Mount Evans or Bust: “A Castle in the Sky”
– by Charla Stilling
The gold is there, ‘most anywhere
You can take it out rich, with an iron crow bar,
And where it is thick, with a shovel and pick,
You can pick it out in lumps a big as a brick.
Then ho boys ho, to Cherry Creek we’ll go.
There’s plenty of gold,
In the West we are told,
In the new Eldorado.
William N. Byers, a partaker in the 1859 Pikes Peak Gold Rush (also known as the Colorado Gold Rush), and publisher of the Rocky Mountain News, printed poems like the one above, which were largely responsible for the influx of emigrants who made their way across the plains in search of gold. “Pikes Peak or Bust” painted the sides of canvas-covered wagons and grew as the slogan for weary travelers seeking the glimmer of sky-high dreams. Although Pikes Peak was the first landmark seen by new settlers as they made their way across the prairie, the 14,110 ft. mountain was some 60 miles from the mouth of Cherry Creek—the main diggings—in an area which became known as Colorado Springs. In fact, it was later said that gold ‘could not be found within a hundred miles of that peak’ and led to “go-backers” heading east with painted signs reading: “From Kansas and starvation to Missouri and salvation.”
Although we know that gold was in fact found within one hundred miles of ‘that peak,’ one can only wonder what a difference “Mount Evans or Bust” would have made for the gold seekers of 1859. Never mind that Mount Evans stands 154 feet taller than Pikes, but it also serves as a landmark leading from Denver, the Gateway to the Rockies, directly through the heart of the Continental Divide to cities such as Idaho Springs, Central City and Leadville, all of which played a huge role in making a poor man wealthy and shaping the West.
During the late 1800s, Colorado Springs and Denver continued to battle for notability, recognition, survival and eastern tourism. In 1873, the U.S. Signal Service (an early Weather Bureau) built a telegraph station on the summit of Pikes Peak to monitor the weather and a 16-mile carriage road to the summit was constructed in the late 1880s. On the afternoon of June 30th, 1891, the first passenger train, carrying a church choir from Denver, made it to the summit. The famous Anglo-American Pikes Peak Expedition of 1911, a study of high altitude physiology, included four investigators who spent five weeks in the comfortable “summit house” atop Pikes Peak. With so much going for it, Pikes Peak lured tourists away from Denver. Denver’s Mayor Speer proposed plans for the construction of a road to the top of Mount Evans, named for John Evans, Colorado’s second territorial governor. In 1917, Speer secured state funds to build such a road. The road was completed in 1927, opening another of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks to the world.
The area around Mount Evans grew in popularity and drew settlers and emigrants to the foothills surrounding Denver. One such man was Justus “Gus” Roehling, a German emigrant who arrived in Colorado in 1919. Roehling came to Colorado with hopes of finding a cure for tuberculosis, an infectious disease that claimed the lives of both his parents. After working for a short time as a carpenter in Denver, he moved to the town of Kittredge, at the foot of Mount Evans, to take a job a caretaker. His craft as a carpenter led to the construction of many houses for Charles Kittredge, the original Christ the King Church in Evergreen and the Hiwan Homestead Barn. However, his role in Colorado history did not stop there; he designed a rustic church structure of massive chunks of native granite, peeled logs, raw beams and moss rock in Estes Park known as Our Lady of the Mountains, and envisioned and fulfilled the building of the Crest House, his “Dream Castle” atop Mount Evans.
Roehling’s first trip to the top of Mount Evans in the late 1920s was with his girlfriend, Edith, who later became his wife. He wrote about his trip to the summit in a poem entitled “My Castle in the Sky.”
On a beautiful summer day
I drove to my shining mountains,
My best girl beside me.
We drove over rocky, winding roads,
Through rain, mist, and fog.
As we came to the very top
The sun came out in all its glory.
Then we walked hand in hand
And came to a rocky promontory
A place for my dream castle in the sky.
A decade later, Roehling’s dream began flirting with reality. He and architect, Edwin A. Francis, initiated building plans for what became known as the Crest House (occasionally referred to as the Summit House), and after months of preparation, ground was broken and construction was underway. The Dream Castle, envisioned as a tourist attraction, was owned by Thayer Tutt, who was associated with two similar attractions atop Pikes Peak, and Quigg Newton, who later became Mayor of Denver.
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Photos courtesy of Tom Lundin, modmidmod.com
Construction began in the spring of 1940 by Roehling and a small crew of men who lived in tents, fought cold weather and labored ‘in cement and stone, for just a daily wage – for the adventure to work like men.’ Despite their efforts, only half of the structure was completed before the winter of 1940. Work resumed in the spring of 1941 and after two seasons and $50,000—Roehling’s proposed budget—the structure was finished and officially named the Crest House in the fall of 1941.
Francis designed the Crest House with plenty glass windows for viewing scenery, including an outstanding view of Denver and the eastern plains, and built it with native stone so to blend into its natural surroundings. The coffee shop windows, shaped like ‘tips of stars,’ pointed toward Heaven. The large, round light fixtures in the house represented the moons. All of the characteristics within the design of the Crest House were symbolic and inspired by the diverse and combined interests of Roehling and Francis.
According to Barbara and Gene Sternberg, authors of “Evergreen: Our Mountain Community”, when the Crest House was completed, it “proved durable and serviceable. It had an upper area for enjoying the view, a souvenir shop, snack bar, toilets and living quarters for employe[e]s—who were usually students.” In an article printed August 14, 1949, the Denver Post highlighted two such students from Denver, Helen Swerer, 18, and Yvonne Ford, 19, who spent a summer working at the Crest House. They lived at the top of the incredible mountain and slept in bunk beds within the living quarters, washed and hung their long johns out to dry during July snowstorms and took oven-hot rocks to bed with them for extra warmth. The Crest House, typically opened July 4th through the week after Labor Day, saw as many as 10,000 guests per week during the time it was open. Many of the guests enjoyed fried doughnuts and hot coffee, which took longer to prepare and more coffee per cup due to the altitude. Sending postcards from the top ‘to prove they were there’ was another favorite activity of visitors.
Sadly, on September 1, 1979, an employee of an Evergreen propane company, while refilling the tank outside the Crest House, failed to secure a safety valve and started a fire that burned out of control. Everyone inside the Crest House was taken to safety, but efforts to put out the fire were hindered by a lack of water and high winds.
Although the gas companies were found negligent and the Forest Service was awarded $450,000 on the condition that the money go toward building a new facility, all that remains of the once famous Crest House is the stone walls. Roehling, the concessionaires and a group of supporters numbering over 3,000 argued the need for a warm shelter, warm drink, food and an occasional souvenir was important atop Mount Evans. The Forest Service and environmentalists argued that “summits of 14,000-foot mountains, which are dangerous places, with rarified air and unpredictable weather, are not appropriate places for tourists in automobiles.” The Forest Service even considered closing the road to the top of Mount Evans, but later decided the idea was not reasonable.
Needless to say, Gus Roehling, who published an autobiographical book about the Crest House named “Castle in the Sky,” was devastated at the loss. At the age of 89, still fighting for the reconstruction of the Crest House, he visited the summit of Mount Evans for the last time. In the summer of 1984, Gus Roehling died. His coffin was taken to the ruins of the Crest House and a memorial service was held in his honor, and then he was brought back down the mountain and laid to rest at the Evergreen Cemetery.
In 1992, the ruins were stabilized by the Arapahoe National Forest and today the Crest House provides visitors with shelter from the wind, an observation deck and a place for reflection.
B50 Note: This article was initially published in “Colorado Serenity” Magazine. Charla Stilling is an author, historian, and public speaker who lives in Denver.