The spirit of Manitou Springs is alive with the Emma Crawford Coffin Races

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5min 09sec
Bob Macdonald
An undated Emma Crawford Coffin Races event.

In late October, coffins on wheels take over the main drag of Manitou Springs. Impersonators of Emma Crawford, a Manitou resident in the late 1800s whose remains famously slid down Red Mountain, ride the decorated coffins with a team of pallbearers pushing as fast as they can. The nearly 30-year tradition reflects the unique character of Manitou Springs and the people who live there while sharing some of the city’s history.

KRCC’s Jess Hazel spoke with Jenna Gallas of the Manitou Springs Chamber of Commerce about the stories surrounding the races.   

The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

On how the Coffin Races started 

The coffin races started in the mid-90s around a kitchen table from some of the folks that were on the Chamber of Commerce board of directors at the time in a brainstorming session. What can we do in the shoulder season to encourage people to come out and see Manitou Springs, bring in the tours and bring in the fun? 

We are weird and kind of kooky here in Manitou. Let's play off of something very interesting that no one else has. And the legacy of Emma Crawford came up and ‘Hey, let's race coffins.’ 

In the first year, it was just the local fire departments and maybe seven or eight teams just on a Saturday and just rolling up the street. Coffins on wheels… obviously we're in the 29th year now. It's grown immensely since that early beginning, but certainly did start as something just kind of fun and offbeat.

On how Emma Crawford Coffin Races reflect the character of Manitou Springs

It's certainly something that Manitou Springs has become known for nationally and internationally. We have people all over the country doing something similar or looking to: ‘Send us your coffin race specs. We want to do the same thing in our community. We want to have fun like that.’ 

The 'Keep Manitou Weird' vibe is certainly there. We toss fruitcakes and race coffins! That's kind of what people have come to expect, just the unusual and out of the ordinary. And for me, I like to say that we're all our own kind of weird, right? 

But Manitou is a real no judgment zone. You can be exactly who you are in Manitou and be accepted here, and I think that's unusual, especially in this day and age, to have a place where you can come and just let your freak flag fly.

Escape and enjoy Manitou Springs, as we say at the Chamber of Commerce. [We] give people a reason to come here and have a good time, dress up in costume. Where else are you doing that? Especially as an adult, I'm sure your kids dress up and go trick-or-treating, but when do you get that opportunity? You can bring the whole family down. So really looking forward to just, for me, it's seeing the sheer joy and excitement on everyone's face being at the event. It's a wonderful thing.

Jess Hazel / KRCC
The Emma Crawford exhibit at the Manitou Springs Heritage Center explains the story that launched the coffin races.

On friendly competition and the Coffin Cup 

We have had some real fun with the previously Nederland Frozen Dead Guy Day coffin races. They started about seven years after we did, and initially there was what we called a Coffin Cup, and our ex-mayor and dear Manitou-legend of his own, Bud Ford, had created that Coffin Cup and we kind of passed it back and forth. Our team would go up there and take the wheels off the coffin and grab a few extra people to run through their snowy obstacle course with their corpse. And then likewise, their team would come down here and put wheels on their coffin. 

So we resurrected the Coffin Cup back in 2017. It had, after those initial years, back in the late 90s, had kind of died off. And so the last five years or so, six years now, we've been racing back and forth, but with the Nederland coffin races through Frozen Dead Guy Days moving to Estes Park now, while we did send a team up there in March, they are not sending a team down here for our races. 

At this time the Coffin Cup will be laid to rest for a second time.

On the story of Emma Crawford 

Emma Crawford was a resident of Manitou Springs. Her and her mother and her sister Alice all came to this community because of the mineral spring. It was when only the affluent of society were coming here in hopes of being cured by the spring water from whatever ailed them. Emma had tuberculosis and it was thought that she could be cured by the water. Unfortunately, that wasn't the case. She did die very young, the tender age of 26. 

Bob Macdonald
An undated Emma Crawford Coffin Races event.

Prior to her passing she lived near where Miramont Castle is today and she was looking out her window all the time at Red Mountain and she really felt this draw spiritually. She felt that there was Native American force that was drawing her to the top of the mountain, but everybody told her she could not climb it because she was too sick. And she didn't like that. Tenacity certainly seems like one of her strong characteristics because she did climb Red Mountain. And to prove it, she tied her scarf to a pinyon tree at the top. She told Wilhelm at the time that she wanted to be buried on Red Mountain. Now, he didn't own land there, but he did with 11 other men carry her casket in shifts up the side of the mountain to bury her on top.

Several years after her initial burial, the landowner came and wanted to put an incline in. The kind of attraction that our own Manitou incline used to be as well. And they said, ‘you have to remove this grave site and place her somewhere else.’ And so they did. They buried her on the other side of Red Mountain. However, the second time she was buried, it's known that she wasn't buried appropriately, not very deep, not covered with much more than loose dirt and rocks. So after the second burial, maybe 20 years had gone by before she had slid down the side of the mountain. Now it's not known when exactly that did happen, but years later, the nameplate from her coffin, some bones and some of the handles were found by some boys hiking in the area.

That's when her remains at the time, whatever remains were found, were taken to the local city hall police department. And it wasn't until, I want to say 20, 30 years after that that they buried her in Crystal Valley Cemetery here in Manitou Springs. 

Now, only a few people in town to this day know where her actual remains are buried because she did not have a headstone or grave marker until the Historical Society placed one there. So that was in the early 2000s, and that's not at the actual site where she's buried. So a little mystery still shrouded in that. But three burials for Emma, all in all.