Thursday, August 20, 2009

John Brisben Walker's Castle in the Sky

Do you have time for a story -- a true story?

The boys and I went hiking last week in the foothills above Denver. It was a beautiful hike on a perfectly groomed ("city-folk") trail that led to the ruins of a mansion -- a castle really -- a fantastic place with a fascinating story behind it. I've lived in Colorado for more than thirty years and, though it's less than an hour away from Denver, I never knew these ruins existed. And, though he was one of the richest and most influential men of his time, I'd never heard of John Brisben Walker. So, I've had a good read of it, learning what I can. This is what I've found out: J.B. Walker was one of many shooting stars of the American industrial revolution, a remarkable man, a mover and a shaker, a man of vision, but, ultimately, a man who seemed to have no real foresight.

John Brisben Walker with seven of his sons.

JB led a busy, busy life; by the time he was 26, he'd attended Gonzaga College, Georgetown College and the Military Academy at West Point and was a veteran of the Chinese Army (serving as a military advisor and general for the Chinese). He ran and lost a bid for Congress on the Republican ticket, married the "priettiest girl in the valley of Virginia," Emily Strother, and speculated on land in West Virginia, winning and losing the first of his fortunes in the iron manufacturing business in the 1870s. Not to be discouraged, though, JB turned to journalism. His first efforts were for the Cincinnati Commercial-Gazette, where he wrote a series of articles on business topics. Later he became the managing editor of the Pittsburgh Telegraph and held the editorship of the Washington Daily Chronicle.

In 1880, he was appointed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to prove the agricultural potential of the "arid west." He moved his wife and young family from Virgina to Colorado, settling in the foothills near Morrison. Employing his talent for land acquisition and development, it wasn't long before JB owned 1,600 acres in north Denver, which he irrigated and successfully sowed in alfalfa, thus proving the potential for cash crops in Colorado. But JB was not content to live his life out as a farmer. By the early 1890s, he had purchased most of Mount Falcon, which rises over Morrison, CO, including the a section of land with striking red rock formations which he planned to develop into an amphitheater. (And he did; it's now known as Redrocks Park.) He bought the land in Morrison that housed Sacred Heart College, then donated forty acres in north Denver to the Jesuits to build a new institution, now known as Regis University.

By 1890, JB and his wife, Emily, had seven sons and one daughter, whom they raised Catholic and educated, when possible, in Catholic schools. Two of their sons, in fact, attended the Sacred Heart College when it was located in Morrison. But, always reaching after new interests and opportunities, JB, pulled up stakes, sold his land at River Front Park to the City of Denver in 1893 and moved the whole gang to Tarrytown, NY, where he purchased the failing Cosmopolitan Magazine (at that time, a family-centered publication). In five years, JB increased the circulation from 16,000 to 400,000.

But he was not content to settle down as a publisher. Always on the cutting edge, JB recognized the future of automized transportation and bought the Stanley Steamer company. He sponsored the first automobile race in the US in 1895. Reportedly, he befriended aviation pioneers, Orville and Wilbur Wright, offering them his east coast estate for their work.

But, then, in 1905, he sold Cosmopolitan Magazine to William Randolph hearst for $1 million, divorced his wife, married his Cosmo secretary, Ethel, and moved back to Colorado.

Above: Originally a hotel, this building near Mount Falcon became, in turn a Catholic college, then a casino, and then reverted to the Church before its eventual demise in the '80s.

In the next few years, JB built a stone mansion on top of Mount Falcon and constructed a cog railway to the summit. He established a casino on the former grounds of Sacred Heart College, and continued the development of Redrocks Amphitheater as part of an enterprise he called the Colorado Resort Company (which eventually became the Denver Mountain Parks system). But, his prized plan, the capstone to all his endeavors, was to build a summer White House for the US presidents adjacent to his mansion on the top of Mount Falcon. The cornerstone was laid in 1911 and work begun, with donations solicited to make the castle (for it was indeed, meant to be a castle, patterned after King Ludwig's Bavarian castle) a gift from the people of Colorado.

JB and Ethel had four children together before Ethel died suddenly in 1916. (She was buried at the foot of Mount Falcon during a snowstorm.) Then, in 1917, lightning struck the mansion and it burned to the ground. The success of the gasoline engine signaled the end of JB's investment in the Stanley Steamer Co. World War I superceded his other development plans in Colorado and Woodrow Wilson, busy with more pressing concerns, ignored requests for his backing of the Summer White House scheme. Lacking funds and impetus and beseiged by his own troubles, JB abandoned work at the site. All that remains today is the cornerstone, a pile of rubble, and a magnificent view.

