The Center for Land Use Interpretation Newsletter

There Is Something About Colorado Springs

630You know you are getting somewhere when you see this sign on I-25. CLUI photo

DISCUSSION OF COLORADO SPRINGS AS an emerging center of power came up following the last presidential election. While most of the commentary centered around the growth of powerful Christian organizations in the area, evidence from a recent visit to the region by representatives of the Center shows that this small city looms large on the national and even global landscape in more ways than can be simply coincidence.

Colorado’s second largest city (pop 320,000), the Springs’ sits on the western end of the American plains, at the abrupt eastern base of the Rockies, like a smaller version of Denver, 65 miles north. While this transitional, or “liminal” physiogeography may explain some of the city’s contemporary characteristics, it doesn’t explain them all.

The origins of the city are as a supply center for the mining boomtowns in the hills, like the legendary Cripple Creek. In 1917, when the nation switched from gold to silver for its coinage, creating a slump in the local gold mining industry, businesses in the region were quick to cash in on the landscape itself: the dramatic mountain scenery became the draw, and tourism became the major local industry.

Spearheading this trend was one of the grandest western resorts in the nation, the Broadmoor, which opened in 1918, and roared into the twenties at full tilt, attracting recreating presidents and foreign royalty. Pikes Peak, which looms 8,000 feet above the city’s streets, became a national landmark, famous for the daredevil auto races up the winding dirt road all the way to the peak’s 14,110 foot summit, a road privately built and financed by the Broadmoor. A cog railway, also owned by the Broadmoor, offered another way to the summit. Today, both are still popular summer attractions, though traffic on the narrow private toll road travels at a much slower pace.

It could be that the recreational opportunities, and the existence of a swanky resort is what first brought Colorado Springs to the attention of federal military planners. Or it could be just a naturally nationally strategic location. In either case, Colorado Springs has become the symbolic, if not the actual, center for the nation’s defense, and it teems with military activity, Army and Air Force.

631Focus on the Focus on the Family HQ. CLUI photo

Most famous of course is Cheyenne Mountain, the spring-cushioned underground satellite and radar observation nidus and command center bored into a hill at the base of Pikes Peak at the peak of the Cold War. Like a central nervous system, connected by satellite, fiber optics, and microwave to thousands of sensitive ground and space-based receptors, spread all over the world, Cheyenne Mountain still vigilantly monitors the skies and space for hostile or suspicious moving objects the world over. It recently underwent a $1.7 billion renovation. It is operated by NORAD, and the US Space Command, which is headquartered at Peterson Air Force Base, also in Colorado Springs. Petersen employs a few thousand people in communication, security, logistics, and intelligence programs, and is also associated with nearby Schriever Air Force Base, the military center for time and space (see article on next page).

At the base of Cheyenne Mountain is Fort Carson, a large mechanized infantry (tank) base, with 137,000 acres and around 15,000 military personnel and 3,000 civilian jobs. On the north edge of town is the Air Force Academy, the Air Force’s equivalent to West Point (a jet-age modernist complex, opened in 1958, in the foothills of the Rockies – compare to West Point’s medieval fortress on the Hudson, founded in Napoleonic times). All told, at least 35,000 people are employed by the military and related civilian jobs in Colorado Springs, despiteor perhaps because ofbeing nearly as far from foreign lands as possible.

The high elevation and sporty environment were no doubt the attractions that brought the United States Olympic Committee’s administrative headquarters and Training Center to Colorado Springs. If the complex has an authoritative look at its core, that is because its previous use was as Ent Air Force Base, the former headquarters of the North American Defense Command (before it moved to nearby Petersen AFB). The Olympic Committee moved into the former defense node in 1978, soon after it was vacated by the Air Force. The complex was expanded massively in the 1990s to house new training facilities for athletes, including a sports science center, 45,000 square foot aquatic center, a 59,000 square foot multi-story gymnasium, the largest indoor shooting facility in the western hemisphere, housing and support for over 550 trainees and trainers, and much more. It is the center of the US’s olympian efforts, and one of the largest diversified sports training complexes in the country.

632Air Force Academy. CLUI photo

It has been suggested that Colorado Springs’ location at a sort of geographic fulcrum for the lower 48, where the plains meet the mountains, favors the timely and simultaneous distribution of mail to all parts of the country. This theory explains the presence of a number of mail order and direct marketing businesses in the region (Columbia House, transcripts and tape companies, and the Citizen Information Center, run by the federal government in nearby Pueblo), and is supported by the fact that Federal Express has opened a regional distribution node at the airport.

This “mail hub” theory helps to explain, partially at least, the new nationally prominent evangelical Christian presence in the Springs. The national headquarters for the politically influential Focus on the Family, now one of the largest private employers in the region, is located off the Interstate north of town. Its sprawling new campus sends out enough mail (reportedly 4 million pieces a month) to have its own zip code. At the next exit off I-25 is the headquarters of the New Life Church, with its 10,000 seat World Prayer Center. The head of this church, pastor Ted Haggard, is the president of the National Association of Evangelicals, and a good friend of the Bush administration. No doubt he too sends out a lot of mail.

Perhaps some of the same forces that draw such technological and spiritual extremes to the Springs also attracted Nikola Tesla here in 1899. Seeking open land and lots of electricity, the notoriously inventive high energy physicist built a lab a mile east of downtown to investigate, among other things, the transmission of electricity through the air. A few months later, while making what has been described as the largest artificial lightning display ever created, the town electrical utility became overloaded, and their only generator exploded. After unsuccessful attempts to convince the utility to provide service to his lab again, Tesla left the Springs, never to return. A hundred years later, the only museum in the whole country dedicated to this pioneering inventor of alternating current, located in downtown Colorado Springs, auctioned off its assets and closed for good, citing lack of public interest and support as the reason.

Another curious and unique museum that seems, however, to be thriving in Colorado Springs, is the Money Museum. This is America’s largest museum dedicated to numismatics, and is located at the institutional headquarters of the American Numismatic Association. The ANA is the lead agency for promoting the hobby and industry of coin collecting in the nation. 500 clubs and over 32,000 individuals are members of the ANA. Why the hub of this network of money collectors is in Colorado Springs remains a mystery.

The nation’s center for numismatic outreach, global space/time control, projectile tracking, international athleticism, bulk mail powerhouse, politically powerful evangelical Christianity, and the sort of higher education that only the Air Force can provide: This is today’s Colorado Springs.