COLORADO | MANITOU SPRINGS
Today, we’re bound for the southwest- to a small, eclectic town thriving at the base of a massive mountain range. Representing Colorado, this week we’ll take a closer look at Manitou Springs, the hippy haven that serves as a gateway to Pike’s Peak!
In all honesty, choosing one small town to represent this beautiful state was a tough challenge for me. I spent a week tucked away in a cabin in the Rockies last year, and on the final day of my trip, I drove for ten hours straight through all of the scenic highways I could find. It was not only a gorgeous day on the road; it was also a sampler tour of how many different personalities are present in the small towns of this area. From a quick pass through quaint Lyons to the skiing haven of Breckenridge, to the casinos of Central City, and a pit stop in the gold rush town of Fairplay- I truly got a taste for how many, and vastly different, small-town gems call Colorado home.
I chose to feature Manitou Springs because its bohemian spirit and thriving artistic community encapsulate what I hope to encourage with this project. In fact, Manitou Springs inspired me as I was starting Small Town Walls by being a representation of what I aim to prove on a larger scale- art ain’t just for city slickers, and is just as (if not more) essential in these small-town environments.
But how did Manitou Springs develop as a creative community in the first place?
LOCAL INSPIRATION: Healing Springs, Hippie Town
I think Manitou’s unique spirit has a lot to do with its “mystical” origins. Though Zebulon Pike “discovered” nearby Pike’s Peak in 1806, it was the Long Expedition of 1820 which first recorded stumbling across the healing springs that put this town on the map. Dr. Edwin James may have been the first westerner to “discover” these healing mineral waters, but in truth, the Mountain Utes, Cheyenne, Arapahoe, and other Plains natives had been using these springs for healing long before the good doctor showed up.
As the area became more accessible in the following decades, the springs attracted health-conscious visitors looking to cure everything from dry skin to tuberculosis, with varying degrees of efficacy. Unfortunately, one way the area attracted tourists was through the exoticization of the Springs’ connection to Native American spirituality. The word “manitou” is an Algonquian term, which roughly translates as the life force or spiritual presence found in all life forms. However, the Algonquian are native to Eastern Canada, not Colorado, and historians suspect that early settlers simply lifted this word from Longfellow’s poem, “Hiawatha.”
Still, as the Springs attracted visitors, the little town of Manitou grew from a small settlement in 1872 to an incorporated town in 1876. Its existence as an intersection between the natural beauty of its setting and this mystical/otherworldly energy is a common thread that manifested in a few different ways over the course of its history.
If we leap forward almost a century, this theme showed up in the 1960s as Manitou became a counter-cultural haven amidst the unrest of the Vietnam War. Throughout the 60s-70s Manitou was Colorado’s hub for the free love movement, and in short, became the hippie town you can still see traces of today. It is this aspect of the town’s history that inspired me to go with a psychedelic 70’s style of lettering for this mural.
Interestingly, this countercultural movement led to a bit of infamy for Manitou Springs. The town is located just six miles east of Colorado Springs, which is considered a “mecca” for evangelical Christians. This juxtaposition of cultures led to one missionary starting a rumor in the 1970s that Manitou Springs is “plagued with pagans!” This is the earliest source I could find of the town’s notoriety for witchcraft, but it seems the rumor has only grown over time. Some consider Manitou to be the Witch Capital of America, but since I’ve also been to Salem, Massachusetts myself- I think we have to reserve that honor for the East Coast.
That’s not to say things don’t get a special kinda weird here in the shadow of the Rockies. In fact, there’s one event in history that lends itself to a kooky and creepy annual event to this day!
WACKY & WEIRD: Emma Crawford and the Original Coffin Race
This historic event centers around one Manitou tourist turned local, Ms. Emma Crawford. She was a musician, teacher, and spiritualist who moved to Manitou for its healing water back in 1889. It is said that her only love second to music was nature, and she was particularly entranced by nearby Red Mountain, which she affectionately referred to as “Red Chief.” So much so, that one day she climbed to its peak and tied a scarf over her desired final resting place.
