William Jackson Palmer

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William Jackson Palmer
William Jackson Palmer.jpg
Born (1836-09-17)September 17, 1836
Leipsic, Delaware, USA
Died March 13, 1909(1909-03-13) (aged 72)
Colorado Springs, Colorado
Place of burial Evergreen Cemetery in Colorado Springs
Allegiance  United States of America
Service/branch  United States Army
Union Army
Years of service 1861 - 1865
Rank Union army brig gen rank insignia.jpg Brevet Brigadier General
Unit New Jersey 11th New Jersey Infantry
Commands held Pennsylvania 15th Pennsylvania Cavalry
Battles/wars American Civil War
Awards Medal of Honor
Other work Founder of Colorado Springs, Colorado
Builder of the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad

William Jackson Palmer (September 17, 1836 – March 13, 1909) was an American civil engineer, soldier, industrialist, and philanthropist.[1] During the Civil War, he was made General (brevet) and was a Medal of Honor recipient.[2]


Young Palmer's early career helping build and develop the expanding railroads of the United States in Pennsylvania was interrupted by the American Civil War (1861–65). He served in colorful fashion as a Union Army colonel and was appointed to the brevet grade of brigadier general. After the War, he contributed financially to educational efforts for the freed former slaves of the South.

Heading west in 1867, while Palmer helped build the Kansas Pacific Railroad he met a young English doctor, Dr William Bell who became his friend and partner in most of his business ventures in which we would generally find Palmer as president with Bell as vice president. The two men are best known as co-founders of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad, known popularly as the "Rio Grande" railroad. The Rio Grande and its successors eventually operated the largest network of narrow gauge railroad in the United States, and ultimately became part of the 21st century Union Pacific Railroad.

Palmer and Bell are notable for observing in Great Britain (Bell's country of origin) and helping introduce to the United States railroads, the practices of burning coal (rather than wood) and the use of narrow gauge railroading. He helped develop rail-related industries in Colorado, such as a large steel mill near Pueblo. He was the founder of the new city of Colorado Springs, in 1871, as well as several other communities. After moving west, General Palmer continued his philanthropic efforts in his adopted home, particularly educational institutions of higher education. Public schools in Colorado Springs were named for both the General, and his wife, Mary (née Mellen) Palmer, who was known by her nickname of "Queen". A statue of Palmer also exists in downtown Colorado Springs, across from the school named in his honor.

Childhood, education in railroad engineering[edit]

William Jackson Palmer was born to a Quaker family in Leipsic, a small coastal town in Kent County, Delaware in 1836. When he was five years old, his family moved to the Germantown section of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. As a young boy, his fascination with steam locomotives spurred him on to learn all he could about railroads.

In 1853, at age 17, Palmer went to work for a railroad building company working near Washington, Pennsylvania, on a line to Pittsburgh. He was sent to England and France to study railroad engineering and mining.

Upon his return, in 1856, Palmer went to work for the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR), where he rose to the position of Private Secretary to PRR President John Edgar Thomson. With the PRR, Palmer was exposed to the inner workings of the railroad empire and learned the state of the art of railroading in general.

Young Palmer explained to Thomson that, from his observations in England, coal could replace wood as the railroad's fuel source. The PRR was then in an "ecological" crisis, burning 60,000 cords (220,000 m³) of wood per year and rapidly stripping the right-of-way of all trees. The Pennsylvania Railroad became the first American railroad to convert to coal. Over the next four years, Palmer was most concerned with the problems of efficiency and power in combustion. Among his collaborators in experimental industrialism were the PRR vice president Thomas A. Scott, and Scott's assistant, Andrew Carnegie, an immigrant from Scotland one year older than Palmer.

American Civil War[edit]

As the American Civil War began in 1861, although his Quaker upbringing made Palmer abhor violence, his passion to see the slaves set free compelled him to enter the war. Palmer took a commission as a colonel in the Union Army. Palmer was an expert scout and effective military recruiter for the Union cause, helping with the formation of the 15th Pennsylvania Volunteer Cavalry.

In 1862, he was captured by the Confederates while scouting after the Battle of Antietam. He was well within Confederate lines, garbed in civilian clothes, while gathering information for General George McClellan. When questioned, Palmer gave his name as "W.J. Peters," and claimed to be a mine owner on an inspection trip. While the Confederates did not know he was a spy, his circumstances were suspicious. He was detained and sent to Richmond, Virginia, and incarcerated at the notorious Castle Thunder prison on Tobacco Row. He was set free in a prisoner exchange and rejoined his regiment in February 1863. Palmer was very vigorous in pursuing Confederate General John B. Hood after the Battle of Nashville in 1864. On March 9, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln nominated Palmer for appointment to the brevet grade of brigadier general of volunteers and the U.S. Senate confirmed the appointment on March 10, 1865.[3] Palmer was mustered out of the Union Army volunteer force on June 21, 1865.[3]:415 On February 24, 1894, Palmer was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions as colonel leading the 15th Pennsylvania Cavalry at Red Hill, Alabama, January 14, 1865 where "with less than 200 men, [he] attacked and defeated a superior force of the enemy, captured their fieldpiece and about 100 prisoners without losing a man."[4]

Benefactor of Hampton University[edit]

Typical of many traditionally black colleges and universities which trace their roots to the period immediately after the end of American Civil War, the school which is now Hampton University near Fort Monroe at Hampton, Virginia received much of its financial and leadership support from church groups and former officers and soldiers who had served in the Union Army. The new normal school at Hampton was led by former Union General Samuel C. Armstrong, himself son of missionaries and head of the local Freedmen's Bureau, and former General Palmer gave substantial sums to help. "Palmer Hall" on the Hampton University campus was named in honor and gratitude of the good general's financial support.

