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,
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