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Unexpected Lincoln in Colorado

John A. O'Brien

Denver, Colorado

Thursday, August 24, 2023

It is strange that there are no Lincoln memorials erected in Colorado. The federal territory was organized the same week that president-elect Lincoln arrived in Washington. The impetus came from the 1858 Colorado Gold Rush that brought the first non-native settlers to the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains. The mineral riches that came out of these hills helped to finance the northern war effort. Though he had never traveled this far west, Lincoln had a vision for a prosperous, new post-war state that would support national expansion. Legislation for statehood had been written at the time of his assassination. So where are the tokens of Colorado’s appreciation for the 16th president?

The intrepid fortune seekers who, just before the Civil War, pushed over the first row of mountains west of Denver discovered even higher peaks beyond. A cluster of four of the tallest mountains attracted miners’ interest. The highest of these, rising to 14,293 feet, was named in 1861, Mount Lincoln to honor President Abraham Lincoln and his towering stature. There are 58 mountains in Colorado that are over 14,000 feet. They are referred to as “14ers,” and Mt. Lincoln is the 8th highest of these peaks.

So this is Colorado’s Lincoln monument. I was determined to inspect it.

Colorado's Lincoln monument. The Mt. Lincoln summit as seen from the Mt. Bross approach (13,500 feet), on August 20, 2023.

There are certain risks one must prepare to encounter when exploring rugged mountains at high altitude. Proper boots, layered clothing, trekking poles, plenty of water, and a flexible plan are all vital. There is no way to predict how wind, weather, and thin air will effect your pace. In tribute, I wore an eponymous shirt. And I brought along Lincoln scholar James McPherson. Or at least a copy of one of his notable works. I wanted appropriate company to help commemorate my expedition. Weight was a concern, so Michael Burlingame’s Green Monster was not an option. I chose McPherson’s 2009 Lincoln bi-centennial birthday volume. He described it as “a brief biography that captures the essential events and meaning of Lincoln’s life.” In 79 pages, Jim satisfies basic questions and whets the intellectual appetite for more later. McPherson has had a wonderfully productive writing career and is now a Princeton emeritus professor. It was an honor to have his work with me and to be able to share it with the curious climbers on the mountaintop. They came for a hike and stayed for the lesson on why I thought the visit so meaningful.

O'Brien at the Mt. Lincoln summit with James M. McPherson's brief but cogent biography of the 16th president.

Constructed monuments are intended to impress the viewer with the stature and significance of the honoree’s accomplishments. Looking over this vast country from a natural monument at 14,000 feet inspires reverential awe. Few other platforms can so powerfully display the physical virtues of the country that Lincoln left united and free.

My hike covered six miles and nearly 3000 feet of elevation (both up and down) from the trailhead. It was a most exhilarating (and exhausting) way to celebrate my 75th birthday. Once again, searching for Lincoln has brought me unexpected value and delight.

(Credits: top photo by John O'Brien and bottom by Ryan Mearini. My deep appreciation for the guidance and support of my son-in-law Ryan Mearini and friend Kyle Oatley. They helped this old guy get up and get down without anyone getting (permanently) hurt, and complete the adventure of a lifetime).

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