The Diary of Dorothy Comyns Carr: A Portrait of Turn-of-the-Century Colorado Springs

Words: Susan Fletcher

In 1902, 25-year-old Dorothy Comyns Carr traveled from her home in England to visit her friends Elsie, Dorothy, and Marjory Palmer in Colorado Springs. The Palmer girls were the daughters of General William Jackson Palmer, the founder of Colorado Springs, and thus the perfect hosts for a Western adventure. Dorothy kept a detailed journal of her trip, commenting on her impressions of the Pikes Peak Region. Her journal passages offer a fascinating snapshot of Colorado Springs at the turn of the century.

Miss Comyns Carr was a talented artist, working in drawing and watercolor. She met the Palmers while they were living in England with their mother Queen in the 1880s and 90s. She quickly made friends with the middle Palmer daughter, also named Dorothy, whom she affectionately called “Dos.” After Queen’s death at Christmas time in 1894, General Palmer brought his daughters back home to Glen Eyrie in Colorado Springs. In the fall of 1902 the Palmers traveled to England, the four friends were reunited. They asked Dorothy to come back to America with them for an extended visit. She agreed and prepared for a ten-month trip.

Miss Comyns Carr and the Palmer family left Southampton on November 29 and began a rough sea voyage across the Atlantic. Dorothy recorded the experience in her journal, remarking,

"Nothing can describe the feeling of these gigantic rolls. Down down one goes into the trough of the sea till is seems as if one would never come up again; then the ship slowly staggers up and up again only to be hit by a tremendous resounding blow that makes her shudder all through.” - December 1, 1902

On the evening of December 7, Dorothy watched the lights of New York City drawing closer, much to her relief. Upon disembarking, the party rested for a few days before beginning the railroad trip to the Pikes Peak Region on December 16. They traveled in a private train car across the prairie and Dorothy got her first view of the American West. She was not impressed. Two days into the trip sherecorded that she got out and walked about a strange Godforsaken town flung down here in the vastness.” (December 18, 1902)

The train arrived in Colorado Springs on December 20th in the middle of a blizzard, with Dorothy feeling “very tired and squeamish.”  She was terrified by the sheer loneliness of a small settlement in the middle of the immense wilderness. As they approached Glen Eyrie, the Palmer estate, she recorded that the countryside,

“looks like the end of the world – it cannot be one the same world that holds England! The house stands in a gorge of the mountains among fierce red rocks that start up everywhere like the debris of an unfinished universe.” - December 20, 1902

The sensory overload of an entirely new topography, new weather patterns, and new holiday customs was a little bit much for Dorothy.  On Christmas day she lamented the reinvention of the holiday to fit American ways, but gamely made up a stocking for her friend Dos.

After Christmas, General Palmer took Dorothy on a hike to explore Queen’s Canyon. She observed that the canyon was comprised of,

 "tier on tier of red rock almost joining overhead where the eagle’s nests are, and a frozen stream coming down between the snowy banks and rocks…Much chaffing of the ‘tenderfoot’ (that’s me!) on western things and customs.” - December 28, 1902

On New Year’s Day Dorothy met most of the citizens of Colorado Springs, including Jefferson Davis’ daughter.

During the wintertime, Dorothy filled her days with hikes around Glen Eyrie, which she was gradually growing to love. In the evenings, the girls sat around the fire with General Palmer, who asked that each of them take turns reading a book or article aloud. Dorothy recalled bursting into tears after a particularly gruesome article about a Civil War battle came up on her turn to read.

During this time, Glen Eyrie was a very important social hub for the region. The family hosted guests who would frequently overstay their welcome. On one occasion, a professor of physics at Colorado College came to have lunch and showed his scientific slides until late into the night when Dorothy complained that they were finally “at the end of our photographic exhibitions and of our tether!”  (April 2, 1903) General Palmer took the girls with him on their routine calls to their friends and contacts in Colorado Springs.

Dorothy’s journal also gives insight into the philanthropic work that Palmer and his daughters were doing at the time. In 1901 Palmer sold the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad and suddenly found himself with more than enough money to greatly expand his charitable giving. In March 1903 Dorothy and the Palmer girls traveled to the Asylum for Deaf, Dumb, and Blind Children, for which their father had donated the land near Knob Hill. In April they went to “see over” Glockner Hospital and attended the opening of the new wing.

