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William Jackson Palmer
Personal Information
Born: September 18, 1836(1836-09-18)
Place of Birth: {{{place of birth}}}
Died: March 13, 1909 (aged 72)
Place of Death: {{{place of death}}}
Birth Name: {{{birth name}}}
Other Information
Allegiance: United States of America
Participation(s): {{{participations}}}
Branch: Union Army
Service Years: {{{service years}}}
Rank: General
Service number : {{{servicenumber}}}
Unit: Company B, 11th New Jersey Infantry
Battles: American Civil War
Awards: Medal of Honor
Relations: {{{relations}}}
Other work: {{{otherwork}}}

William Jackson Palmer (September 17, 1836 – March 13, 1909) was an American civil engineer, soldier, industrialist, and philanthropist.[1]


Young Palmer's early career helping build and develop the expanding railroads of the United States in Pennsylvania was interrupted by the American Civil War (1861–65). He served in colorful fashion as a Union general. After the War, he contributed financially to educational efforts for the freed former slaves of the South.

Heading west in 1867, while Palmer helped build the Kansas Pacific Railroad he met a young English doctor, Dr William Bell who became his friend and partner in most of his business ventures in which we would generally find Palmer as president with Bell as vice president. The two men are best known as co-founders of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad, known popularly as the "Rio Grande" railroad. The Rio Grande and its successors eventually operated the largest network of narrow gauge railroad in the United States, and ultimately became part of the 21st century Union Pacific Railroad.

Palmer and Bell are notable for observing in Great Britain (Bell's country of origin) and helping introduce to the United States railroads, the practices of burning coal (rather than wood) and the use of narrow gauge railroading. He helped develop rail-related industries in Colorado, such as a large steel mill near Pueblo. He was the founder of the new city of Colorado Springs, in 1871, as well as several other communities. After moving west, General Palmer continued his philanthropic efforts in his adopted home, particularly educational institutions of higher education. Public schools in Colorado Springs were named for both the General, and his wife, Mary (née Mellen) Palmer, who was known by her nickname of "Queen".

Childhood, education in railroad engineering[]

William Jackson Palmer was born to a Quaker family in Leipsic, a small coastal town in Kent County, Delaware in 1836. When he was five years old, his family moved to the Germantown section of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. As a young boy, his fascination with steam locomotives spurred him on to learn all he could about railroads.

In 1853, at age 17, Palmer went to work for a railroad building company working near Washington, Pennsylvania, on a line to Pittsburgh. He was sent to England and France to study railroad engineering and mining.

Upon his return, in 1856, Palmer went to work for the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR), where he rose to the position of Private Secretary to PRR President John Edgar Thomson. With the PRR, Palmer was exposed to the inner workings of the railroad empire and learned the state of the art of railroading in general.

Young Palmer explained to Thomson that, from his observations in England, coal could replace wood as the railroad's fuel source. The PRR was then in an "ecological" crisis, burning 60,000 cords (220,000 m³) of wood per year and rapidly stripping the right-of-way of all trees. The Pennsylvania Railroad became the first American railroad to convert to coal. Over the next four years, Palmer was most concerned with the problems of efficiency and power in combustion. Among his collaborators in experimental industrialism were the PRR vice president Thomas A. Scott, and Scott's assistant, Andrew Carnegie, an immigrant from Scotland one year older than Palmer.

American Civil War[]

As the American Civil War began in 1861, although his Quaker upbringing made Palmer abhor violence, his passion to see the slaves set free compelled him to enter the war. Palmer took a commission as a colonel in the Union Army. Palmer was an expert scout and effective military recruiter for the Union cause, helping with the formation of the 15th Pennsylvania Volunteer Cavalry.

In 1862, he was captured by the Confederates while scouting after the Battle of Antietam. He was well within Confederate lines, garbed in civilian clothes, while gathering information for General George McClellan. When questioned, Palmer gave his name as "W.J. Peters," and claimed to be a mine owner on an inspection trip. While the Confederates did not know he was a spy, his circumstances were suspicious. He was detained and sent to Richmond, Virginia, and incarcerated at the notorious Castle Thunder prison on Tobacco Row. He was set free in a prisoner exchange and rejoined his regiment in February 1863. Palmer was very vigorous in pursuing Confederate General John B. Hood after the Battle of Nashville in 1864. After end of the war, he was awarded the Medal of Honor. He retired with the rank of brevet Brigadier General.

Benefactor of Hampton University[]

Typical of many traditionally black colleges and universities which trace their roots to the period immediately after the end of American Civil War, the school which is now Hampton University near Fort Monroe at Hampton, Virginia received much of its financial and leadership support from church groups and former officers and soldiers who had served in the Union Army. The new normal school at Hampton was led by former Union General Samuel C. Armstrong, himself son of missionaries and head of the local Freedmen's Bureau, and former General Palmer gave substantial sums to help. "Palmer Hall" on the Hampton University campus was named in honor and gratitude of the good general's financial support.

Building the western railroads, Colorado[]

After the War, Palmer resumed the railroad career he had started previous to the conflict. In 1867, a very optimistic, eager 30-year-old Palmer, and his 21-year-old chief assistant Edward H. Johnson, headed west from their hometown of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Palmer was the construction manager for the Kansas Pacific Railroad, mapping routes through New Mexico and Arizona to the Pacific coast.

The Kansas Pacific Railroad was an enterprise of the Pennsylvania Railroad, whose president John Edgar Thomson had employed Palmer as his personal secretary before the War. Under General Palmer's direction the Kansas Pacific was extended from Kansas City, Missouri, reaching Denver, Colorado, in August, 1870. Upon completion of that line, Palmer founded his own railroad, the north-south Denver & Rio Grande Railroad, whose first section was a Denver to Pikes Peak area line.

