Emma Crawford Coffin Races and the Zombies of Colorado College

On Aug. 4, 1929, two boys found a human skull on Red Mountain, a 7,375-foot summit outside of Manitou Springs, Colo. After later questioning, police determined that it belonged to Emma Crawford, a young woman who came to Manitou Springs around 1889 with the hopes that the mineral springs and fresh mountain air would cure her of tuberculosis. 

“I did so climb it, and I tied my scarf to a little pinon pine tree on the summit,” Crawford is reported to have said, from testimonies preserved in the Manitou Springs Heritage Center. “I decided that I will be buried beneath that tree.” 

When she died in 1891, her wish was honored. Her fiancé, William Hildebrand, a civic engineer with the Pikes Peak Cog Railway, helped carry her coffin up to the summit, where it was buried beneath a pine tree.

Thirty-eight years later, the coffin came tumbling back down the mountain. All that was ever recovered is Crawford’s skull, a bundle of bones, the coffin handles, and a nameplate. She is now buried in the Crystal River Cemetery, but locals like to say that her adventurous spirit remains. The Emma Crawford Coffin Races and Festival is now held annually, the Saturday before Halloween, to commemorate her coffin’s fall down the mountain. 

Photo By Daniel Sarché

More than 10,000 attendees flocked to Manitou for the races this year, crowding around the 195-yard race course running through the middle of town. People arrived hours early to snag the prime places along the barriers. Others, less timely, crowded onto staircases and rock walls. Police and volunteers patrolling the event told people to stay off private property; festival-goers nodded in agreement and then ran right back to their perches as soon as the officials moved on. 

Nearly everyone was in some sort of costume. Little kids wore witch hats and bright orange skirts; muscled men strode through the crowds with blood-spattered t-shirts and carrying butcher’s knives. There were people in dragon costumes and medieval dresses, hosts of middle-aged witches and whole families in bumblebee costumes. A woman wearing black lipstick and a long black cape nursed her baby on a bench, while a nearby street musician sported a beaver-tail cap. Even dogs were dressed up; one particularly friendly lab wore prison stripes emblazoned with “Prisoner of Alcatraz.” 

“If you get hit by a coffin, it’s not on the City of Manitou, it’s on you!” said an announcer before the races started. 

Colorado College fielded its first team this year, after Sara Rotunno, Assistant Director of Accessibility Resources, mentioned it to Lynnette DiRaddo, Worner Desk Manager, while on a hike last year. Rotunno had attended the 2017 coffin races several days previously, and the two agreed that CC athletes could really push a coffin to victory. 

The two started planning the team within a few weeks. Klay Matlock, a carpenter at the CC Carpentry Shop, designed and built the coffin. Funding came from Communications and the Worner Desk. DiRaddo and Rotunno, with the help of Krystal Duran – the Worner Desk Administrative Assistant – who helped organize the team. The running team proved to be the most difficult to nail down, with various runners backing out over the course of the year and two injuring themselves shortly before the race. The final lineup included Stacey Stevens, formerly of the Career Center, as “Emma,” and Liza Huschle ’20, Assistant Women’s Lacrosse Coach Lucy Gerrity, Financial Aid Coordinator Jason Gabriel, and Events Coordinator Kris Higginbotham as the runners. 

Teams race in pairs of two, one on each side of the street, egged up the 7-percent grade by the cheers of the crowd. Teams are judged based on timing, with additional points added for style. 

This year, the CC team sported blood-spattered t-shirts and gorily pale blood-smudged faces, makeup courtesy of Cam Kaplan ’20. Their coffin was christened the “Zomboni.” 

The CC Zombies, however, were not the best dressed team on the street. The race with the most cheers was between a team of shirtless men and a team of bumblebees. There were coffins with dragon heads attached, and full tribes of witches. Although no coffin overturned, some lost their runners and others lost bits of their coffin. 

The CC team finished in the top third, their stylish black and yellow coffin and strong runners easily outpacing their opponents. 

“Not a bad result for our first time at the race!” said DiRaddo. She thinks it’s likely CC will have a team next year. 

“We have this fabulous Zomboni so why not use it?” 

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