I was cruising I-70 two years ago when I spotted the “Museum Auction” sign on the World’s Wonder View Tower, a roadside attraction a hundred miles east of Denver on a rise that, at 5,741 feet, is the highest point between Denver and Kansas City, or Denver and Chicago, or Denver and New York, depending on who’s doing the measuring and who’s doing the bragging. The rise marks what has traditionally been a busy travel hub: Various critters have long beaten a path to a nearby spring, where Native Americans camped; cowboys brought their Texas-Montana cattle drives through in the 1860s; and an early stage route came by, too. The trains soon followed. As railroads headed west across the plains, optimists placed a boxcar just east of the rise for a depot and platted a town there.
At first it was called Creech, after a Rock Island executive; when that didn’t catch on, the name was changed to Cable. As the story goes, the burg got its next — and final — name when a dying Italian railroad worker told his friends that he wanted to die back in his home town in Italy. He never made it back to the Old Country — but he did die in Genoa, Colorado.
The town became a small but popular center not just for travelers and railroad workers, but also for nearby farmers and ranchers. In addition to the depot, Genoa boasted a newspaper, a hardware store, a post office and a hotel. And after U.S. Highway 24 came through, the town got its most spectacular amenity.
Charles W. Gregory, sometimes billed as the P.T. Barnum of Colorado (not to be confused with the real P.T. Barnum, who actually has a Denver neighborhood named after him), had camped by that spring during a hunting trip in the 1870s. Fifty years later, as cars started traveling the country, he and his partner, Myrtle LeBow, began operating an early motor court (two rooms), cafe and roadhouse, adding rooms built out of petrified wood and stones from all fifty states; he had an Indian artist, Princess Raven Wing, create works throughout the interior. Then Gregory came up with his greatest plan yet: an observation tower by the roadhouse, with an “elaborately equipped recreation camp,” which he presented to the “business men of Genoa” on June 30, 1930, according to a letter in the Genoa Sentinel, billed as “the people’s favorite newspaper.”
“Mr. Gregory and Mrs. Lebow have been in Genoa for some time and the people of Genoa and vicinity have found them people of high character. Mr. Gregory is a live wire, full of pep, originality, force and big vision, and he has the confidence and good will of all. His plans are such that when they are completed, the tourist public will be able to get a pre-view from the tower of the snow clad mountain peaks from the most strategic vantage point in the West, and those who visit the tower and take one peek through the telescope that will be mounted there will spread the report of what can be seen to everyone they meet. Even without a glass the view is grand, giving the eye a sweep of a sky line in every direction that is superb.”
In fact, Gregory told the group, people would be able to see six states from the tower — a claim that later made it into Ripley’s Believe It or Not.
Once the World’s Wonder View Tower — also known as the Genoa Tower — was completed, Gregory liked to stand on the observation deck and use that telescope to check out the license plates of cars laboring up the rise of U.S. 24, and he would shout at the drivers to pull over. A sign promising “Eat, drink, gas and pop at the Tower” was all the incentive many travelers needed.
Now the “Museum Auction” sign was enough to inspire me to pull off I-70 at Genoa and take a quick trip on what remains of 24 to the Tower.
After Gregory passed away, in 1947, the Tower complex changed hands a few times before it was purchased by Jerry Chubbuck in 1967. A native of the plains, Chubbuck was a collector — of arrowheads, of fossils, and of stuff in general — and he turned the Tower into a museum, building rooms connecting it to the roadhouse/cafe, adding an apartment in front for his young family, and cramming every inch (by now the cafe and roadhouse had closed, which just meant more exhibit space) with fascinating items, including his stash of 20,000 arrowheads and a 75,000-year-old mammoth skeleton found in Cheyenne County. The Animal Monstrosities Room held many more physical marvels, including a two-headed calf. And when I-70 replaced I-24, cutting off the easy flow of visitors, Chubbuck kept collecting even more amazing stuff.
Chubbuck charged visitors a dollar to enter the museum — but not only did that buck give you access to all of the collections, it got you a chance to climb the 87 rickety steps and more-rickety ladder to the top of the Tower, where you might be able to spot a state or two or six. It also bought you time with Chubbuck, who loved to chat about his collection. “Jerry was super-friendly, funny, and he liked to test you to see how much stuff you knew,” recalls Denver artist/musician Reed Weimer, who visited the Tower several times with his wife, artist Chandler Romeo, and their two kids. “He was proud of all his stuff, and so he would quiz you on what things were. The better you did, the stranger the things he would show you.... I watched him do that to our teenagers and put things in their hands that they would never have picked up if they had known what they were — and today they fully remember it.”
So many other people had similar experiences that RoadsideAmerica.com devotes a page to the “Wonder Tower.” It’s featured prominently on Gary Sweeney’s “America, Why I Love Her” piece at Denver International Airport, which celebrates other man-made marvels. And every decade or so, Westword would write about the World’s Wonder View Tower, introducing yet another group of readers to this amazing roadside attraction that definitely ranked among the state’s top-ten tourist must-see stops — right up there with Bishop’s Castle, Cano’s Castle and the UFO Watchtower.
But Chubbuck died three summers ago. Their children grown, his wife, Esther, moved to Limon, and the contents of the Tower were put up for auction in September 2014. The family had high hopes that the auction would bring in enough money that they could donate the entire site to Lincoln County for a museum.
Things did not go according to plan.
Despite the incredible collections that Chubbuck had amassed, the auction did not raise nearly the amount the family had anticipated. They decided to put the World’s Wonder View Tower up for sale, along with what contents remained. (And there were plenty.) But that effort didn’t go well, either; a first bid that called for crowdsourcing the purchase price fell through.
While following up on the Tower’s plight, I became obsessed with the place. I grabbed a few other people who are obsessed with Colorado history and Colorado places and just plain Colorado stuff, and we made several fact-finding missions to the site — none of which produced useful facts for potential purchasers, since the place is riddled with asbestos, most of the windows are broken and there’s no way the electrical system recognizes a code, much less complies with one. But those trips definitely produced some finds. Rooms full of old bottles and photos. Catalogues that Chubbuck had kept of all his discoveries out on the plains. Railroad timetables from the days when the trains still went through Genoa. Menus from what had been known as the Indian Cafe, where you could get a steak dinner for 45 cents. And even a plaque from the U.S. Geological Survey set into the top floor of the Tower, confirming the highest-point claim.
So this summer, See Six States — a consortium of longtime Tower fans Weimer and Romeo; developer Paul Tamburello (one of our "good developers" featured in Westword three weeks ago); optimist Kevin Kearney, who signed on without seeing the place; and me — bought the Tower. We want to preserve its past, we want to preserve it for the future. We want to guarantee that it has a future. With so much of old Colorado disappearing, we could not let this piece of history go.
We’ve been slowly sorting through its contents (three rooms done, nineteen to go), straightening out timelines, collecting items that could go into a tribute to Chubbuck’s museum. We’ve been getting out in Lincoln County to talk to the incredibly helpful members of that community about what they hope to see happen at the site; they talk longingly about a tourism triangle that would include the Limon Heritage Museum, the old roundhouse now being renovated in Hugo, and the Tower. (Romeo also managed to win a grand-champion ribbon with her rhubarb pie at the county fair.) Hopes are high.
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We have no idea when the World’s Wonder View Tower can be reopened, or even in what form that might be (and we're definitely taking suggestions), but we do know this:
At the World’s Wonder View Tower, things are always looking up.