Sadly for Emma, her leap off this mortal coil came not long after she migrated to the Springs. A few short years later, on December 4th of 1891, Ms. Crawford lost her battle against tuberculosis. Luckily for her, a male friend recalled her burial wish and saw to it that she was laid to rest on the mountaintop. However, in 1929, her remains were rediscovered elsewhere and proved to be a little restless.
Due to rain and gravel shifting over the years, Emma’s casket slid a great way down the mountain over time. In 1929 two boys discovered her remains, coffin handles, and nameplate much lower on the hill- and did Ms. Emma the favor of carrying her bones back into town. Sadly, her remains were left in storage for many years, and were eventually interred in an unmarked grave. However, in the early 2000s, local historians made a point to learn her story and built her a memorial at the estimated site of her first burial.
Ms. Crawford’s post-mortem race down the mountain is honored every year by Manitou Springs' community coffin race, held in October near Halloween. Though often imitated, Manitou proudly claims this is the *original* coffin race and is proud of its historical inspiration.
Ms. Crawford may have been in an otherworldly rush to get down the mountain, but there’s one spot in town where everyone these days is dying to make it to the top.
TO SEE & DO: Manitou Incline
The Manitou Incline is a heart-racing, exhilarating climb up 2,768 steps on the east side of Rocky Mountain. This challenging hike gains 2,000 feet in elevation over just one mile, giving it a grade so steep visitors are required to take a long, winding descent down nearby Barr Trail. But the infamous Incline wasn’t always the ultimate staircase to conquer.
The Incline was originally built as a cable car system in 1907 to provide access to the water tanks that serviced Manitou and Colorado Springs. The Incline operated as transportation up the mountain under the Pikes Peak Cog Railway until 1990, when a rock slide washed out the rail bed, and the Cog Railway decided not to repair its tracks.
Due to the nearby military and Olympic training centers, the Incline has become a bit infamous as a fitness challenge- though healthy people from all walks of life have completed it successfully (albeit at very different rates!) The current, satellite-verified speed record was set September 25, 2015, of (17:45) by US mountain running team member Joseph Gray.
I regret not giving the incline a go while I was in CO last year- however, I was already experiencing a bit of altitude sickness just walking around at 7,000 feet above sea level. I’ve lived at sea level here in Florida for my entire life, so the thin air at that altitude definitely took some getting used to! However, I did get my blood pumping a fair bit at the Crags & Devil’s Playground trails after acclimating a bit more to the crisp, oxygen-deficient Colorado air.
PERSONAL EXPERIENCE: Downtown Historic District
What struck me the most about Manitou Springs was its spirit- more of a feeling than any facts I knew about the town at the time. Their downtown area (a designated Historic District) is very walkable and filled to the brim with public art and preserved architecture in several different styles. Because of my personal interests, I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of painted signage on display as well (much to the bemusement of the friend I was visiting, who politely listened to my ramblings about type construction.)
My favorite place we stopped in while walking around downtown was a small cafe named The Mate Factory. Though I instead had a chai latte, I appreciated the rustic/nature-oriented atmosphere of this little shop. Plus, the interior was covered in impressive murals- especially of note is one in the bathroom! The walls and ceiling are painted in a gradient that feels like a bottled sunset, and it is by far the most inspirational bathroom I’ve ever visited. If you find yourself passing through Manitou, be sure to visit the Mate Factory for a warm drink & cozy pit stop.
Altogether, Manitou Springs is a small town I think of often, and fondly. It’s the perfect example of a tight-knit community with a distinct personality, and I love that its local government allows that to flourish to this day. Easily identifiable as an artist’s haven and hub for all that is weird and wonderful, Manitou Springs is definitely a must-see if you are ever passing through the Rockies.
Next week, we’ll head across the country to a coastal town in the Constitution State! Start practicing your sailor’s knots now ;)
"Colorado is an oasis, an otherworldly mountain place." - Brandi Carlisle