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Bishop Castle: Another Self-Made Masterpiece

The Early Years:

Let’s talk about being Inspired. Young Jim Bishop, in 1959 and at the ripe old age of 15, paid four hundred and fifty dollars for a two-and-a-half acre parcel of land enclosed on three sides by the majestic San Isabel National Forest in southern Colorado. It was money saved from mowing lawns, throwing newspapers, and working with his father Willard in the family ornamental iron works. Jim had dropped out of high school that year over an argument from his English teacher who yelled at him “You’ll never amount to anything Jim Bishop!”

Ever since he was a boy, Jim was powerfully drawn up towards the mountains visible to the west from Pueblo. Having found a small two-and-a-half acre parcel one weekend on a bicycle journey with some friends, he convinced his parents to buy it for him with his money. So Willard and ma Polly signed for the land deal which Jim wasn’t even old enough to do himself, and the family now had a heavily forested two-and-a-half acres at 9000 feet. Jim and his dad spent the next ten summers camping out on the land and doing the groundwork for a family cabin on the site.

Setting the stage for what was to come, Jim soon learned that he really enjoyed swinging an axe and wielding a shovel or pick in building their clearing with a drive up to it, which is now the courtyard between the family cabin and the castle itself with its driveway. It was in 1967 that Jim and Pheobe got married, a union they still enjoy to this day, and in 1969 at the age of twenty-five, Jim decided it was time to start building a cabin in the mountains they so loved. Since rocks were plentiful, everywhere, and free, he chose to start building a one room stone cottage….

The Birth of a Castle:

Snow doesn’t melt completely at 9000 feet usually until the middle of May, sometimes even into June, so the summer building season is a short one, especially when you’re dealing with mortar which cannot freeze while it’s drying. There’s only so much that can be done in a couple months while still working in the ornamental iron shop to support the family. Jim started building his cabin, and after a while, Jim and Willard started trading off two-week stints, one at the shop running the business and one up the mountain working on the family cabin. This lasted until the late spring of 1971, when the problem of getting running water into the cabin arose. Willard suggesting putting in a large metal tank that he had salvaged from a welding job to be a gravity fed cistern that they’d have to have filled once or twice a summer. Jim thought it’d be functional, and construction began on the water tank. It is a 40-foot metal cylinder which Willard surrounded with stonework.

Jim continued to build his cottage, and the walls grew. Throughout the summer, family friends, a couple local ranchers, and even some family members commented that it looked like they were building a castle! “Hey Jim! That looks like a turret or something!” “What are you building, a castle?!” Jim heard that enough times that by the time late spring 1972 rolled around, his imagination had been stirred something fierce, and Mr. Jim Bishop started telling friends and family that he was in fact going to be building a castle! When Willard first heard this, he stated matter of factly that castles tended to be pretty huge and that he wasn’t going to have anything to do with it! “That’s just too much work!” Jim kept right on building, and the construction that began as a one room stone cottage with an Eiffel Tower shaped fireplace gave birth to this country’s, and maybe even the world’s, largest one man project ~ The Bishop Castle.

It Just Keeps On Growing:

As the castle grew, so did word of the guy up in the mountains who was pursuing the American Dream ~ to be King of your own Castle! People came to visit more and more often, and Jim would often be asked if he wanted help building his castle. For the first eight years, the answer was always, “Sure!” And in those eight years, not a single person ever kept their word and showed up to help. In a fit of cynical frustration, Jim vowed that “By God, I’ve gotten this far by myself. If you’re going to do something right, do it yourself!” (and probably another thing or two that really shouldn’t be printed). So like the castle itself, the idea of the castle being a one-man project was born in the process of the doing and was not an original intention or a childhood dream like many people think. And he kept building. And building. And the Bishop Castle grew….

Other Discoveries Along the Way:

Many of the features of the Bishop Castle were discovered intuitively or stumbled upon as the building unfolded. Some would even say they “Suggested Themselves.” In the process of the castle building, Jim discovered that he also really enjoyed building his body too. He even set up an old army wall tent in the clearing, where he would workout with weights for a couple of hours in the evenings after having built with stone and mortar all day! As he became increasingly involved in the weight lifting regime physically, he also discovered that realm of mind where his principles in building could also be applied to his life ~ balance in everything! This became an ideal he strove for in this proving of himself, through his stonework, his body, and in his mind.

It was through this approach that Jim soon realized that he would find himself completely visualizing what he could build next and how it would all fit together on such a large scale. There are no plans, blueprints or drawings other than the one Jim did to illustrate his book, Castle Building from My Point of View. The more Jim experienced massive wonder himself about how certain features lined up or fell into place is when he started suspecting that maybe something “more” was going on, that maybe it was the Creator of All Things working through him in this magnificent endeavor that seemed to have a spirit of its own. Jim started describing the Bishop Castle as “Built by One Man with the Help of God.” There’s really no other way to explain it!. And it kept growing….

Feats of Strength:

In order to pursue the totality of what he could visualize, Jim employed anything and everything that was available to him. He had apprenticed and then mastered with his father in the family’s Bishop Ornamental Iron shop welding and scroll bending and learning how things fit together for most of his life. At some point in a long career of custom machinery construction, Willard had built a sawmill among numerous other unique machines, including the cement mixer that Jim still uses to this day.

