William J. Palmer

General William J. Palmer has been termed Colorado's foremost citizen. Time gives the perspective of all things and of all individuals, and as the years pass the importance of General Palmer to Colorado is continually growing in the public mind. The people realize the worth of his efforts, the value of his deeds, the integrity and modesty of his life and know that in the course of his residence in the west he opened up many avenues leading to civilization, to progress and improvement. He took the initial step in many instances and pointed out the way that others might follow. He passed two milestones on life's journey beyond the Psalmist's allotted span of three score years and ten and in the course of his active life he accumulated a fortune that mounted into the millions, but the attainment of wealth was never the end and aim of his business career. His activity in the field of business was because of his deep interest in the game and the possibilities for achievement in the way of opening up new sections of the country, and his story contains many of the thrills of victory.

His ancestors were Pennsylvania people, living for many generations in Germantown near Philadelphia. General Palmer was born near Leipsic, Kent county, Delaware, September 17, 1836, and came of English, German and Irish ancestry, his parents being John and Matilda (Jackson) Palmer. His mother, who died about 1902, at the very advanced age of ninety-four years, was a member of the Society of Friends or Quakers. The son began his education in a Friends school of Philadelphia, afterward attended the Central high school and was also a student in the Zane street grammar school in Philadelphia. He made his initial step in the business world when in 1853, at the age of seventeen years, he joined the engineer corps of the Hempfield Railroad in Washington county. Pennsylvania, where he became an employee of Charles Ellet. a distinguished civil engineer of that period, who later organized the ram fleet on the Mississippi river early in the Civil war. In 1856 General Palmer went to England and devoted a year to the practical study of civil and mining engineering in that country. Upon his return home he accepted the position of secretary and treasurer of the Westmoreland Coal Company of Pennsylvania and a year later became private secretary to John Edgar Thompson, president of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company.

In the latter position he remained for four years but the outbreak of the Civil war stirred his patriotic spirit and after the battle of Bull Run in July, 1861, he began recruiting in the state of Pennsylvania and organized the Anderson troop of cavalry for escort and special duty with General Robert Anderson when that Fort Sumter hero took command in Kentucky. Mr. Palmer was elected captain of his company, and with the retirement of General Anderson, General W. T. Sherman accepted the troop from Captain Palmer; but before the organization reached the field General Buell had taken command in Kentucky, and Captain Palmer and his troop served under him for about a year, during which time they participated in the Nashville and Shiloh campaigns. At the request of General Rosecrans in the summer of 1862, Governor Curtin of Pennsylvania gave Captain Palmer authority to raise a regiment of cavalry, known as the Fifteenth Pennsylvania. But before its quota had been filled the incomplete organization was sent into the Cumberland valley of Maryland to meet the Confederate invasion that was defeated and turned back at Antietam in September of that year. On the day after the battle, Captain Palmer volunteered to General McClellan for special duty within the enemy's lines, where he was taken prisoner and was so held until January, 1863, when he was released and returned to active service. The story of his capture and prison experience is a most thrilling one. After the second battle of Bull Run new troops were pushed into the field and after McClellan took command it was ascertained that Lee had crossed the Potomac into Maryland, and at once all the volunteer militia, recruits and detachments, without regard to completeness of organization, were hurried to the front. It was at that time that Captain Palmer's command was ordered to report to General McClellan and it was soon afterward that he offered to go across the river and find out what the enemy was doing. The General consented but demanded that he take with him a scout and a Methodist preacher. Captain Palmer preferred to be alone but had to submit to the orders of his superior officer. Arriving at the ferry's bank, they could find no boat and finally had to call to the ferryman, who it was known was a Union sympathizer and who was not only ferryman but miller at that point. At length the three were taken across the river and proceeded to the mill, where they found the man's wife and a negro woman. After much persuasion the man, Roberts by name, was induced to go to a friend some distance away and find out if there were any movements of the army in that direction. Captain Palmer and his associates, including the miller's wife and the negress, sat in the darkened room anxiously awaiting the return of the miller, when all at once Captain Palmer heard a distant noise to which he listened intently until he felt sure that it was an approaching troop of cavalry. The negress grasped the situation and insisted that the men should go to the loft which she occupied above. Most of the cavalrymen, however, passed on without suspicion that the house contained two Union men—one an officer. When that danger was passed Captain Palmer received a report from his scout, whom he sent on to inform McClellan of what was happening. Then the men descended from the loft and soon afterward the miller returned but reported that the men would be unable to make their escape, as the Confederates were picketing the roads and posting sentinels. Again the negress insisted that Captain Palmer should mount to the loft. Captain Palmer's companion, the Methodist minister, was in citizen's clothing and he managed to get away from the house and was attempting to cross the river. Captain Palmer watched him with intense anxiety, when all at once he heard the negress saying to him: "Massa Cap'n, you'se caught for su', now. H'yar, jes tuk off dem blue clo's and put on dare common t'ings of Massa Roberts. Mighty quick! Dere's a guard a-cummin' fra de camp wid Massa Roberts, an' dey is arter you." Captain Palmer realized that if he was caught there his uniform meant punishment for the people of the house and that in homespun he might have a chance to escape. Not caring to be caught in the loft, after having donned the miller's garments he proceeded to the lower floor. There the commanding officer of the Confederate troops explained that his presence was demanded at headquarters, to which Captain Palmer courteously replied that he would accompany him. As he went along he framed the story that he would tell—"that his name was Peters, that he was down in that district of Kentucky seeing about some mines which he owned and that Maryland was his home." He was at length sent on to Castle Thunder and then followed months in which there was danger at all times of his being shot as a spy if he should ever be recognized. He had many narrow escapes from this.

On one occasion he and three companions, with the aid of a file and a jack knife, sawed their way through a board in the floor and had planned to escape that night when they found that evidently some suspicion had been aroused and there was a double guard, with a light thrown into the cellar of the warehouse through which they would have to make their escape. This plan was thus frustrated. Captain Palmer did not dare to appeal to his friends, all of whom believed him to be dead, for if they searched for him it would mean that he would be shot as a spy if his identity were made known. Twice the promise came to him that he would be exchanged with prisoners, but these promises were not kept. At length a man who was a friend of nearly all of the Confederate generals and other officers of that district was cast into prison and, to make a long story short, it proved that he was a Union spy, although no one suspected him. He was the factor who at length enabled Captain Palmer to make his escape and ultimately he reached the Union lines. After his release Captain Palmer was promoted to the colonelcy of his regiment, which was then serving under General Rosecrans in Tennessee. He soon brought the command to a high state of efficiency and with his troops participated in the battles of Chickamauga and Missionary Ridge and in the operations against General Longstreet in the winter of 1863-4. He also participated in the Atlanta campaign, where he had charge of a part of the line of communication and supply. He was afterward with the command of General Hood and for his brilliant services was brevetted brigadier general. Early in the spring of 1865 he was sent with his brigade across the Great Smoky range into North Carolina and when General Johnston surrendered was placed at the head of a division and put upon the track of Jefferson Davis and the Confederate forces, who were then trying to escape to the Gulf or into Texas. General Palmer pushed the pursuit of the Confederate president and the cavalry command which was escorting him, and was close upon him when he was captured by General Wilson. Soon afterward the Union armies were disbanded and General Palmer returned to private life. General George H. Thomas said of him: "There is no officer in the active or volunteer service who has performed the duties which have devolved upon him with more intelligence, zeal or energy than General Palmer, whose uniform distinguished success throughout the war places his reputation beyond controversy."

In the summer of 1865, at the request of John Edgar Thompson, Thomas A. Scott and other Pennsylvania Railroad friends, General Palmer was elected secretary and treasurer of the Kansas Pacific Railroad Company, then controlling the Union Pacific eastern division. This was the initial step that brought him ultimately to Colorado and his services here were of the greatest benefit in the development of the resources and the upbuilding of the state. He remained with the Kansas Pacific Railroad as manager of construction while it was being constructed to Denver in 1869 and 1870, was a factor in the building of the Denver Pacific road between Denver and Cheyenne in the same years, instituted the plans leading to the establishment of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad system and put these plans into execution. In 1872 he was active in organizing the Central Colorado Improvement Company, which later became the Colorado Coal & Iron Company and is now the Colorado Fuel & Iron Company. He remained the active head of the Denver & Rio Grande until August, 1883, when he resigned to give greater attention to his railroad enterprise in Mexico, promoted under the name of the Mexican National Railroad. But he continued to remain as president of the Rio Grande Western road extending from Grand Junction, Colorado, to Salt Lake City and Ogden, Utah, until April, 1901, when he withdrew from personal participation in its affairs and from an active railroad career, which, save for the period of his four years' service In the Union army, had extended over a period of forty-seven years. His retirement was marked by a most noteworthy gift—the distribution of stock and cash of the value of one million dollars to those who had long been in the service of the company. General Palmer was the founder and promoter of Colorado Springs, which came into existence in the summer of 1871. He organized the company that secured title to ten thousand acres of land, upon part of which the city was laid out. He was also identified with the founding of South Pueblo, Alamosa, Durango and several towns of lesser importance on the Denver & Rio Grande, but his interests centered in Colorado Springs, where he made his home. His gifts to it were many and yet he never figured prominently in this connection but kept himself always in the background and most modestly disclaimed any credit for what he did.

On the 27th of November, 1870, General Palmer married Miss Queen Mellen, of Flushing, Long Island, and to them were born three daughters—Elsie, Dorothy and Marjory Palmer. The mother passed away in December, 1894, and General Palmer was survived only by his three daughters and one granddaughter. General Palmer was not only a builder of railroads but also a road builder of highways. Moreover, he donated more than sixteen hundred acres in parks to the city of Colorado Springs, thus changing unsightly districts, creek bottoms and mountain tops into places of enchantment, spending millions to provide the city with beautiful recreation spots. He was a most charitable and liberal man. One of his pet projects found tangible expression in the establishment of Colorado College, which he largely supported for many years. He was the builder of the Antlers Hotel at Colorado Springs and maintained it at a loss for many years until tourist travel had become sufficient for its upkeep. His own home, Glen Eyrie, is the handsomest in Colorado and one of the most magnificent in the west, the estate comprising more than five thousand acres of land. Among his personal holdings were a convent and estate near the City of Mexico where he had planned to build for himself a Mexican home. He never discussed his business affairs and in fact rarely discussed anything concerning himself. This was largely due to his innate modesty. It is estimated that he gave away more than four million dollars during his lifetime, or nearly one-half of his entire estate, yet no one ever heard the story from his own lips. The Colorado Springs Gazette said of him: "Small of stature and slight of frame. General Palmer was a phenomenal character from whatever standpoint he may be viewed.

His early education was not what may be called 'liberal' as measured by modern standards, for he was earning wages at an age when many boys of the present day are merely entering upon their college career, but his education was intensely practical. Yet he developed into a finished writer and a brilliant conversationalist, a patron of art and architecture, of originality and taste. Possibly the most valuable year of his youthful education was that spent in England in the study of civil and mining engineering, which gave him the basis for his great career as a builder. His four years of experience in the army developed those traits of devotion to duty, self-control and utter fearlessness in the face of danger and difficulty which marked his career. . . . In reviewing the history of this wonderful man the points in his character which possibly stand out above all others are his extreme modesty and the invariable good judgment and foresight which seemed almost to stamp him as a being of a superior kind. His faith in the future of the west was apparently of that divine order which is accorded to but few men in a century, and beyond doubt the greatest joy of his life was in living to see and know the realization of that faith.

From a typical 'barefoot boy,' such as Whittier wrote of, in a modest country home in Delaware, to become the manager of railroads at twenty-one, the commander of troops and the confidant of the greatest military leaders of the Civil war at twenty-six, the pioneer of a new empire and the builder of railroads at thirty-five, the founder of cities and an international financier at forty, and the dispenser of millions to the cause of humanity in the evening of his life—this was the career of General Palmer. Of his vast wealth, estimated at not less than five million dollars, not one penny was made through anything which flavored of financial gambling or modern 'frenzied' finance. He was essentially an empire builder and the originator of wealth, not for the mere sordid purpose of money-getting, hut with the nobler ambition of conquering the apparently insurmountable difficulties of nature in a new land and turning the desert into a paradise for future generations.

This was the great feature of his life work, and the proof of it is seen in the fact that he has never been regarded as a mere millionaire, nor will he be remembered as such, but rather as the developer of a state, the builder of great railroads, the founder of beautiful cities. That he acquired wealth in the doing of his splendid deeds was a mere incident, and such was evidently the habitual attitude of his mind. Gold he took as it came to him and dispensed with a liberal hand, keeping it always at its true valuation and never making it the paramount object nor allowing it to taint the noble qualities of his mind and soul. In this he stands unique and almost alone among the millionaires of the world. . . . Love of nature was the fundamental characteristic of General Palmer. This is shown first in his great and constant devotion to the mountains rather than the crowded and artificial centers of the east or Europe. This spirit is indicated in the choice of the location for his magnificent home, Glen Eyrie, close to the everlasting hills. It was his daily delight to take long horseback rides over the hills and through the glorious ravines which surround his home, and which to him held all that compelling power of attraction that the true lover of nature feels for God's most glorious handiwork. It was while enjoying one of these rides over the road leading from his home to the Garden of the Gods that he met with the accident which ultimately caused his death." His horse stumbled and he was thrown to the ground, sustaining injuries which made him an invalid throughout his remaining days.

He passed away March 13, 1909. "Amid all of these activities such as would entirely consume the energies of the average business man of equal ability, General Palmer found abundant time for the pursuit of the outdoor life to which he was devoted and the cultivation of his tastes for literature and art. He built a splendid home and filled it with the best books and pictures, of which he was keenly appreciative. After his retirement from active business his abundant energies found an outlet in these pursuits and in works of philanthropy of which the public heard almost nothing. It is striking evidence of General Palmer's abhorrence of ostentation and display that even in Colorado Springs, where he was best known, there probably is nobody who is familiar with the full list of his benefactions, and to the general public it is a sealed book. He was a rich man for many years, but when his estate is settled it is likely to be found that he died much poorer than he was a few years ago.

For a long time his benefactions have consumed his entire income and made considerable inroads into the principal, for it must be remembered that while he gave liberally here at home he also gave with open-handed generosity to causes that enlisted his sympathy elsewhere. General Palmer had passed his allotted three score years and ten and in the natural order of events his life could not reasonably have been expected to be prolonged many years. But such a man can ill be spared, and his passing, even at an advanced age, is an irremediable loss. He exerted a wonderful influence throughout his long life, and now that he has gone he will be sincerely mourned not only by the city he founded and the state he helped to build, but in the many places throughout the nation where he was known and appreciated at his true worth."

by Stone, Wilbur Fiske, History of Colorado, Volume III.  Chicago: The S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1918.