Edwin James’s Peak
by S.L. White
[Excerpted and modified from an article published in Upbeat, 1996]
The big “empty” wilderness of the West was a treasure-trove, not just to gold-seekers and other get-rich-quick types, but to expedition leaders, botanists, and collectors. Many of them made their fame here (but fortunes were rare for botanists, then as now). Most of us know the expedition leaders and our high peaks named for them, notably Pike’s Peak (14,110 ft) and Long’s Peak (14,256 ft) here in the Front Range. Colorado’s first botanists, accompanying early expeditions, also left their mark all over the state: on our landscape literally, and on the plants that inhabit it. Most interesting, however, are those botanists who lent their names not only to mere plants, but to entire mountains.
Ironically, Zebulon Pike never climbed the mountain that now bears his name. He himself called it Grand Peak, but showed it simply as “highest peak” on his map of the area. Forced to turn back when he and his men attempted to climb it in 1806, Pike predicted the mountain would never be climbed.
After Pike’s expedition but before the West was settled and tamed, a young man named Edwin James (1797-1861) had signed on as surgeon-naturalist for Major Steven Long’s expedition, which traveled up the South Platte in 1820, looking, as Pike had, for its source. It appears Pike had no naturalist along, thus James was the first to report the area from that perspective. (The only earlier collections in the West were those of Lewis and Clark.)
Young James was a prolific collector and a pretty good botanist: he named limber pine (Pinus flexilis) and boulder raspberry (Rubus deliciosus), among others. He also found the time and energy to lead the first (recorded) ascent of the prominent peak spotted by Zebulon Pike fourteen years earlier.
Triangulating from base camp, Long had calculated the height as 11,507 ft, almost 7,000 feet lower than Pike had estimated for his “Highest Peak.” (He was still off by almost 3,000 ft.; the peak is actually 14,110 ft.) Major Long, the story goes, officially named the peak after the young naturalist, but it was becoming too familiar as Pike’s Peak, and by 1840 (when John C. Fremont’s expedition passed through) popular opinion prevailed. (James later got his recognition: a lesser peak on the Continental Divide west of Denver was named in his honor.)
As for Pike and “his” peak, in 1858 Mrs. Julia Holmes was the first woman to climb this unclimbable mountain, and after that, the trek became a fashionable outing. “Everyone” climbed the peak or rode to the top on a donkey. A carriage road was completed to the summit in 1883 and the Pikes Peak Cog Railroad, built at a cost of $1,250,000, successfully made the top in 1889. John Brisben Walker attempted it with an auto in 1900, reaching to 11,000 feet. These days, the Pikes Peak Hill Climb is an annual event for daring auto racers, and the mountain that impressed Zebulon Pike is a regular destination for Colorado tourists.