A Little History
Beginning as just a city park in 1906, the Royal Gorge, with its mountainous terrain and beautiful geological rock formations, was deeded to the town of Canon City to be used for picnicking which was very popular with families in the 1930s and 40s.
In 1929, the park was approached by a private investor, Juan Piper. Piper was well known for building toll bridges and extension bridges between Mexico and Texas, and he suggested the construction of the famed bridge. With no lives lost, no serious injuries, and with just 80 men, the majestic Royal Gorge Bridge was built in less than seven months.
On June 5th, 1929 the construction was completed and by December 1929 it was time for the grand opening. Upon completion, it became the highest suspension bridge in the world, and remained so for almost seventy years, until China built a suspension bridge that surpassed its height. The deck of the bridge is a hefty 956 ft. above the gorge, the towers from top to bottom are 150 ft., the cables each have 2,100 galvanized steel wires in them, and there are 100 tons of steel in the floor of the bridge.
A Few Memories
The Royal Gorge Bridge and Park was frequented by my family as I was growing up, along with thousands of other Coloradans. We joined other travelers who drove many miles from all over the United States to reach this incredible sight.
With an abundance of nostalgia, I recently made the trek from Pueblo to Canon City to see the park again. It is a place that is personal and close to the heart, and not just for all the childhood memories that ensue. I remember excitedly observing the wildlife: the big horn sheep, buffalo, elk and feeding the deer.
I recall skipping along the bridge to find our Colorado state flag along with Ohio and Michigan where my dad grew up. I gazed down in wonder and began to realize all the beauty that is the full scope of the Gorge with its flowing landscape of mountains and trees that sprawled out over the land and provided our shade.
There were picnics, train rides, the gondola and ice cream on the sunny patio overlooking the mountains. Then the tram ride where I pressed a much smaller face against the glass to try and get a better view of the river down under us.
I would drag my dad into those little gift shops, his annoyance never quite noticeable, where he would buy some trinket or knick knack that would help us remember the day. My brothers would sprint across the way to the theater, and I remember when they got too old for what was, and still is my favorite, the carousel.
As a child, the Royal Gorge held so much amazement; as an adult, it still leaves me in awe.
A Tragic Day
A regional masterpiece of nature, the park is dear to many Colorado hearts, which is why so many felt devastated when wildfires hit northwest of Canon City and why June 11, 2013 was such a grave day for this grand park.
Although firefighters do not know exactly what started the blaze, the fire spread remarkably fast and even jumped the Gorge in two places. After raging for nearly five days, the fire was finally completely contained, but not before destroying 3,218 acres of land.
Last year the Royal Gorge Bridge and Park proudly hosted thousands of visitors per weekend day and had 52 working buildings, from the visitor’s center to the zip line. Of the multiple buildings, restaurants, gift shops, picnic areas, gondolas, train and wildlife park, only four remained after the fire.
I arrived at the seemingly deserted park entrance and Peggy Gair, public relations manager at the park greeted me in such a cheerful way that I almost forget my surroundings. I, Peggy, and my photographer all piled into a sturdy ATV and prepared for the journey up the gorge. We started up the hill, and our shared reminiscence and lively conversation were abruptly silenced as we approached the places where the fire damage was unmistakably visible and inevitably hard to swallow.
Peggy made a remark that seemed to hang sorrowfully in the mountain air, “I used to love taking this route, now it just makes me sad.”
The fire damage was now becoming real; seeing pictures online or watching the news coverage didn’t compare in the slightest to actually seeing the havoc these fires created in person. The next few minutes we all rode in a somber silence, taking in the devastation that was all around us.
“You are getting a tour most people don’t get,” Peggy remarked, trying to lighten the mood for all of us. Even in her upbeat tone, there were hints of sadness. It was apparent the fires had taken their toll on her as well as she recounted the events.
“We lost 90 percent of the park; 48 out of 52 buildings, that included 26 shows and attractions, burned to the ground. It’s easier to tell you what survived. The theater survived and the sky coaster; we lost all major attractions except for those few. The depot was lost, but the train survived. The carousel, sadly, did not. All the animals survived, the barns didn’t, and as a matter of fact we had a bull calf born the Saturday after the fire.”
“One of our original attractions in the park, the incline railway, was destroyed; the top parts of the rails were destroyed too. You can see the burnt trees, the fire jumped right there and started right over here, so it jumped the gorge in two places,” Peggy said.
Moving up higher into the gorge on the ATV, the view from the observation deck was spectacular, and as we move closer to where many attractions once stood, Peggy further recalled the day of the fire.
“We give the firemen credit for saving the theater because when they got there, the fire was raging right behind it. There was a tree on fire that was right next to the building, and the theater’s stairs were also on fire. The firemen chopped down the stairs and put out the fire before it was able to reach the theater.”
Through the ruin and tragedy, there was actually positive news: the bridge had survived. The terrain that surrounds it was barren and burnt, and it was hard to believe that the bridge only withstood minimal damage. Upon inspection, the bridge appeared virtually untouched, a happy twinge of hope for the park.
“The brush was on fire under the bridge,” Peggy explained. “Even when the fire was raging the bridge was saved quickly thanks to firefighters. We had to replace 100 boards on the bridge; they were all scorched and burned along the sides of them, but other than that, the bridge still stands.”
Once the blaze had cleared and the damage was assessed, the park could finally start to rebuild. This fire has, by no means, shut the park down; Peggy is very adamant about that.
“You can’t burn the view, you know. People are still interested in coming here even in the midst of the damage from the fires. Not even so much to see the construction, but that it is a very unusual geological formation, you know, it follows granite back 500 million years. We still do weekend tours here; we load them in twenty minute intervals around the Gorge. That is the only thing that is going on right now, but we have had several hundred people show up on certain days; on the Sunday of Memorial Day we had 700 people. We have been averaging right around 350 every weekend, and we do also get a few hundred cars that still visit the scenic overlook.”
The Parks and Recreation Department is working diligently to restore the Gorge to its former grandeur. Construction of new park attractions has been an ongoing process, one that has lasted through the entire summer and is expected to go into the fall season. The first daunting construction task at hand is rebuilding the visitor’s center. This is because it is expected to be one of the largest buildings at the Gorge.
“We are expected to open late in August or early in the fall, as soon as the Visitor’s Center opens. Of course this is all depending on construction. We are in the process of putting in the gondolas and the zip-rider, a big children’s play area, a new carousel, and play equipment for the kids. The little mini train and the theater should both also be open by mid-October,” said Peggy.
When the park reopens, there will still be construction in its midst. More attractions will be added over time including the restored Mountain Man Town which is estimated to be completed in 2016.
Not only do the park’s attractions and buildings need to be restored, the surrounding land has to be repaired as well. Where there are dead trees, the parks and recreation team dropped 23,000 lbs. of seed and then went through and hydraxed the trees, a process that helps the new trees to grow and assists in mulching.
“Scientists say it takes about 100 years for a forest to come back completely and to fully rejuvenate from this kind of a fire. We are dedicated to taking off a few of those years, as many as we can. We have been using grass seed and other methods to help Mother Nature restore the forest to its former lush and healthy state,” Peggy explained.
Even though the park is still recovering, guided tours have been very popular this summer at $10 a head and children under three are free. With the forest rejuvenating and the park steadily being rebuilt, anticipation for the reopening is high. It won’t be long before the Royal Gorge Bridge and Park is back to hosting more than 300,000 visitors a year.
To follow the reconstruction of the park, see more photos and learn about other events at the Royal Gorge Park, visit the website at www.royalgorgebridge.com .