 Palmer’s financial generosity quickly became legendary in Colorado and his daughters were often put in the uncomfortable position of dealing with people who showed up at Glen Eyrie to ask for money. Dorothy recorded in January 1903,

“Dos interviewed two begging little nuns who seem to have come all the way from Denver to tell her that General Palmer would go to eternal flame as one of the rich. There seemed no way out of it except by his endowing an orphan asylum in Colorado Springs.” - January 25, 1903

In May, President Theodore Roosevelt visited Colorado Springs. General Palmer was not a fan of Roosevelt’s policies but Dorothy decided to attend his speech anyway. She described the afternoon:

“Large crowd below in the square; people have come down from the mountains and in from the ranches and the town was overflowing and all hung with the stars and stripes. He made a mediocre speech – very military tone: and looked fat and ordinary and rather coarse. It was so curious to see the absence of all ceremony or even outward forms of respect. People came and shook hands with him after the speech and a man in the crowd called ‘glad to have you Teddy!’ but he seemed extremely popular.” - May 4, 1903

For an English girl, the lack of ceremony and respect for a nation’s leader was quite shocking.

Dorothy celebrated her 26th birthday with her friends on May 29th, just as summertime was blossoming in Glen Eyrie.  The summer of 1903 alternated between hot and dry, and rainy and wet, which Dorothy found difficult to understand or predict. One afternoon in June she,

“went up the canon in a thick mist. The water was over the stepping-stones and logs everywhere and we had to walk though the water, which in some places was almost up to our waists and running strong. The punchbowl, formally still and glassy, now a seething cauldron and Dorothy falls roaring down. The red rocks looked very fine in the mist.” - June 7, 1903

On June 19th she traveled to Cripple Creek for the first time. Dorothy was very interested in the gold mining operations.  After exploring the “hideous” town, she and her friends decided to take a tour of a mine. She recalled that the experience was

“Rather alarming at first being lowered in the cage lift; but we only went down a little over a hundred feet to the first story and then were taken in one of the trollies that carry the ore through a tunnel and out the other side; the tunnel was very low and lit by electric light.” - June 19, 1903

The enormous amounts of wealth that the Cripple Creek mines were producing each year had transformed Colorado Springs and created a new class of extremely wealthy citizens whom Dorothy likely met, given her social standing.  Later that year, however, the tensions between the mine owners and the Western Federation of Miners would erupt into a labor war.

Dorothy spent the rest of the summer painting outside, dodging afternoon thunderstorms, and meeting new friends in Colorado Springs. In July she sent some of her illustrations to Little Folks Magazine for publication. Later that month she fell ill and took a six-week hiatus from her journal.  In late August, she began writing again  - this time to comment on the five rattlesnakes that the gardeners had killed at Glen Eyrie.

September 1903 was Dorothy’s final month in Colorado. She and the Palmer family took a trip to Palmer’s land at Wagon Wheel Gap. She commented,

“The vivid young green of the aspens (the tree of the highland) is a pleasant change from the pinions and cedars of lower down and reminds one of English commons – almost; but the howling of coyotes at night reminds one that one is on the edge of the wilds. Our party arrived in the evening from their camping trip, looking a wonderful wild disheveled crew all the girls riding astride in miners hats and shirts.” - September 6, 1903

After returning from the mountains, Dorothy said a tearful goodbye to her friends and returned to England.

If you are interested in knowing more about Dorothy and her adventures in Colorado Springs, you can read her journal yourself. After her death in 1918, the journal found its way into the hands of the Palmer family. Elsie Palmer’s grandson Tim Nicholson donated a large collection of Palmer papers to the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum in the late 1990s, including Dorothy Comyns Carr’s journal. The diary currently resides in the Tim Nicholson Collection at the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum Starsmore Center for Local History. If you are interested in reading the journal, you must make an appointment with the archivists at the museum.

You can also visit Glen Eyrie and imagine Dorothy’s adventures there. The Glen Eyrie Castle is current owned by The Navigators. The castle is open for tours on select afternoons, followed by a formal tea service.

 

All excerpts in the article were taken from the Dorothy Comyns Carr diary, Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum, Tim Nicholson Collection, Box 4, (V) A:5.

 

Glen Eyrie Castle

Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum