General William Jackson Palmer
Founder of the Denver & Rio Grande Railway
One of the most respected men in railroad history, General Palmer was honest
and trustworthy, unlike many other railroad barons of his day. When Palmer
dreamed it was for the good of the line, the townsfolk and the country. But, Palmer did have a
hard side. His railroad was famous for dictating terms to
small towns, and if these terms were not met, the railroad would simply build a
few miles away, often destroying the unsubmitting town because they did not have
the railroad. Furthermore, he generally owned the land, or mine or steel mill that the railroad
was being built to serve. But that was just business and overall,
he was a good man who was heavily responsible for the development of Colorado
and Utah in the 1870's and 1880's. After a humble start in life, he became one of
the richest men in America.
Palmer started life in Delaware on September 17, 1836. When he was a child his family
to Pennsylvania. At age 17, Palmer joined the engineering
corps of Hemfield railroad. They saw his talent and sent him to England and
France to study.
Eventually Palmer went to work for the Pennsylvania Railroad where he rose to
the position of Private Secretary to the President. Here he was exposed to the
inner workings of the railroad empire and learned the state of the art of
railroading in general.
As the Civil War began in 1861, Palmer took a Commission in the Union Army. He raised an elite military troop
in the war and it was partly assembled from his railroad
contacts. Large numbers of good men joined up with Palmer and they served with
During the war General Palmer was captured when scouting behind enemy lines.
To keep from being shot as a spy he assumed a false identity and created a phony
cover story. At the end of the war he was released and he was given the
Congressional Medal of Honor. He retired at the rank of Brevet Brigadier
Palmer started his trek west following the war and became the treasurer of
the Union Pacific railroad Eastern Division. This line was later organized into
the Kansas Pacific Railway Company (KP). Palmer managed construction of the new
KP line to Denver, and was involved in the route location selection with
management. He felt the line west should first be built to Pueblo and then north
to Denver, along the mountains. Management disagreed and took the direct
route into Denver. Still believing in the value of the Pueblo to Denver route, Palmer began to
consider staking the right of way for himself.
On a trip into the region General Palmer became convinced that the land just
east of Pikes Peak was perfect for development. His next steps lead to the
organization, planning and financing of Colorado
Springs where he also purchased land for himself.
With the initial building blocks within reach for a Denver to Colorado
Springs railroad line, the General began to dream. He dreamed of a railroad
stretching south, along the Rio Grande, all the way to Mexico! In 1870 he
created the Denver and Rio Grande Railway Company and the name showed the intent
to build his line along the Rio Grande.
Life was fine for General Palmer and he managed to get himself married. On
the honeymoon in the British Isles he saw narrow gauge railroading in operation
and realized the advantages for use on his own line. The smaller scale meant initial
savings in man power and materials, while allowing establishment of the Right of Way.
Furthermore, the narrow gauge lent itself to mountain construction with the ability
to take sharper curves and steeper grades. Thus Palmer's "Baby Road"
was born and the space between the rails would be 3 feet.
The remaining years of General Palmer's life history is intertwined with the
history of the Rio Grande railroad. In time he
would loose control of his original railroad and then spin off into another one
in Utah. He would build his
dream house near Colorado Springs. During it all he helped establish Colorado
Fuel & Iron in Pueblo and made a network of railroad and mines to feed
the giant steel mills. And yes, he even ended up in Mexico, his
original dream, building railroads.
In 1901 Palmer sold the Rio Grande Western and retired in Colorado Springs.
He declined offers to run for Governor and began to pursue philanthropic
adventures. One such venture was to donate one million dollars to his old
employees. Everyone on the railroad got a bonus from the president down to the
lowest gandy dancer.
Palmer rode his horses daily and in 1906 he fell and had his neck broken. He
was confined to a wheelchair after the fall and finally passed away in 1908.