And all that's left of his beautiful home are two standing fireplaces and the remnants of massive stone walls, just enough to make out the floor plan. It's beautiful now standing among the ruins: You can see Redrocks below to the north, wooded valleys and peak after rocky peak to the west, and the endless Denver cityscape stretching across the prairies to the east. The views from the arched windows of JB's castle in the sky must have been magnificent.

It's a wonderful thing, really, that so much of JB's mountain property is part of the parks system now. That would have pleased him, because he really did value th beauty of the land here in Colorado. Redrocks, bought by the City of Denver, has become a world famous musical venue, just as JB hoped it would (though the musical genre would likely astound him). The rest of the Walker's Denver land was sold off and developed long ago. But, remember how JB acquired the land and buildings that housed the Sacred Heart College in order to add a hotel and casino to his resort? In a sweet irony, that acreage was bought by a man named Frank Kirchoff in 1925; he donated it to the Poor Sisters of St. Francis, who operated it as St. Elizabeth's Retreat until 1952. (The buildings fell into decline, unfortunately, and were demolished in the early '80s.)

And John Brisben Walker, himself? After his second wife died, he married a third time. His third wife, Iris Calderhead Walker, seemed to have been significantly younger than JB and was renowned for having been a suffragette jailed for picketing the White House. I can't seem to find the date of this third marriage, nor the date of the death of JB's wife, Emily Strother Walker, so I don't know if this was a legitmate marriage or not. We do know, though, that JB died in 1931 at the age of 83. He was penniless.

By standard reckoning, it was a sad end to a remarkable life. But, was it really?

I can't help but wonder if the repeated crashing of JB's fortunes was God's handiwork. It seems that JB was always reaching, always moving, but maybe not toward heaven. He gained fortune after fortune, but may have neglected to store anything in his heavenly bank. We can't know for sure, but we get a good idea of the page he was on when he divorced his wife, the mother of his eight children. It's so easy to guage our success in earthly acquisitions, and so easy to be blindsided by the goal of worldly happiness. JB's talent, energy, and ambition set him in the path of many temptations. But it seems to me that his loving Creator never gave up trying to teach him where his path really lay. I wonder if JB learned in the end? The history books don't tell us that. But that's the most important thing about his life. Though his fantastic journey seemed to end in failure, he could very well have pulled it out in the end and won the real crown. The question is where he finally learned to store his treasure? Where is he now?

(Praying for you, JB.)

Following the painting of the Walker mansion in its heyday are some photos Dominic and I took of what's left of it today. (I have some photos of Kevvy and me on this same hike, but they're on my phone and I don't have a cord right now to download them. I'll get them later, I hope. )

Below: Several shots of the main living room, over which we gathered would have been the master bedroom.

Above: This would have been looking into the dining room from the library.

Above: Looking through a window into the kitchen, you can see what remains of the cookstove chimney.

Above: Dominic getting a shot of the music room.

Above: Through a music room window.

Above: A kitchen window. Check out that stone work.

Above: The circular wall of the turret in the library.

Above: The view from the library turret windows.


Below: Shots from the path up to the site of the Summer White House.

And here we've reached the summit. This would have been the presidents' Colorado view.

All that's left is the rubble you see and the marble cornerstone that reads: "Summer Home for the Presidents of the United States, gift from the People of Colorado, 1911"

It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.

Mark 10:25

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Matthew 6:19-21


Diana said...

Hi Lisa,
I have actually heard of J.B. Just can't remember where, when or why. This was a very interesting and fasinating post Lisa. I would have loved to have been there with you on that adventure! The pictures of the castle were really neat and your photos of the riuns and the view were breathtaking. Thank you for sharing such an interesting story!
Love Di

Erin said...

Fascinating Lisa, pictures are impressive also.

Anne said...

I think I left a few beer bottles up there from my younger years..Did you happen to see them? Ok...seriously though..I always wanted to know more about this place..We saw it, as I said, in my younger years, and never forgot it..Thanks for posting this. As soon as I saw the pictures, I knew what it was!

GrandmaK said...

This was a tremendous post! Great history. Not much about him in Colorado history though...I really learned a lot. Thank you!!! Cathy

OH!! Don't give up on the puzzle pic! Maybe one of the "castle" will do?

Sarah - Kala said...

I love history. You did a great deal of telling here. Wonderful!

Linda said...

After reading your Sky post I stuck around for the history lesson and loved it! I had never heard of J.B. but what a fascinating life he led, one that could have really had a happy ending but obviously took a turn for the worse somewhere along the lines. As soon as I read that he divorced his first wife and married his secretary I thought there might be trouble on the horizon.

The ruins are absolutely beautiful in a haunting way. The Presidents would have had a really beautiful view, too, had that castle ever been built.

