Article and photos by Joe Gschwendtner
Hankering for a small town experience? Motor down to Palmer Lake, a hamlet attracting day trippers for a century. Founded because General William Palmer needed water for his Denver & Rio Grande Railroad, her natural beauty, history and gustatory charms attract thousands on weekends April through November.
Developer and oral surgeon William Thompson followed, acquiring land to build a world-class health resort. His dreams quickly proved ill-conceived and he was bankrupt by 1890. His splendid Victorian mansion “Estemere” remains, a sentinel standing watch over the city. It is available now if you’re interested…
Palmer Lake was part of the real “wild, wild west,” her history replete with Indian raids, shoot-em-ups, and lynchings. Along the New Santa Fe Regional Trail, from Palmer Lake to Woodmen Road, one observes sites of Indian strife, unsolved mysteries, and a train wreck. As a hiking venue Palmer Lake is unmatched, with Spruce Mountain just three miles north and Greenland Trail’s access point north of the lake.
Local industries included ice harvesting, sawmills, dry land farming, fox farms, and ranching. Unfortunately, by summer 1935, Palmer Lake was struggling, the Depression having taken its toll on commerce. It was then that Mr. B. E. Jack of the local electric company joined business leaders to hatch a plan in Sloan’s Café to fabricate a lighted star on Sundance Mountain above the city to be lit on Christmas and special days.
Built on a 60 percent grade matted with yucca plants and underbrush, it took five months to build the 457-foot, five-point star. The crew’s hero was Bert Sloan’s German Shepherd Dizzy, who, carrying a back saddle, transported heavier materials to workers on the mountain. So much a part of the lore and indebted to Dizzy were the men, he was memorialized life-sized in a town park sculpture (pictured below). Only Prunes, super burro of Fairplay, has received more notoriety in Colorado!
Since 1933, Palmer Lake has observed an American version of the Yule Log Festival tradition. It includes finding a massive hidden log marked with a red ribbon, dragging it back to town and celebrating its burning with wassail and singing. Palmer Lake has its own Tri-Lakes Center for the Arts Center, featuring visual exhibitions and the performing arts. You can’t miss it headed southbound; its north wall is painted with a columbine.
Palmer Lake also has become a culinary extravaganza for casual visitors. At last count, there were ten outstanding restaurants on the highway. One of them, the Rock House occupies the former “White Kitchen” building, built of white quartz taken by donkey cart out of Sundance Mountain.
Palmer Lake now lacks only water in its lake. Drought conditions dried it up in 2012. As in 1935, there are townspeople calling themselves “Awake the Lake,” trying to solve the problem. Doubtless, that same organic ingenuity that birthed the Sundance Star will again come into play. Otherwise, the town sign may soon read “Palmer Lake?”