And Jim did everything ~ hauling rock from the state highway ditches, felling timber and then milling it into lumber, building railroad ties into forms for his arches, (he’s used the same form over and over), building scaffolding as he went. He hand dug holes up to 12 feet deep for the foundations, mixed all his own mortar, carried it — usually up — to wherever he was working, created and rigged complex systems of pulleys and come-alongs to hoist such things as tree trunks for the floor supports, and stone by stone his dreams were being made manifest. Jim handles each and every stone in the castle on average of SIX TIMES !!! before it rests in its final configuration in this massive re-organizing of the scattered granite in the Rocky Mountains into the form of the Bishop Castle.

Structural Ornaments:

The beginning of the square tower on the south side of the main keep saw the first massive use of ironwork in the construction. Up until then Jim had incorporated his ironwork as window frames, stairs, and the purely ornamental. Now his use of iron and steel became structural, with a core frame for the tower starting from its foundations. The rock work formed around this base and created such strength that Jim had no fear contemplating the heights that the tower might one day climb to.

Wooden forms soon gave way to ornamental iron forms in the arches of the second floor, some of the most incredible examples of precision geometry found in the castle. And the most magnificent feature of all: the inner roof support trusses and the main central arch which are so detailed yet so massively functional that they boggle the mind that this is the work of one pair of hands. Everywhere one looks something will boggle the mind, such as the fact that the hand railing going up the S.W. corner, named Roy’s Tower, with all of its bizarre twists and turns, was hammered cold into its highly custom shape.

The Dream Defined:

Over the years as the castle grew, more and more people heard about this phenomenon up in the mountains and began showing up in increasing numbers. Friends told Jim that he should be making some money off what was becoming an attraction! Jim felt differently though ~ he hated it when he was a kid and couldn’t go to the zoo or the ballpark because admission for the whole family was too high for a bunch of working class folks. Seeing as the original idea for a castle came from people visiting the property, Jim figured that if people were welcomed onto the property FOR FREE then he could put out a donation box and people could put in there what they felt comfortable putting in there. The honor system would be the financier!

This increased Jim’s feeling of the castle truly being a place of American Freedom. He felt like he worked hard enough down in Pueblo to support the family that he would build as much as the visitors provided for. This has frustrated him at times over the years, wanting to build larger items such as an elevator and not having the funds to do so, but he feels so strongly about the dream being kept intact that he’s even written into legal documents that the Bishop Castle will always remain free as long as it stands. This belief in America being a Free Country made up of Free Persons has fueled his passions in building the castle to represent the American Dream in an undeniably tangible and awe inspiring form.

Financial Mechanics of Building:

After eight painstaking years of paperwork without the aid of a lawyer, Jim’s wife Pheobe accomplished what many had told her was impossible on her own. In 1984 she received a 501(c)3 non-profit charter from the IRS which allowed her to create the Bishop Castle Non-Profit Charitable Foundation for Newborn Heart Surgery. This formalized the castle’s ability to setup and maintain a donation box on the premises through which the construction is funded.

Pheobe also created the first gift shop on the premises in a one room log cabin that the family had built directly across the courtyard from the castle which she then operated for 13 years. It was through the proceeds of the gift shop and the donation box that materials were purchased for the continued construction, and though the management of the gift shop has now changed hands twice since Pheobe decided to stop doing it herself, the gift shop and the donation box are still the primary sources of funding for the construction of the Bishop Castle. The charity that the family set up is designed to financially help local families with medical expenses for young children that aren’t covered by insurance. Even though the IRS told the Bishops that they weren’t required to make any donations through the charity until the castle was completed, they have managed the Charity for Newborn Heart Surgery in such a way that numerous donations have been made over the years. They feel like they probably have the only charitable foundation in these united States that was created and maintained by working folks.

Enter the Dragon:

In the mid 1980s, a friend of Jim’s was driving a truck full of discarded stainless steel warming plates from the Pueblo County Hospital to the landfill. He decided that Jim could probably put this motherload of expensive stainless steel to better use than the dump could, so he dropped it off at the Bishop Ornamental Iron Shop instead. Jim spent the winter building a chimney out of the steel, riveting thousands of hammered “scales” that he had cut out of the plates together around a steel frame. The dragon was completed in the spring and Jim hauled it up the mountain to tackle the daunting task of raising and installing this incredible sculpture to where it rests today perched off of the front of the Grand Ballroom eighty feet in the air!

Later on came the addition of a burner from a hot air balloon (that was donated!) which Jim put in the back of the dragons throat, making it a true Fire Breathing Dragon! The dragon usually gets fired up weekends through the summer.

Unimaginable Heights Reached:

Jim is often told that he must not be afraid of heights! The way he figures it, he began at the bedrock base of the earth and has been gradually building up, so gradual that as the height grew, he was as comfortable with it as with being on the ground. The feeling has to be a lot like the difference between seeing a child growing up everyday and not seeing them for a year at a time. One is hardly noticeable and the other striking in its effect. Jim’s experience with the castle has been so intimate, (he’s held EVERY SINGLE STONE IN THERE ON AN AVERAGE OF SIX TIMES), that he’s grown stone by stone as well and doesn’t mind the heights at all.

In 1994 Jim reached a point with the square Andreatta tower, named after the family that donated the old school bells that hang in it, where he felt satisfied that it was high enough. That didn’t last long, as in 1995 he built and installed a thirty foot tall steel steeple on top of the masonry, taking the total height to roughly one-hundred and sixty feet! That’s about the size of a 16 story building! Jim has remained satisfied with the overall height of his castle to the present, though he’s recently been threatening to build one of the corner outer wall towers to 250 feet because a local zoning official told him he couldn’t build over 25 and he just added a zero.

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  • thatguy

    WOW! awesome story! thanks. also: great site…..

  • Future Castle Builder

    Amazing!!!!!!!!!
    This story truly inspires!