Building the western railroads, Colorado[edit]

After the War, Palmer resumed the railroad career he had started previous to the conflict. In 1867, a very optimistic, eager 30-year-old Palmer, and his 21-year-old chief assistant Edward H. Johnson, headed west from their hometown of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Palmer was the construction manager for the Kansas Pacific Railroad, mapping routes through New Mexico and Arizona to the Pacific coast.

He came to the Colorado Territory as a surveyor with the Kansas Pacific Railroad and explored the area south of Denver searching for possible railroad routes for the Kansas Pacific to strategically occupy.[2]

Since he could not persuade the Kansas Pacific to follow the Arkansas River to Pueblo and from there north to Denver, Palmer secured legislation and funding to build the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad south from Denver with the declared intention of reaching Mexico City, Mexico.[2]

The Kansas Pacific Railroad was an enterprise of the Pennsylvania Railroad, whose president John Edgar Thomson had employed Palmer as his personal secretary before the War. Under General Palmer's direction the Kansas Pacific was extended from Kansas City, Missouri, reaching Denver, Colorado, in August, 1870. The railroad was constructed eastward from Denver as well as westward from Kansas City. The two lines were connected at Strasburg, Colorado, thus giving Colorado its own miniversion of the connecting of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads at Promontory, Utah, to form the First Transcontinental Railroad. Upon completion of that line, Palmer founded his own railroad, the north-south Denver & Rio Grande Railroad, whose first section was a Denver to Pikes Peak area line. After the Cripple Creek gold discovery in 1891, ore mills in Colorado City processed much of the gold ore at the Golden Cycle Mill using Palmer's railroads.

Palmer met Mary Lincoln (Queen) Mellen while she and her father, William Proctor Mellen, were on a train going to see the West. They were married November 8, 1870 in Flushing, New York where the Mellen family lived at the time. On their honeymoon in the British Isles, Palmer saw narrow gauge railroading in operation on the Ffestiniog Railway and realized the advantages for use on his own line, with substantial initial savings in manpower and materials. Furthermore, the narrow 3 ft (914 mm) gauge lent itself to mountain construction with the ability to take sharper curves and steeper grades. Thus, Palmer's Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad was built in narrow gauge. Two sections remain of his narrow gauge empire: the 45-mile (72 km) Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, and the 63-mile (101 km) Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad. Both are National Historic Landmark Districts.

1929 General Palmer statue in the intersection of Platte & Nevada avenues is between Acacia Park (foreground, not shown) and the 1893 "Colorado Springs High School" (background)[verification needed] which replaced the 1875 school that burned in 1890 (renamed "William J. Palmer High School" after 1952.)[5]
Palmer's land donations totalling 1,270 acres (1.98 sq mi)[6] included:
city park land (Acacia, Antlers, Monument Valley, Palmer, Pioneer Square (South), Bear Creek Cañon)[6]
[when?]Prospect Lake[6]
• 1874 Knob Hill land for a hospital[7]
• 1907: Silver Cascade Falls, Helen Hunt Falls, N. Cheyenne Canyon Road[citation needed]

Colorado Springs Company[edit]

As part of the 1868 Kansas Pacific Railway survey party, Dr. William Abraham Bell from England and Palmer visited Colorado City near the Goodnight-Loving Trail and in 1871 formed "The Colorado Springs Company"[8] named for the mineral springs "west and east" of the city.[9] The company founded the Colorado Springs Company which established Colorado Springs and Manitou ("Manitou" was renamed Manitou Springs). Palmer built his Glen Eyrie, ("Valley of the Eagle's Nest,") (Memo to D.S. re John Blair, Colorado Springs Gazette, February 5, 1891) estate northwest of Colorado Springs with a large carriage house and a 22-room frame house (remodeled in 1881). By 1916, the "Gen Wm Jackson Palmer Memorial Assn" had been established in Colorado Springs' Burns Building.[10]

Colorado Coal and Iron Company[edit]

Palmer envisioned "an integrated industrial complex based on steel manufacturing" in which all necessary resources were controlled by one company.[11] In 1879, Palmer constructed Colorado Coal and Iron Company's steel mill south of Pueblo. His dream became a reality for his successors when, in 1892, CC&I merged with the Colorado Fuel Company to form Colorado Fuel and Iron.[11] This company became Colorado's largest employer and dominated industry around the state for decades.[12]

In 1880, Mrs. Palmer suffered a mild heart attack and was advised to move to a lower altitude. She and the children moved to the East Coast and then to England. Queen died on December 28, 1894, at the age of 44.[citation needed]


In his later years, he enjoyed being the benefactor to the Colorado Springs community, and was well liked by the people. In 1906, Palmer, who preferred the horse to the newly invented automobile, suffered a fall from a horse while on a ride with his daughters and a friend and was paralyzed.

