Stories From the Chambers : Coming to Colorado 1874 – Lauren Dunbar

April 1874 Limestone township, central Pennsylvania. On this early spring morning, the unplanted fields surrounding the old Chambers-Barber family farmhouse are covered with a silvery frost. The Chambers household of five are up early—Robert (34) on a final inspection with the new owner in the barn, while Elsie (28) and her sister-in-law, Henrietta “Nettie” Chambers (25), dress and feed the two children, six-year-old Bennie and baby Eleanor, not yet one. This day, the young Chambers family will set off on a 17-mile carriage ride to Sunbury (North of Harrisburg) to catch their train for an eight-hour trip west to Pittsburgh, the beginning of their journey west to Denver in the Colorado Territory (just two years shy of statehood). The growing town of nearly 1,500 settlers against the foothills of the Rocky Mountains was bursting with optimism and new market opportunities of the post-Civil War age. Investors, bankers, and real estate developers were pouring into Denver from the East.

Robert and Elsie would miss the comfort of the old family home as they headed into the unknown. The Chambers and Barber families first settled in the fertile Buffalo Valley of Pennsylvania Colony in the late 1770s. Three more generations supported themselves on farms spreading across the valley between the limestone ridges. Even though brothers Robert and John were born on the Chambers farm in Limestone, the five siblings had grown up on their Jefferson, Wisconsin, farm. But at the end
of the Civil War, their widowed father, Benjamin, was drawn back to his roots in Pennsylvania. And in 1867, when Robert lost first wife Mary Lockhart to childbirth on their Wisconsin farm, he, too, returned to his birthplace with infant son Benjamin. They settled into the capable care of his youngest sister, Nettie, who had been living with “old aunties” Betsy and Ellen Barber on their Limestone farm.

By spring 1874, Robert and Elsie had been married for 2.5 years. They met in the summer of 1870 when Elsie Woolsey was living with eldest sister Gertrude “Gitte” and her Barber family on their farm across the road from the Chambers-Barber farm. The couple had much in common, including the loss of their mothers when they were children. Both had earned classical educations: Robert for two years at the Knox College Preparatory Academy in Galesburg, Illinois; Elsie completed a two-year college course for teachers at Pennsylvania’s Bloomsburg State Normal School in June 1870 and secured a teaching position for
the next year. Grain farmer Robert would have also appreciated that Elsie grew up on a generations-old, commercial fruit orchard farm in New York’s Hudson River Valley. They married in Poughkeepsie, New York, on September 20, 1871.

In April 1874 Elsie was nearly seven months pregnant with their second child (Bessie) and in poor health. According to Chambers descendants, there was worry about consumption (tuberculosis), but this was never verified. When Robert and Nettie Chambers’ maiden Barber aunties died, leaving the farm to young Nettie, and then father Benjamin died in October 1872, Robert, Elsie and Nettie decided it was time to head West. Elsie had a dear school friend,Sarah Carver Wolff, from their Pennsylvania teachers’ college days who had moved to Denver and sent letters raving about the beauty of the Front Range, its healthy, restorative climate, and real estate opportunities. Such a dramatic change to “Go West” felt timely and just right. And
they had the cash to do it: Robert’s $10,000 from his wheat harvest and the farm’s livestock and Nettie’s sale of the farm.

The Chambers’ more than 2,000-mile journey that April over five separate railroad lines included a stop in Chicago and then on to Brodhead, Wisconsin, where they left sister Nettie with elder sister Eleanor Chambers Stair and her family. The five Chambers siblings, who remained close their entire adult lives, gathered for a studio portrait.

Travel on the modern Pullman cars of the Chicago & Northwestern Railway for the more than 24- hour train ride from Chicago took them across the sprawling prairie of Iowa’s grasslands as far as Council Bluffs. Here they crossed over the Missouri River to Omaha, Nebraska, where they boarded the even more luxurious Union Pacific Rail Road to Denver via Cheyenne, Wyoming. They rode nearly five hundred miles for another night and a day through Nebraska’s endless stretch of treeless prairie, following the Platte River route of the Oregon and California Trails. After a slow steady rise across the Great Plains they reached Cheyenne at 6,000 feet. Robert and Elsie had never seen anything like these landscapes. And finally, on the 100-mile leg to Denver, jutting out of the high plateau, their long-awaited view of the Front Range of the Great Rocky Mountains appeared. Breathtaking!

An oft-told story about that journey by the Chambers youngest, Mary Chambers DeLong, described Robert Chambers’ precautions heading into the “Wild West.” He carried,

… just a tiny pistol not more that eight inches long including the handle to ”protect them all.” They arrived safely in Denver without having had to “draw the pistol.” On the train, he would pull out a roll of money “big enough to choke a horse” and make Mother so mad. But it was common practice in those days.

The Chambers arrived in Denver on April 24th just after a deep snow. They had long planned to locate near Denver, but on the train from Cheyenne, James S. Wolfe, a director of El Paso County Bank in Colorado Springs, according to Elsie’s account in 1885,

…was looking out for strangers coming into the state, and so well represented Colorado Springs that upon his solicitation, Mr. Chambers made a visit of three days the following week in the Springs, and within that time bought the property on the corner of Monument and Weber on which there was an unfinished house, and secured a boarding place for his family…. In three weeks time, Mr. Chambers was located in his own premises and to await the effects of the climate. By fall his wife’s health was so far improved that he determined to remain in Colorado and made arrangements for a permanent home by securing the homestead right… [Galloway’s 160 acres] and moved on the ranch in February of ‘75, giving it the name of Rock Ledge.

Clearly, Robert and Elsie were deeply impressed by the promise of Colorado Springs. There were churches, schools, hotels, a new college, government buildings, banks, and more in this growing community of cosmopolitan settlers. Elsie Chambers doesn’t mention in her account that she gave birth that June 1874 (in their new house in town) to her second child, Bessie, who then died in mid-October at only four months.

That November, Robert bought Galloway’s homestead along Camp Creek. There, the Chambers family faced uncertainties and unusual challenges, yet persisted, adapted and prospered on their Rock Ledge garden market farm and greenhouse over the next 25 years.

–Lauren Dunbar

A regular feature to highlight stories and life at the ranch

Lauren Dunbar is Robert and Elsie Chambers’ Great-Granddaughter

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