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History of Canon City, Fremont County, Colorado

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 severeing Fremont's 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 unique canyons of the world because 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 Rivder southeast of Pine Bluff, Arkansas.  The river is cutting the gorge deeper at the rate of about 1 foot every 2500 years.

The Ute, Sioux, Cheyenne, Kiowa, Blackfoot and Commanche 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 Canon 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.

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, 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.

Canon City was first organized by the Canon City Claim Club on March 13, 1860.  The Canon City Claim Club was composed of 6 members who organzed 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 females.  In 1861 residents voted to name the settlement "Town of Canyon City" but a reporter for the meeting used the Spanish Canon and so became Canon City. 

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

The first territorial (federal) prison, still the largest employer today, was built and opened on June 1, 1871.  The facility later became Colorado State Prison and was given to the state of Colorado in 1876 when it officially became a state in the United States.  Canon City became incorporated in 1872.

In the late 1870's the walls of the spectacular Royal Gorge reverberated with the shots and shouts of the Royal Gorge Railroad War, waged by the Atchison Topeka/Santa Fe Railroad and the Denver & Rio Grand Railroad vying for the right of way through the gorge.

In 1878 extensive dinosaur remains were discovered north of Canon City.  Some of those fossils are now in Carnegie Museum, Peabody Museum, Denver Museum of Natural History and others.  In 1903 prison inmates constructed the famed "Skyline Drive" followed a short time later with "Tunnel Drive", two of Canon City's unique features.  Dinosaur footprints were discovered on the side of Skyline Drive in 2001.

The Royal Gorge Park is owned by the City of Canon 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 Canon 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 5 months without a single fatality and no major accidents.  All the steel was manufactured at Colorado Fuel and Iron Corp (now Rocky Mtn. Steel) in Pueblo, Colorado, and each of the 4200 wires in the suspension cabled was pulled acorss the gorge one at a time.  The bridge was rehabilitated with new suspension cable ends, new suspender rods, new anchors and a new stabilization system in 1984.