view from the top of Pike’s Peak on my travels over the next couple of years.