Back in 1926, when Charles Gregory built his Wonder View Tower on a hill rising 5,751 feet above the small plains town of Genoa, Colorado, he swore that you could see six different states from the deck at the top. That claim was backed up by Ripley’s Believe It or Not!, and in 1934 the U.S. Geological Society reportedly confirmed that the tower’s peak was the highest point between Denver and New York City.
With wondrous credentials such as these, it’s no surprise that the tower became a major roadside attraction for travelers motoring along U.S. 24. But just in case they needed a little encouragement, Gregory would stand on the tower’s deck and shout through a megaphone at motorists making the mistake of passing by. Those who were persuaded to interrupt their journey found a complex that included a cafe, a bar (once Prohibition was repealed) with a stage and rock walls painted by Indians, and room after room filled with Gregory’s collections of rare flora, fauna and other oddities. Gregory’s marketing savvy earned him the nickname “Colorado’s P.T. Barnum” — which was no small accomplishment, since P.T. Barnum himself had worked out of Colorado for a time, platting his own development in west Denver. But the real draw, of course, was the tower itself, and generations of visitors wound their way up those 87 narrow steps, then climbed a rickety ladder to reach that breathtaking view.
Trish Langley has a vision, too. She can see the Wonder View Tower restored to all of its glory one day. All she needs to accomplish this towering ambition is enough people who share that vision — and are willing to contribute $100,000 to the cause.
After Gregory died, Jerry and Esther Chubbuck bought the Wonder View and all of its wonderful contents in 1967. Jerry, who was an amateur archaeologist, continued to add to those contents: a stash of 20,000 Indian arrowheads, an 85,000-year-old Imperial mammoth skeleton unearthed in nearby Cheyenne County, old bottle after old bottle. The Chubbucks raised their family in living quarters carved into the place, and even though Interstate 70 had replaced U.S. 24, the tower continued to attract tourists, earning an entry at roadsideamerica.com and on other sites. But after Jerry passed away in 2013, his family decided it was time to let the tower go. In September 2014, they sold off many of the contents at an auction publicized around the world. Initially they’d hoped to donate the tower to a historical society, but when the auction didn’t realize as much money as they’d hoped, they put the tower on the block for $175,000.
At first there was a lot of interest, some serious, some not. “There’s been quite a bit of conversation at the nonprofit level,” said Troy McCue, executive director for the Lincoln County Economic Development Corporation.“It would be a great asset for the county, a great draw for Genoa.” But no substantial offers came in.
And then Langley entered the picture — coming west along the interstate. “What started it is we went to Denver in September, and we went by the tower,” Langley explains. “And I had never, ever gotten to stop there. I never could get anybody to stop.”
She’d certainly tried. She’d grown up in Goodland, Kansas, and her family would frequently drive along I-70 to visit her grandmother, who was born and raised in Denver. Now Langley had her chance — but then her husband told her the tower was closed. “I got online and did some checking,” she continues. “That Monday morning, I set up a time to visit.” Tim Andersen, who lives near the tower and had the listing, toured Langley through the building.
She was hooked. “I’d like to buy it, restore it, preserve the history of it,” Langley says — but there was no way she could come up with $175,000. She got the price lowered to $100,000, put down $1,000, and signed the deal. Then the real work started: Langley couldn’t find a bank willing to take a chance on financing, even if the tower is listed on Colorado’s historic registry, and decided to raise the money through crowdfunding — selling bricks through a gofundme campaign.
“Our mission consists of rescuing and restoring the World Wonder Tower located off of I-70 by Genoa, Colorado. This is a unique opportunity to save a piece of history and become part of history at the same time,” says the announcement on worldwondertowerprojectinc.com. “We are selling bricks that will be located outside the entrance of the building or you can purchase marble tile that will be placed inside the main floor of the tower. Time is of the essence. We only have until January 28, 2016 to generate the funding required in order to rescue and restore this irreplaceable part of Americana. Once we rescue and restore the property, we will open the Tower and museum for free to the public.”
After she’s raised the $100,000 — which is just part of what she estimates is needed to stabilize the tower and preserve it for the future — she has big plans for the place. To keep visitors — and money — coming in, she’d add a zipline or two, an RV area, maybe a petting zoo and pumpkin patch. Inside, Langley envisions turning what had been the old store into a commercial kitchen, perhaps put in a conference room, turn the old cafe into an art gallery featuring local artists, hold wine-and-painting parties in the big room with the stage. The tower still has plenty of exotic items — Langley estimates that 10 percent of the original contents remain, some stuffed so tightly into a room that she really has no idea what’s inside — so there will be some kind of museum, too. And since it’s impossible to make that tower ADA-compliant, she thinks she could just set up cameras at the top, so that anyone can enjoy the view.
Langley knows all about roadside attractions: She owns a company that has contracted with the State of Kansas for two decades to do janitorial work at three rest stops. But she also recognizes that the tower is no average rest stop. Gregory, the man who built it, is buried in her home town of Goodland. And Chubbuck bought it in 1967, “the year I was born,” she points out. “That’s why this is something I’ve been compelled to do.”
Langley is setting up a nonprofit, establishing a board to push the project. But as of December 27, she’d only sold two bricks — with just a month to go.
“I’m just looking to save it,” Langley says. “I’m not looking to put in a business that will make me money. My intention is just to get it to the point it could save itself.”
Will wonders never cease.