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On Walkabout At: Will Rogers Shrine of the Sun, Colorado

Basic Information

  • What:  The Will Rogers Shrine of the Sun
  • Where: Colorado Springs, Colorado
  • Cost: Free with admission to Cheyenne Mountain Zoo
  • Hours: Open every day of the year, weather permitting.
    Summer 9:00 am – 5:00 pm (Memorial Day – Labor Day)
    Winter 9:00 am – 4:00 pm
  • More Information: Cheyenne Mountain Zoo website

Narrative

Considering the amount of times I have visited Cheyenne Mountain Zoo I have been meaning to take the time to visit the Will Rogers Shrine of the Sun located above the zoo.  The shrine sits on the side of Cheyenne Mountain like a sentinel watching over the zoo:

Entrance to the shrine is part of admission to the zoo which I have membership to.  So recently my family and I during a recent visit to the zoo decided to take the drive up the 1.4 mile long Russell Tutt Scenic Highway to the shrine.

The Russell Tutt Scenic Highway is named after a benefactor of the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo:

The original name that this highway was called with the “Wonder Road”.  Spencer Penrose a wealthy local businessman who founded Cheyenne Mountain Zoo constructed the highway in 1924 and it originally traveled 7.5 miles to the top of Cheyenne Mountain where there once was a restaurant and hotel called the Cheyenne Mountain Lodge that was constructed by Penrose in 1925.  Today the highway only travels to the shrine since the Cheyenne Mountain Lodge was abandoned and bulldozed down in the 1970’s:

The highway ends at a large parking lot at the shrine that provides as expected a bird’s eye view of Cheyenne Mountain Zoo down below:

Something else of interest at the shrine is that there is a small museum next to the parking lot that provides a good overview about the life of Spencer Penrose:

After reading the various displays at the museum, Penrose seemed like quite a guy who had a deep love for Colorado Springs:

The first Penrose to come to America was Spencer’s grandfather Bartholomew who arrived in Philadelphia from England in the 1700’s and was involved in a shipbuilding business with William Penn.  Spencer was born in 1865 in Philadelphia to Dr. Richard A.F. Penrose and Sarah Boies Penrose.  Spencer would eventually grow up in Philadelphia and go on to attend and graduate from Harvard University from 1882-1886.  After graduation Penrose dreams of making his fortune out West and travels to Las Crusces, New Mexico to open a produce business.

Spencer Penrose

In 1892 a friend of Penrose, Charles Tutt invited Penrose to become a real estate business partner of his in Colorado Springs.  Penrose decided to move to Colorado Springs and begins investing with Tutt in a gold mine in Cripple Creek.  The mine would end up making both men very wealthy and Penrose decided to invest his new fortune into the Midland Terminal Railroad that was used to transport gold ore from Cripple Creek to Divide, Colorado and then traveled down Ute Pass to old Colorado City where the ore was processed.  Highway 67 that runs from Divide to Cripple Creek partially uses the old railroad bed as part of the highway.  One of the old railway tunnels is still visible on along the road.  Buildings in Colorado City such as the old roundhouse have been converted into shops and a brewery and the old machine shop is now the Ghost Town Museum.   Penrose also would become the first director of the First National Bank of Cripple Creek.

In 1896 Penrose and Tutt would then create the Colorado-Philadelphia Reduction Company in old Colorado City that would be used to process gold out of waste ore from the mines in Cripple Creek.  With the fortune he made in his Cripple Creek ventures Penrose, Tutt, and other investors would then invest in the Utah Copper Company in 1906.  This venture would end up making Penrose extremely wealthy to the point that he had so much money that he decided to begin investing in the quality of life of the city of Colorado Springs.  Before he did that though he made sure to get married to his wife Julie in 1906 in London.  Penrose would go on to become a lead investor in the construction of the Pikes Peak Highway in 1916.  Penrose would then open the Broadmoor hotel in 1918 so wealthy people from the East Coast would have luxury accommodations during any visit to Colorado Springs.  In 1919 Penrose donated his home in Colorado Springs so it could be turned into the Fine Arts Center.  In 1926 he then opened the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo.  Penrose made many other contributions to the city before he died in 1939 at the age of 74.  His philanthropic legacy lives on today with the El Pomar Foundation continuing to do good work around the city.

