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Tom Ross: Gilpin and the Isothermal Axis

Territorial governor is namesake of scenic lake in Zirkel

The Alpine meadows at 10,700 feet above Gilpin Lake remain lush with wildflowers this week. Even better, mosquitoes were not an issue in the high country Sunday.
Tom Ross

The wilderness register at the Gilpin Lake Trailhead confirmed early Sunday evening that at least 53 people had set out that day on the hike to the most-visited lakes in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area. I’m confident in predicting that fewer than half of the weekend hikers knew much about the historic character whose name is attached to the Alpine lake where snow banks still hug a north-facing cliff. I had to look it up myself.

In spite of the heavy use the trail sees, the lush vegetation along the route to Gilpin and Gold lakes appeared untrammeled and flat-out gorgeous this weekend. Many of the wildflowers still are holding onto summer, the streams were gushing and a cinematic series of clouds was flying over the peaks.

As we gazed down on the iconic view of Gilpin from the 10,700-foot saddle between Gilpin and Gold, I found myself wondering how many of the day’s hikers stopped to wonder how the lakes got their names.



The latter is self-evident. Treasure seekers passed Gold Lake on their way to the Slavonia Mine, near the foot of Red Dirt Pass. How did the mine come to be named Slavonia? That’s a story for another time.

For today, there’s a curious story behind William Gilpin, the first governor of the Colorado Territory, 1861-1862, and the namesake of the scenic lake.



What you might not know is that right around the time of the Civil War, when Colorado still was something of a frontier outpost, Gilpin organized a Colorado militia to meet any threat from the Confederates. Around that same time, Gilpin was espousing an elaborate, some would say prophetic, view of Denver’s future as a city of international importance.

Gilpin, who died in 1894, is described on the state of Colorado’s website as an internationally recognized futurist. Based on his theory of Isothermal Axis, Gilpin envisioned Denver as an important hub on a railroad route that would link three continents spanning the globe. The gap across the Bering Strait would have been closed by a ferry boat. Gilpin further predicted that the rail link would lead to a natural alliance between North America and Russia.

An article published in Time magazine in 1944 described Gilpin’s Isothermal Axis as a belt wrapping around the Northern Hemisphere that took in the world’s great capitals, and thus some of the most industrious societies of modern civilization. Significantly, he also observed that all of the Caucasian people lived on the Isothermal Belt. Remember, although Gilpin sided with the Union in the Civil War, this was still the 19th century.

He thought that linking European capitals and America’s Eastern cities through Denver and on to Eurasia would lead to an era of worldwide harmony.

Gilpin, who came to Colorado from Missouri, was an adventurer who served as a major in the U.S. Army regiment that marched on Chihuahua City during the Mexican-American War (1846-48) and scrapped with the natives while protecting the Santa Fe Trail. Curiously, while living in Independence, Mo., he wrote about Kansas City’s future as a cog in the Isothermal Axis in much the same way he would later come to write about Denver.

An abstract he penned about Kansas City’s international future is stored in a historical collection at the Kansas City Public Library.

Gilpin was so over-the-top in his grandiose vision for Colorado that other explorers of the era, including John Wesley Powell, considered him to be a shameless promoter of the region and even something of a blowhard.

Other historians note that although his grand notions of an Isothermal Axis never materialized, many of his visions for the American West turned out to be close to the mark.

I can tell you for certain that the beautiful wilderness lake bearing his name makes one heck of a memorial.

— To reach Tom Ross, call 871-4205 or e-mail tross@steamboatpilot.com


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