His last hurrah before his death was the invitation and hosting of the Union veterans of his beloved 15th Pennsylvania Volunteer Regiment troopers for their annual reunion in 1907 at his cherished home in Glen Eyrie. It was held there because General Palmer was unable to travel as usual after his accident, because he used a wheelchair. Most of the surviving troopers, over 200, attended that memorable reunion.

William Jackson Palmer died at his home on March 13, 1909 at the age of 72. He was buried at Evergreen Cemetery in Colorado Springs, Colorado.


Palmer was the land-grantor of several institutions in Colorado Springs, including the (International Typographical Union's) Union Printer's Home, the Colorado School for the Deaf and Blind, several churches in central Colorado Springs, and Cragmor Sanitarium, a tuberculosis sanitarium which later was re-founded in 1965 as the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs (UCCS). He also provided land and funding for the creation of Colorado College and was one of its founding trustees. Palmer Hall, the main social science building on the Colorado College campus, is named for the General.

Queen Palmer Elementary School in Colorado Springs is named in honor of Palmer's wife, Mary (Queen) Mellen Palmer; General William J. Palmer High School in downtown Colorado Springs and Lewis-Palmer High School in nearby Monument are named for the general himself.

"Palmer Divide," a geographic feature north of Colorado Springs, and the community of Palmer Lake, Colorado, are named after him, as is Palmer Park in Colorado Springs.

The Palmer family's beloved home, Glen Eyrie, is now owned by The Navigators, and tours of the main house are available.

Medal of Honor citation[edit]

Medal of honor old.jpg

Rank and Organization:

Colonel, 15th Pennsylvania Cavalry. Place and date: At Red Hill, Ala., January 14, 1865. Entered service at. Philadelphia, Pa. Born. September 17, 1836, Leipsic, Kent County, Del. Date of issue. February 24, 1894.


With less than 200 men, attacked and defeated a superior force of the enemy, capturing their fieldpiece and about 100 prisoners without losing a man.[13]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Gen. William J. Palmer, A Builder of The West". The World's Work: A History of Our Time XV: 9898–9903. February 1908. Retrieved 2009-07-10. 
  2. ^ a b c "Taming a Wilderness Part 1". Ghostdepot.com. January 3, 1926. Retrieved October 23, 2011. 
  3. ^ a b Eicher, John H.; Eicher, David J. (2001). Civil War High Commands. Stanford University Press. p. 754. ISBN 0-8047-3641-3. 
  4. ^ Eicher, 2001, p. 415
  5. ^ Harrison, Gail (September 13, 2013). "Colorado Springs High School Class of '53". The Woodmen Edition (Colorado Springs). p. 2. The school, now known as Palmer High School, began as Colorado Springs High School, in 1875. …the building was destroyed by fire in 1890 and a new school was built at Platte and Weber and opened in 1893. ..an additional building was added in 1940. Construction of more classrooms took place in the 1950s and the school was renamed William J. Palmer High School  after 1952.
  6. ^ a b c "Parks, Trails and Open Spaces". Parks, Recreation & Cultural Services. SpringsGov.com. "AS OF OCTOBER 1, 2013". Retrieved 2013-11-17.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  7. ^ Colorado's Healthcare Heritage - By Tom Sherlock
  8. ^ Colorado Springs Directory (almanac), 1898, retrieved 2013-11-05 (PPLD.org)  Check date values in: |accessdate= (help)
  9. ^ Harrison, Deborah. Manitou Springs. Retrieved 2013-11-08. The Ute Pass Trail, a traditional passage through the front range of the Rockies to the hunting grounds of South Park, also led past the springs. …George F. Ruxton, an English adventurer who explored the Pikes Peak region in 1846. … In 1868, the Kansas Pacific Railway survey party traveled through the Pikes Peak region on its way back to St. Louis. Among that group were Bvt. Gen. William Jackson Palmer and Dr. William Abraham Bell. … By 1871, their newly formed Colorado Springs Company had laid out the towns of La Font and Fountain Colony, soon to become Manitou and Colorado Springs, with the previously established Colorado City in between. 
  10. ^ Colorado Springs, Colorado City and Manitou City Directory. The R. L. Polk Directory Co. 1916.  Check date values in: |accessdate= (help);
  11. ^ a b James Whiteside, Regulating danger: the struggle for mine safety in the Rocky Mountain coal industry, U of Nebraska Press, 1990, page 7
  12. ^ Pueblo, CO at ghostdepot.com
  13. ^ "PALMER, WILLIAM J., Civil War Medal of Honor recipient". American Civil War website. 2007-11-08. Retrieved 2007-11-08.