Halloween – Hang on for a Wild Time

Nurse? Gurney-coffin with the scrubs-clad team.

Nurse? Gurney-coffin with the scrubs-clad team.

Annual Manitou Springs Coffin Races set for Oct. 25

cathleenNormanHalloween week means it’s time for the Emma Crawford Coffin Races in the fun, funky and picturesque town of Manitou Springs at the foot of Pikes Peak. The event weekend, Oct. 24-25, wraps around the Saturday races – 70 teams each with its wheeled hand-made “coffin” dashing down Manitou Avenue to the finish line. The event starts first with a parade at noon, consisting of vintage hearses, then the decorated coffins and their race entourage teams. Judges during the parade decide on the Best Emma, best race entourage and best coffin.

Then, the races start around 12:30 p.m. Coffins-on-wheels speed down the avenue two at a time, each with their outrageously costumed team. The timed racers speed 585 feet to cross the finish line at the roundabout near Soda Springs Park. First, second and third place trophies for fastest race speed; which has been 23 to 25 seconds in past years. As you can imagine, the trophies are not normal brass or bronze, but handmade and different every year, of course featuring a coffin or Halloween theme.

Of the 70 teams, six “spots” are reserved for five local fire department teams and the El Paso Wildands Fire team. This started in 2012, the year that the Waldo Canyon Fire forced evacuation of every Manitou Springs resident just after the midnight hour on June 23 turning it into a ghost town.

The costumed “theme teams” add to the kooky fun. You might see teams dressed as blue Smurfs, or as zombies clad in hospital scrubs; teams wearing red long-john-underwear or tie dye T-shirts and dread locks… Harlem Globe Trotters, side-burned Elvises, bearded-camouflage-geared Duck Brothers, spotted Dalmatians… clowns, gnomes, tuxedos, togas and of course, Day of the Dead faces and array of painted skeletons.

Super-heroes to the rescue and shopping cart creatively disguised as coffin. Photos courtesy of Manitou Springs Chamber of Commerce

Super-heroes to the rescue and shopping cart creatively disguised as coffin. Photos courtesy of Manitou Springs Chamber of Commerce

So, who is the mysterious Emma Crawford honored by all this frivolity and frolicking? Emma was born in Massachusetts on March 24, 1863. She showed an extreme talent for music from a very early age, taught by her mother, Madame Jeanette Crawford, a pianist and music teacher. By age 12, Emma was giving piano lessons and performing public recitals of Beethoven, Chopin, Schumann and Wagner in Boston accompanied by a renowned violinist and cellist. She herself mastered violin, viola, cello and mandolin as well. Her obituary noted she was “a musician of rare power and skill… said to have acquired her remarkable masterly control of the piano from spirit instruction and is said to have never taken a lesson at mortal hands in her life.”

Sadly, Emma was sickly from girlhood, which brought her to Colorado. She probably suffered from tuberculosis, like so many others who arrived in the Pikes Peak region. Emma and her mother moved to Manitou Springs in 1889 “seeking the cure” of the local mineral springs and fresh mountain air. For a short while, her health improved. She enjoyed hiking, sometimes wearing a red dress, and once even dared to climb to the top of Red Mountain. She had a gentleman friend, William Hildebrand – some say he was her fiancée – who was an engineer from New York who was working on the Pikes Peak Cog Railroad.

Alas, Emma’s health declined and she died on Dec. 4, 1891. Her burial service was five days later in the family parlor with her mother playing piano pieces. Her wish to be buried on top of Red Mountain required 12 pallbearers working in two shifts to carry the casket to the summit.

The story gets a little murky and different sources vary; apparently the body was moved to the west mountain slope for construction of the Red Mountain Incline that opened in 1912. Emma showed up in 1929: two boys were playing and found a human skull. A casket nameplate found nearby confirmed that Emma’s remains had somehow come down the mountain. Emma was buried, a third time, in a Manitou Springs cemetery in an unmarked grave. The heritage society put a gravestone on it nine years ago.

The only known historic portrait of Emma Crawford is in the possession of the Pikes Peak Library Archives. It shows a demure brunette lass gazing dreamily off to the side. It was said, in her day, Emma connected with the spirit world as the source of her tremendous musical talent – she played piano, violin, viola and cello; her sister was an accomplished musician as well.

The Emma Crawford weekend kicks off with big fireworks at 8:30 p.m., Oct. 24, visible from anywhere in town. Also that evening the Manitou Springs Heritage Center is showing horror show films. Those seeking something spookier on Friday night can attend the Emma Crawford Wake at the Miramont Castle. ($40 /person; www.miramontcastle.org). If you dare to attend you will be treated to a viewing of Emma reclining in her casket and a sumptuous Victorian buffet dinner, as well as mingling with costumed personages from Colorado and Manitou Springs’ past.

After the races, Saturday evening, the “Ghost Stories of Old Manitou” Walking Tours feature chilling stories of the town’s paranormal past. Tours run every 15 minutes from 5:30 – 9 p.m. Tickets are $12, advance purchase recommended (719-685-1454). Also that evening the Iron Springs Chateau melodrama theater on Ruxton Avenue will show the Rocky Mountain Horror Show film in all its glory accompanied by the Chateau players.

The Emma Crawford Parade and Coffin Races, Oct. 25, feature 70 race teams and awards for fastest racers, best coffin, best entourage and Best Emma.

The Emma Crawford Parade and Coffin Races, Oct. 25, feature 70 race teams and awards for fastest racers, best coffin, best entourage and Best Emma.

Leslie Lewis, president of the Manitou Springs Chamber of Commerce explains how the Emma Crawford Coffin Races started in 1995 when “a group of Manitou residents and business owners were sitting around talking about ways to increase business in Manitou Springs during the off season and draw people into town.”

“It started as a Halloween idea to celebrate Emma’s coffin coming down into town,” said Lewis.

The fun, quirky Halloween heritage event quickly caught on, growing from a dozen coffins to 70 this year. Coffin teams first consisted of four “mourners” but now “some teams as big as 12 people help create their atmosphere around their coffin.” Coffin racers pay a registration fee of $50 a team, which helps fund the event.

This event is a great kick-off to Halloween with wacky spooky fun for everyone. “It’s nice to celebrate our heritage,” says Leslie. “Emma didn’t want people mourning for her.”

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