History of Cañon City

After the great inland sea that once covered the entire west was disturbed by violent upheavals, the Arkansas River began to flow to the east. While the river wore a channel, a gentle up thrust continued as the Rocky Mountains were born and grew to their present heights. The river, dropping some 5000 feet in the first 125 miles, cut through the granite rock as it rose, thus severing Fremont Peak which now rises a thousand feet above the surrounding countryside. This erosive action makes the Grand Canyon of the Arkansas, or Royal Gorge as we call it today, one of the most unique canyons of the world because of its having been formed by erosion and not by a fissure from an earthquake.

The Arkansas River, one of the longest in the U.S., is born in the central Colorado Rockies near Leadville and empties into the Mississippi River southeast of Pine Bluff, Arkansas. The river is cutting the gorge deeper at the rate of about one foot every 2,500 years.

The Ute, Sioux, Cheyenne, Kiowa, Blackfoot, and Comanche Indians all frequented the area. Many wintered at the mouth of the Royal Gorge, an area just west of the Territorial Prison facility on the west side of Cañon City, taking advantage of the mild winter climate while bathing in the natural hot spring and rubbing their bodies with oil skimmed from the surface of Oil Creek, now called Fourmile Creek.

Lt. Zebulon Pike was the first white explorer to enter the area and probably built the first permanent structure. Halted in his trek to the headwaters of the Arkansas by the awesome Royal Gorge canyon, in some places as narrow as 50 feet, Lt. Pike headed northwest into South Park.

The area was first claimed as Spanish territory and the area north of the river was purchased from France as a part of the Louisiana Purchase. Mexico, having gained her independence in 1821, laid claim to the area south and west of the river. The Republic of Texas subsequently laid claim to the same area, thus becoming the third foreign country to lay claim to the area. The United States then annexed the area in 1845.

Cañon City was first organized by the Cañon City Claim Club on March 13, 1860. The Cañon City Claim Club was composed of six members who organized to develop coal, iron, gypsum, marble, and granite in the area. 

Mr. and Mrs. Anson Rudd arrived in August 1860 and gave birth to Anson Spencer Rudd, the first white child to be born and survive in the area. A census of that year shows 727 residents in the area, 128 of which were female. The original Anson Rudd cabin still stands behind the Municipal Museum.

In 1861 residents voted to name the settlement "Town of Canyon City" but the reporter for the meeting used the Spanish Cañon spelling, thus we became Cañon City. 

Cañon City was a typical wild western town complete with shootings, hanging and court convened in a room over a saloon, but with no discovery of gold in the area and recruitment of troops for the Civil War, a population decline took place. In 1865, according to Thomas Macon, another founding father of the area, only 25 residents remained. 

The first territorial (federal) prison opened on June 1, 1871. After Colorado became a state in 1876, the facility was given to the state of Colorado and became Colorado State Prison. 

In the late 1870’s the walls of the spectacular Royal Gorge reverberated with the shots and shouts of the Royal Gorge Railroad War. The Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad and the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad waged a battle to obtain the right-of-way through the gorge.

In 1878, extensive dinosaur remains were discovered north of Cañon City. The word’s first Stegosaurus was discovered in the late 1800’s. Some of those fossils are now in Carnegie Museum, Peabody Museum, Denver Museum of Natural History, and others. 

In 1903 the famed Skyline Drive was constructed by convict labor chain gangs. This drives rises 800 feet above Cañon City providing a spectacular view of the area. Dinosaur footprints were discovered on the side of Skyline Drive in 2001.

The Royal Gorge Park is owned by the City of Cañon City through a land patent issued by the United States Congress through the efforts of U.S. Senator Guy U. Hardy. The construction of the Royal Gorge Bridge, 1053 feet above the canyon floor, was proposed to the Cañon City Council by Lon P. Piper of San Antonio, Texas, on April 15, 1929. After depositing $60,000.00 in local banks to accomplish the task, construction began on June 5, 1929. The construction was completed in five months without a single fatality and no major accidents. Each of the 4,200 wires in the suspension cables was pulled across the gorge one at a time. All the steel was manufactured at Colorado Fuel and Iron Corp. (now Rocky Mountain Steel) in Pueblo, Colorado. The bridge was rehabilitated with new suspension cable ends, new suspender rods, new anchors, and a new stabilization system in 1984.

In the 1970’s the area became a popular area or film movies. The Cowboys, starring John Wayne, The Duchess & the Dirtywater Fox, starring Goldie Hawn and George Segal, and How the West was Won, starring James Arness and Bruce Boxleitner were filmed in the surrounding area and at Buskin Joe Frontier Town.

Cañon City has experienced a colorful and exciting past. It pales nonetheless compared to the promising future which is upon us and immediately before us. With even more exhilarating projects on the horizon, Cañon City is a most desirable place to visit and even live.