From the small museum I then walked up the path to go and checkout the shrine:

Here is some facts and figures about the shrine from the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo website:

Spencer Penrose, founder of the Broadmoor and Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, along with a group of his associates from Colorado Springs, formed the End of the Trail Association. The End of the Trail Association acquired property for the shrine and began construction in December of 1934, and finished in 1937. The edifice’s design was commissioned by Colorado Springs architect Charles E. Thomas, and at the time construction began the tower had yet to be named. The shrine has an entry gate with stone piers, an eighty foot high observation tower, looks like a fortress with a stone turret, and is built of 5,000 cubic yards of native Cheyenne Mountain gray-pink granite quarried from a single boulder. Anchored 28 feet into a solid rock buttress, the entire structure, void of nails or wood, is bound by 200,000 pounds of steel and some 30 wagon loads of cement. The elevation of the shrine is 8,136 feet on the top deck, and it provides spectacular views of Colorado Springs and the Pikes Peak Region.  [Cheyenne Mountain Zoo website]

Here is a closer look at this impressive building:

During the construction of the tower Penrose’s friend Will Rogers died in an airplane crash in Alaska on August 15, 1935.  This caused Penrose to name the tower after his friend.  The shrine was officially dedicated to Will Rogers on September 6, 1937.  Just outside the shrine there is a sculpture of Spencer Penrose:

There is also a sculpture of Will Rogers:

From the courtyard outside I walked along the side of the tower and walked into a small chapel which is where the ashes of Penrose and his wife Julie are interned:

Something else I found interesting is that Penrose had the ashes of two of his close friends from his Cripple Creek gold mining days, Larry Leonard and Horace Devereaux interned inside the chapel with him as well.  The art inside of the chapel is painted in a 15th and 16th century European style which was supposed to represent the refined culture that Penrose tried to bring to Colorado Springs.

From the chapel I then walked to the front side of the tower.  From the front looking up, the shrine’s height is quite impressive:

On the ramparts that surround the tower there are various markers that describes various landmarks across the sweeping views available from the shrine:

Off in the distance to the southeast Ft. Carson and the neighboring city of Fountain are visible:

Looking east from the shrine there are views of southern Colorado Springs:

Looking towards the northeast there are views of the Broadmoor Hotel and downtown Colorado Springs:

Towards the north the Rampart Range and the Garden of the Gods is visible in the distance:

Looking towards the northwest just a small part of the 14,115 foot Pikes Peak can be seen looming in the distance:

From the ramparts outside I then went inside the shrine.  The shrine is 5 stories tall and on the first floor there are murals painted by New Mexico artist Randall Davey depicting the early history of the Pikes Peak Region.  Most of the murals depict important people in the region’s history such as Zebulon Pike who first officially explored the region and Colorado Springs founder General William Palmer:

The murals also depicted the gold rush and railroad heritage of the region as well as showing the various conflicts between the settlers and the Native-Americans:

The murals are all still in great shape because they were carefully restored in 1993 by noted American artist Eric Bransby, an associate of Randall Davey’s.  The remaining floors of the shrine are filled with various historical pictures of Spencer Penrose and Will Rogers:

There is a lot of pictures inside the shrine so it is easy to spend an entire hour just looking at the pictures and reading all the captions:

One of the photographs even had a picture of the plane crash that claimed the life of Will Rogers in Alaska in 1935:

The top floor of the shrine has a small balcony where visitors can once again stand outside and take in the sweeping view from the lofty vantage point of the shrine:

Conclusion

All in all a drive up the shrine is well worth doing in conjunction with a visit to Cheyenne Mountain Zoo since it is free with admission.  Besides driving to the summit of Pikes Peak there is no place in the Colorado Springs area that provides such sweeping views that are accessible by car.  Most people could probably care less about the history lesson the shrine provides, but the views makes it well worth the approximate hour it takes to visit this interesting site. The Will Rogers Shrine of the Sun is definitely a unique part of Colorado Springs history.  For people who live around Cheyenne Mountain they are reminded daily by this history because the chimes inside the tower can he heard ringing at every quarter hour each day.  The visit to the shrine got me thinking that it seems that wealthy people today do not seem to fund such large public works projects like this shrine and other landmarks in Colorado Springs.  Penrose was just one of many wealthy people who struck it rich in Colorado Springs and gave back much of their wealth to the citizens of the city.  Through the El Pomar Foundation Penrose continues to this day to give back to the city which is just incredible.

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