Linda Higgins said...

hmmm just think it the Presidents Castle were built...what our President today would do with it????

loved the history lesson, there is so much in our own States that are just waiting to be learned! Great Post!

MightyMom said...

what an interesting story.

L.A. said...

J.B.W. is my husband's great-great grandfather. J.B.'s third marriage was legitimate as far as I know. We have a photo album of the "castle" before it burned.

J.B.'s now deceased daughter, Nathalia (mother was Ethel) remembered her father quite fondly and always sounded very proud of him in her recollections. She herself was not Catholic, so I don't know much about J.B.'s faith.

This was an interesting piece to read. Thanks for posting it.

dunstergirl said...

wow - great story. Stumbled on it while looking for more about the "Swiss Cottage" that was hotel/casino/nursing home etc. in Morrison. First pic I have found online so far, though by the 1960s/70s I think it had lost that roofed deck area.

Here's a bit more on that building. It must have continued as a nursing home (privately owned?) after the Poor Sisters of St. Francis moved on in 1952, because I remember singing for the old folks there as a Brownie in the late 1960s. Sometime between then and 1976, the new nursing home facility (then Pine Haven, now Bear Creek something or another) was built, as I worked as a nurses aide there in 1976 and again in 1977.

After the new nursing home was built, the old building was converted into a boarding house for a while, at least it was in 1977, when I lived there for $50/month for a room with sink, bathrooms down the hall, communal kitchen (massive) and showers on the first floor. Ironic the connection with John Walker because the place completely emptied out every night there was a concert at Red Rocks (mostly we snuck in if we could). And the mobile old folks from the new home next door would wander through at all hours and have interesting interactions with the (mostly young) folks living in the boarding house. Pretty sure we lived in one of those third-floor rooms you can see as windows in the photo.

I only remembered/thought to look up the building's history when (also ironically) my mother broke her hip a couple of weeks ago and ended up in the new(er) nursing home (where I worked 33 years ago) for rehab. So we've been discussing the place, what happened to the old building (as when I found out she was going there I looked it up on Google Earth and was sad to see no sign of the old building), etc.

Nice to find out about another historic Colorado figure I SHOULD have known about (growing up in Evergreen) but never did til tonight, and it gives us a few new places to visit (Mt Falcon etc.) for our next summer family get together.

Captain Sheldon said...

Thanks for doing the research! I just visited Mt. Falcon Park for the first time today and was immediately fascinated by it, what 'modern amenities' it might have had, why it was not rebuilt & the Summer White House was abandoned so your post was like water to a thirsty mind. In the course of your research did you find plans for the structure (wondering how you knew which room of the ruin was which)and did it have running water? Steam power? Any other fun tidbits?

Also appreciated your perspective on JBW as a person, he really seemed to be remarkably prolific while not being always on target. I am glad that in spite of his flaws, his generosity to others included sharing so many beautiful experiences with so many...even us today. His endeavors all seem to focus on moving society upward and forward.

Lisa said...

Captain Sheldon -
I've been racking my brain to think of where I came across the floor plans to the castle -- and it seems like we actually saw them on a "plaque" put there by the parks service -- right up by the house. I may be mistaken, but I think that's where it was (It's been a while now!). I'm not sure where my notes are, but maybe I can find them, as you've pricked a memory about something having to do with how he powered his home... but I can't quite remember what it was. I'll see if I can't find it. Thanks for your interest! It is a fascinating place -- and JB was a truly fascinating fellow!

huffnkeen said...

This is truly fascinating. I think JB did practice masonry in his masonic days. Not sure what role that played in his life, but I think it's all relative to his acquisitions in his direct success. It's weird i have always got some eerie vibes when i attend the Red Rocks concerts, some fourth dimensional realms and auras in the garden of angels at it is noted to be. There is a spiritual energy there that manifests to the earth stronger than anywhere I have been. I would like to go see that corner stone this summer.A corner stone is a prolific piece to any Mason. I love this article and you are very wise spiritually i feel you are very wise.

Marcia Goldstein said...

Iris Calderhead Walker (1889-1966), JB's 3rd wife was well educated and quite an accomplished woman. The daughter of Kansas Congressman William A. Calderhead and Alice Gallant Calderhead. She graduated from the Univ. of Kansas and did graduate work at Bryn Mawr, and taught high school literature until she became a significant activist for women's rights - a leader in the National Woman's Party who was arrested three times for picketing the White House in support of women's right to vote in 1917. She and John Brisben Walker were married on October 22, 1918 in Jefferson County, and were still married when he died in 1931. She went on to lead the effort to establish the World Court and other humanitarian causes. Here is a link to her photo from the Library of Congress: