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Of builders and bygones

City Sage

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Let's play a little word association. How about "alderman," "Colorado Springs" and "19th century?" Don't know about you, but I'd come up with "old guys," "beards" and "mustaches."

I got 2½ out of three. Looking through the profusely illustrated City of Colorado Springs Annual Reports and Financial Statements for 1902, one can find beards, mustaches, and guys — but no old guys.

Seven aldermen and Mayor John Robinson are seated informally on the steps of the "temporary city office building," a three-story frame structure very much in need of a coat of paint. 'Staches rule, and no one appears older than 40 — we could be looking at the cover of a 1960s rock album.

That's hardly surprising. The city itself had just turned 30, and the Cripple Creek gold rush had triggered an era of robust growth. It was a youthful town, led by the young.

In a lengthy essay titled "The Ideal City," Mayor Robinson predicted great things for Colorado Springs. "Capital is not timid in investing upon the basis of future growth," he noted. "...Good government attracts population and capital, bad government repels."

These guys were builders, not B.S.ers. In another photo of the aldermen's temporary crash pad, the cut granite foundation stones of a new building rise to the left, one that still stands on the northeast corner of Kiowa Street and Nevada Avenue.

That would be, of course, City Hall.

That same year, the city erected a graceful new Colorado Avenue bridge over Monument Creek and the railroad tracks (a project that took only six months, and included a 100-foot steel span). El Paso County built a new courthouse (now the Pioneers Museum) while the private sector chipped in with the Mining Exchange Building, the then-new Antlers Hotel, and a new YWCA building.

Ah, the sunny optimism of youth! That bygone era seems long ago and far removed from the sour pessimism of today's quarrelsome city leaders.

If seated today in the Council Chambers of the grand City Hall they built, would those feisty kids cling stubbornly to an ancient power plant? Would the aldermen rail at their intransigent mayor? Would they be baffled by today's impenetrable bureaucracies, throw up their hands in dismay, and go smoke their cigars in the El Paso Club?

That was hardly their style. As City Attorney J.W. Sheafor reported, in 1902 the city had just gone through a change in the form of government, redistricting and the election of five new aldermen.

"This change brought with it many complications," Sheafor wrote, "and necessitated numerous and radical changes in all departments."

The guys were equal to the challenge. It probably helped that Mayor Robinson and the aldermen were paid generous annual stipends, amounting to $1,800 for Hizzoner and $500 for each alderman. May not seem like much, but the $20 coins then in common circulation contained slightly less than an ounce of gold. Such coins sell today for about $1,600, suggesting that aldermen got the equivalent of $40,000 and the mayor made $144,000.

The city wasn't without problems, though. Just as Colorado Springs recently had to cough up millions to settle suits brought by victims of a former police officer convicted of child molestation, the 1902 municipality settled a nasty lawsuit for $23,515.63, or $1.9 million in today's dollars.

The city attorney also suggested that the city collect its own property taxes, not paying the county to do so, and that the city could save money having elections in the fall. Today, 111 years later, his ideas still make sense.

But if you really want to measure how much we've changed, consider Robinson's final words.

"To meet the demands of our growing city," Robinson wrote, "requires a government not only honest and efficient but progressive and possessed of the same ability to anticipate the future as is displayed by our business men ... the policy which our city should pursue to meet her peculiar conditions and conserve the higher interests of her people is a liberal policy executed with economy. By a liberal policy we do not mean an extravagant one. A narrow policy may be the least economical, least efficient, and most extravagant."

So here's to you, Mr. Robinson! A city turns its yearning eyes to you.

hazlehurst@csindy.com

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