Palmer met Mary Lincoln (Queen) Mellen while she and her father, William Proctor Mellen, were on a train going to see the West. They were married November 8, 1870 in Flushing, New York where the Mellen family lived at the time. On their honeymoon in the British Isles, Palmer saw narrow gauge railroading in operation and realized the advantages for use on his own line, with substantial initial savings in manpower and materials. Furthermore, the narrow 3-foot gauge lent itself to mountain construction with the ability to take sharper curves and steeper grades. Thus, Palmer's Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad was built in narrow gauge. Two sections remain of his narrow gauge empire: the 45-mile (72 km) Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, and the 63-mile (101 km) Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad. The former is a National Historic Landmark; the latter, a National Historic District.

Palmer envisioned "an integrated industrial complex based on steel manufacturing" in which all necessary resources were controlled by one company.[2] In 1879, as Palmer's railroads were expanding, he noted the demand for steel for rails was high in Colorado. This prompted him to construct Colorado Coal and Iron Company's steel mill south of Pueblo. His dream became a reality for his successors when, in 1892, CC&I merged with the Colorado Fuel Company to form Colorado Fuel and Iron.[2] This company became Colorado's largest employer and dominated industry around the state for decades.[3]

Palmer was delighted with the new area. In 1871, he acquired 10,000 acres (40 km²) of land east of the former (unofficial) Colorado territorial capital, Colorado City. He called his new community Colorado Springs. Saloons and gambling houses were not welcome in Colorado Springs, and if one wanted alcohol, they had to travel to the more unruly Colorado City, or nearby Manitou Springs, to get it. Production or sale of alcohol was illegal in Colorado Springs until 1933, when Prohibition was lifted nationally.

Glen Eyrie[]

Palmer built his dream home, which he called Glen Eyrie (Eagle's Nest) near Colorado Springs in the northwest foothills north of the Garden of the Gods rock formations (now owned by the Navigators, an international religious group.) Palmer's dear friend and partner Dr. William Bell built his home, Briarhurst, at the opposite end of Garden of the God's. Palmer built a large carriage house, where the family lived for a time while Palmer and Queen built a 22-room frame house. This house was remodeled in 1881 to include a tower and additional rooms.

Queen Palmer, at age twenty, opened the first public school in Colorado Springs in November, 1871. The Palmers had three daughters, Elsie, Dorothy, and Marjory.

In 1880, Mrs. Palmer suffered a mild heart attack and was advised to move to a lower altitude. She and the girls moved to the East Coast and then to England where General Palmer visited them as often as he could. Queen died on December 28, 1894, at the age of 44. In sorrow, General Palmer went to England to return Mrs. Palmer's remains and the girls to Colorado Springs.

Palmer set upon making his railroad extend from Denver to Mexico, but failed in his bid. His north-south narrow gauge railroad was subjected to conflicting right of way issues from the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway, and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against his interests in 1880. In 1901, Palmer sold the Rio Grande Western Railroad and retired.


In his later years, he enjoyed being the benefactor to the Colorado Springs community, and was well liked by the people. In 1906, Palmer, who preferred the horse to the newly invented automobile, suffered a fall from a horse while on a ride with his daughters and a friend and was paralyzed.

His last hurrah before his death was the invitation and hosting of the Union veterans of his beloved 15th Pennsylvania Volunteer Regiment troopers for their annual reunion in 1907 at his cherished home in Glen Eyrie. It was held there because General Palmer was unable to travel as usual after his accident, and was confined to a wheelchair. Most of the surviving troopers, over 200, attended that memorable reunion.

William Jackson Palmer died at his home on March 13, 1909 at the age of 72. He was buried at Evergreen Cemetery in Colorado Springs, Colorado.


Palmer was the land-grantor of several institutions in Colorado Springs, including the (International Typographical Union's) Union Printer's Home, the Colorado School for the Deaf and Blind, several churches in central Colorado Springs, and Cragmor Sanitarium, a tuberculosis sanitarium which later was re-founded in 1965 as the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs (UCCS). He also provided land and funding for the creation of Colorado College and was one of its founding trustees. Palmer Hall, the main social science building on the Colorado College campus, is named for the General.

Queen Palmer Elementary School in Colorado Springs is named in honor of Palmer's wife, Mary (Queen) Mellen Palmer, and General William J. Palmer High School in downtown Colorado Springs is named for the general himself.

"Palmer Divide," a geographic feature north of Colorado Springs, and the community of Palmer Lake, Colorado are named after him, as is Palmer Park in Colorado Springs.

The Palmer family's beloved home, Glen Eyrie, is now owned by The Navigators, and tours of the main house are available.

Medal of Honor citation[]

Rank and Organization:

Colonel, 15th Pennsylvania Cavalry. Place and date: At Red Hill, Ala., January 14, 1865. Entered service at. Philadelphia, Pa. Born. September 16, 1836, Leipsic, Kent County, Del. Date of issue. February 24, 1894.


With less than 200 men, attacked and defeated a superior force of the enemy, capturing their fieldpiece and about 100 prisoners without losing a man.[4]

See also[]

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  1. "Gen. William J. Palmer, A Builder Of The West". The World's Work: A History of Our Time XV: 9898–9903. February 1908. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 James Whiteside, Regulating danger: the struggle for mine safety in the Rocky Mountain coal industry, U of Nebraska Press, 1990, page 7
  3. Pueblo, CO at
  4. "PALMER, WILLIAM J., Civil War Medal of Honor recipient". American Civil War website. 2007-11-08. Retrieved 2007-11-08. 

External links[]