Born in Ireland to a London physician and his wife, William A. Bell earned his medical degree from Cambridge University. In 1867 he came to the United States to study homeopathic medicine in St. Louis, Missouri. Instead, he decided to explore the west by becoming a photographer with the Union Pacific Railroad survey to determine the best route from Kansas to California.
The photography job lasted just six months, and those six months would determine the resto of his life. On the survey expedition Bell became good friends with General William Jackson Palmer, the survey party leader. He later said, “On that survey we shared the same tent for many months and over the campfire we discussed Palmer’s plans.”
When Bell left the survey, he rode horseback to the west coast and returned to England in 1869 where he wrote a best-selling book, New Tracks in North America. In 1870, Bell welcomed Palmer to England and they consulted engineers about new narrow gauge railroads. “We visited the Ffestiniog Railway in Wales and adopted a three-foot gauge for the planned new railroad.” By late October 1871, their Denver and Rio Grande Railway was completed from Denver to Colorado Springs. In 1872, the track was finished to Pueblo and the Canon City coal fields, opening up Southern Colorado for development.
Bell and Palmer forged a lasting partnership with a shared vision. In addition to their founding of the D&RG, Dr. Bell founded the town of Manitou Springs. After the D&RG built a spur into Manitou, the two conducted a campaign to promote the health benefits of the resort’s waters. This success earned Manitou Springs the nickname “Saratoga of the West” after Saratoga Springs, New York.
In early 1872, Bell married Cara Scovell in England. Returning to Manitou Springs, they built their Victorian home, Briarhurst Manor, on the banks of Fountain Creek. With Dr. Bell’s continued promotion of Manitou Springs, easterners and investors from England came. Quickly a community grew with luxury hotels, parks, and shops. Wealthy visitors brought their families and household staff and stayed for months at a time. Due to the influx of British residents, their penchant for afternoon tea and English sports – Colorado Springs became known as “Little London.”
By 1890, Dr. Bell had liquidated many of his holdings in the United States and retired to England. He returned in 1908 when his good friend and business partner, General Palmer died. William and Cara Bell last visited Briarhurst Manor in 1920, and Dr. Bell died on June 6, 1921.
Generously Submitted by John Orsborn, CSPM Volunteer Educator