Saturday, May 18, 2013

Steve Canyon - A Forgotten American Hero

Steve Canyon is an American Hero

Born in New York, quarried in Indiana, and erected in Colorado, there is a forgotten monument to honor a chiseled war veteran who captured the imagination of our country 63 years ago. On the corner of Miner Street and Colorado Boulevard, one of the greatest action heroes of all-time stands guard over the sleepy mountain town of Idaho Springs. Steve Canyon was an unflappable adventurer with a kind heart who was the star character of a long running comic strip created, written and illustrated by Milton Caniff. The daily adventure series ran from January 13, 1947 until June 4, 1988. With its fast-paced story-lines and superb artwork, the strip was extremely popular.

Idaho Springs is nestled in a steep canyon along the banks of Clear Creek. Founded during the gold rush, the cheerful, little town used to celebrate its gold-mining history with an annual festival. When the Depression and World War II dampened the nation's mood, the event was discontinued. After the war, the Junior Chamber of Commerce searched for ways to reenergize the struggling community. They resolved to begin a new tradition that would be called "Gold Rush Days" to commemorate their glorious past.

The legend began when one of the city leaders came up with a bizarre promotional scheme to rename a local landmark after the dashing former Air Force Captain. On June 25, 1947 Squirrel Gulch was officially renamed Steve Canyon. New York based artist Milton Caniff, who had absolutely nothing to do with the idea, was flown in as the guest of honor for the fervent dedication. "It's terrific," the handsome, hefty, blue-eyed cartoonist said after savoring the enthusiastic welcome. "It's the greatest thing that's ever happened to me – and to Steve."

Often referred to as "The Rembrandt of the Comic Strip", Milton Caniff is described as a sincerely nice man who loved to draw. He was known for his incredible work ethic as he drew rain or shine, seven days a week for 54 years. Caniff earned a worldwide reputation for his adventure comic strip Terry and the Pirates. After a twelve year run Caniff quit in 1946, disgusted by the fact that the rights for the strip he had created, written and drawn were entirely owned by the Chicago Tribune newspaper syndicate. With sole creative control, Caniff promptly developed Steven Canyon and debuted his new strip to 168 newspapers less than a year later.

Originally a veteran running his own air transport business, Steve Canyon returned to the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War and stayed in the military for the remainder of the strip's run. The cast included colorful characters like General Philerie, Reed Kimberley and a loyal wingman in eccentric millionaire adventurer Happy Easter. The initial romantic interest was provided by Copper Calhoon but Canyon eventually married Calhoon's private secretary, Summer Olson. Other intriguing characters such as Madame Lynx, exiled ruler Princess Snowflower, Pipper the Piper, Miss Mizzou and Charlie Vanilla were based on friends and celebrities of that time.

A world away in Idaho Springs, inspired by the overwhelming success of the renaming, the community somehow convinced the federal government to commission the Indiana Limestone Company to carve an eight-foot statue of the comic strip icon. It was shipped to Colorado by the U.S. Air Force Reserve and formally dedicated on July 8, 1950. Milton Caniff returned for the distinguished ceremony. A portion of the plaque is inscribed with these words, "The United States Treasury salutes Steve Canyon and through him, all American cartoon characters who serve the Nation..."

The mayor of Idaho Springs optimistically declared, "This statue of Steve Canyon is going to put Idaho Springs on the map of the world, believe me."

It was so important back then but today the significance of the Steve Canyon memorial has vanished. A few local old-timers may remember the heroic Steve but most residents and tourists probably have no idea who he was. Those who do know of him probably wonder what the hell a Steve Canyon monument is doing in Idaho Springs, Colorado. For me, the historic gold-mining town and the patriotic statue are a perfect match - symbols of the fleeting nature of life. Gutsy Idaho Springs and its faithful gray guardian are lucky to have grown old together.

The dashing Air Force Captain

An unflappable adventurer with a kind heart

Idaho Springs is a historic gold mining town

Squirrel Gulch is now called Steve Canyon

The daily adventure strip ran for 41 years

Milton Caniff with actress Carol Ohmart, the model for Copper Calhoun

Milton and family preparing to depart New York for Denver

Steve Canyon Day arrives on June 25, 1947


8 comments:

  1. Interesting post Dan - I never read all the comic strips and I honestly don't remember this one, but the statue is beautiful! some of the places I want to visit if we ever get out west is the gold mining towns and ghost towns. As I always say when I read your blog posts, you have some great places in Colorado to explore!

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    1. I'd seen the statue in Idaho Springs a few times but I didn't understand who it was. I did some research and thought the story was kind of interesting. I've never seen a Steve Canyon comic but I guess it was pretty big during its heyday. The artist, Milton Caniff is really good too.

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  2. Fascinating story. Pity for them that the idea fell flat, but I guess some just do.

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    1. I think it was kind of a big deal for a while but the memories seem to have faded away. It was fun to dig up the information and I was surprised at what I found out. Always learning something new about the history around here.

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  3. I've been to Idaho Springs, but I don't remember seeing anything that "put it on the map". I know I didn't see this cool stature, because being a history buff I would have photographed it. I'm trying to remember why or when we were there? Maybe it was only to sleep in a drive through...hum it was years ago, will have to ask hubby if he remembers.

    Cool post!

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    1. It's right on the main drag but if your not looking for him it's easy to miss and drive right on by. The statue is kind of old and battered just like the town but I thought it was a great story.

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  4. Interesting, very appropriate towards Memorial Day.

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    1. Idaho Springs was very proud of the patriotic statue but over time the memory of who it is and why it's there has faded. I thought it was a great story.

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