The stone castle stands tall on a gentle hill, framed by century-old trees, a sandstone canyon wall as its backdrop. The castle, and the story of the man who built it, quickly capture the imaginations of visitors.
Glen Eyrie was the personal retreat of Civil War hero Gen. William Jackson Palmer, the founder of Colorado Springs. Today, it’s still a retreat for countless others seeking solitude.
Palmer was born a Quaker, but fought in the Civil War because he so abhorred slavery. By all accounts, his military service was exemplary. But as soon as the war was over, he turned his eyes West and saw the future: railroads. He built several, and traveled extensively before settling in Colorado Springs.
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He met and married the daughter of one of his business associates, the petite Mary Lincoln Mellen, nicknamed “Queen” by her grandmother and called that by her husband her whole life.
Palmer promised his queen the grandest home he could afford, and bought the valley and adjacent canyon north of the Garden of the Gods in 1870. First, they built what is today the carriage house, where they lived on the 2,000-acre estate until the 22-room frame house was built.
Palmer engaged a Scottish landscape architect to sculpt the barren grounds into a veritable park, complete with fruit trees and a rose garden. The architect dubbed the valley Glen Eyrie (valley of the eagles), a name which the Palmers liked and adopted. Eagles still live here, along with deer, bighorn sheep, mountain lions, coyotes, ringtails, wild turkeys and a variety of small mammals and birds.
Entering the grounds through the stone-pillared gates, life seems to suddenly slow down. Even the 15 mph speed limit seems too fast.
When this grand estate was built, it had all the modern conveniences: Electric gates, a milk pasteurization plant, greenhouses for growing vegetables and flowers, its own laundry, an indoor bowling alley, telephones in the house and stables for the fine horses Palmer raised and loved (he hated cars).
All this, and his beloved bride was gone.
Young Queen had a mild heart attack in 1880 and was advised by her doctor to move to a lower altitude. She moved back to the East Coast, and later to England, where she died in 1894 at the age of 44, leaving Palmer and their three daughters.
There are lots of stories about what transpired during this time. All that’s known for sure is that Palmer’s business interests were in the West, and that Queen moved East. Some say she found life in the West too lacking in culture. Others claim theirs was a real love story to which fate dictated an unhappy ending. Palmer did visit her as often as possible, it’s said.
In the early 1900s, Palmer decided to transform the frame house into a stone castle. Work began in 1904 and was finished in less than two years. Then, in 1906, the accomplished horseman was thrown while riding an unfamiliar horse and broke his neck. He was paralyzed from his rib cage down.
Still, he managed his family and business for a few more years until his death at age 72 in 1909.
After passing through several ownerships, the estate was purchased in 1953 by The Navigators, an international non-denominational Christian ministry. For many years, the castle was almost inaccessible to local residents.
In recent years, however, The Navigators has recognized Glen Eyrie’s importance to local history and residents. Now, visitors can enjoy a delicious high tea in front of a massive fireplace, and tour the castle with a guide. They can stroll the gardens, restored in recent years to their former glory. They can hike scenic Queen’s Canyon on request. There’s no charge to visit the property.
Volunteer guide Bill Ricketts is knowledgeable about the property’s history, answering just about any question thrown at him.
No, the bowling alleys are gone. Yes, the little general store out on the lawn was once a school house for one of Palmer’s daughters. Yes, there is a tunnel from house to stable, for use in inclement weather and because it’s said Palmer wanted an escape for his family in case of labor unrest.
The castle now also serves as a bed-and-breakfast inn, with 18 guest rooms scattered around its 38,000 square feet of space, and if the breakfasts are as good as the high tea, they’re a treat indeed.
Guests stay in everything from the servants’ quarters (much nicer than they sound) to the spacious honeymoon suite, high atop the castle with views out over the valley. General Palmer’s room is on the second floor and not by any means the grandest.
“He was a man of modest tastes,” Ricketts says. “You’ll notice that most of the castle is not ornate. He was not an ostentatious man. He liked things simple.”
The 24 fireplaces were his one concession to extravagance. There’s a Delft tile fireplace from Holland, one that looks like a French suit of armor (complete with an engraved fleur de lis), and Italian marble in the dining room. All came from Europe, except for the massive native stone fireplace in Palmer’s study.
Glen Eyrie was Palmer’s retreat from the world. But he was so proud of it, he loved to show it off and share it with others. He threw lavish Christmas parties for local children each year.
“I think he would approve of what’s being done here today,” says Mike McNamee, the director of sales and programs for The Navigators. “By all accounts, he was a spiritual man, and very community minded.”
After hiking Queen’s Canyon on a sunny spring Sunday, it’s easy to see why Palmer found this place so intriguing. It is wild, with nearly a dozen primitive crossings of Camp Creek required to reach the waterfall that feeds it. In the middle of civilization is this wilderness, somehow preserved despite changes in the world outside.
The estate is so big, there can be hundreds of people on the property — here for spiritual retreats, marriage encounters or just vacation — but you’d never know it.
If you’re looking for a good piece of quiet, Glen Eyrie’s the place.
If You Go
Glen Eyrie, 3820 N. 30th St. Colorado Springs, 80904 To make a reservation for high tea and/or a tour, or for room reservations, call (800) 944-4536. For more information, go to www.navigators.org/us/ministries/gleneyrie/castle.