While creating an itinerary for our first visit to Colorado, I stumbled upon an obscure attraction that captured my imagination.
Hidden in the sweeping vistas of the Rockies at 9,000 feet above sea level, is the mystical setting of one man’s massive, obsessive medieval wonder.
How does a dream become a reality? The story begins in 1959, when Jim Bishop, age fifteen, paid four hundred and fifty dollars for a parcel of land enclosed on three sides by the majestic San Isabel National Forest. His parents signed for the land deal, and Jim, who had dropped out of high school that year, spent the next several years clearing and preparing a spot for a cabin. With an abundance of accessible rocks, and the help of his father, Jim began work on a one-room stone cottage shortly after his marriage in 1967.
As work intuitively progressed, neighbors noted that the structure looked something like a castle. After hearing that time and time again, Jim began believing it himself. He started telling friends and family that he was building a castle.
Though there were no plans or blueprints, the experience derived from years of work in the family’s ornamental iron shop provided Jim a foundation for his stone and iron phenomenon.
Jim hand dug holes for foundations, hauled rock from the state highway ditches, and mixed his own mortar. He milled trees into lumber, built railroad ties as forms for arches, and created pulleys and hoists. His talent for ornamental ironwork is seen in window frames and stairs, while in the towers, ironwork is structurally incorporated.
The building continued. More and more people came to observe Jim’s passion. It was becoming an attraction, and attractions charge admission. Jim wanted his castle to represent a place of American Freedom. While Jim’s job at the family business had been supporting the cost of construction, tourism revenue would help finance the dream of a castle. Meanwhile, Jim’s wife Phoebe had spent eight years trying to obtain a tax-exempt, non-profit designation. In 1984, the Bishop Castle Non-Profit Charitable Foundation for New Born Heart Surgery was established, which formalized the castle’s ability to setup and maintain a free will donation box on the premises through which construction is funded. A rustic gift shop was also constructed.
Bishop Castle remains a work in progress. Many of the past 40 years have been engaged in battles over rocks that Jim used from the San Isabel National Forest. The government wanted to charge him per truckload, while Bishop felt otherwise. Happily, there is balance in everything. Bishop’s obsession is now recognized as marketable and a few heavy, unwanted rocks have been transformed into pure tourism gold.
As it stands today, the castle is not an elegant Biltmore Estate. Nor is it even remotely habitable! Well over 1,000 ton of native rock have been utilized, every stone and every inch of mortar hurled into a conflation of ordered chaos. The eclectic three-story structure with its great hall, Eiffel Tower shaped fireplace, glass roof, and stained glass windows remains mostly a skeleton of cemented rock and ornamental ironwork. Intricate wrought-iron catwalks and walkways line the castle. A thirty-foot octagonal turret rests atop a one hundred sixty foot spiraling tower with old school bells. The tower leads to a swaying bridge that simply ends in mid air. The left tower of the castle is even taller. We cowered and decided not to ascend the steep steps, no rails, and window openings easy enough to fall through.
A castle isn’t complete without its dragon! With discarded stainless steel warming plates from the Pueblo County Hospital destined for the landfill, Jim built a chimney, riveted thousands of hammered “scales,” and raised and installed the incredible sculpture where it is perched above the great hall, eighty feet in the air. At one time the fire-breathing dragon with its flared nostrils could actually shoot fire up to six feet.
Now at around 70 years of age, Jim can still be observed working on weekends. It is said he is an interesting conversationalist with a tendency toward anti-government banter, as observed in many hand-made signs posted on the property.
Even if the dungeon room, moat, creeks, fountains, and wishing wells never materialize, or the castle never sees the installation of a glass elevator and gravity belt escalator, Jim’s drive and dedication to build his castle bigger and bigger is a tremendous testament to what one man can accomplish.
What started as a one-room cottage transpired into a bigger than life dream and a magical castle became an abandoned ruin before it ever became inhabitable.