The Adventure Wall: 2010 Emma Crawford Coffin Races

On Saturday, October 30th, I put on my Facebook profile the following: “Headed to the Manitou Springs Coffin Races. We do weird SO well.”  And, how true that turned out to be, but in the best possible way.

And, at this point, you are probably wondering what the heck “Coffin Races” are. At least, I hope you are wondering, because if you aren’t, I highly recommend going to get your blood pressure checked and pulse taken. Every year, around the end of October, Manitou Springs invites teams of five people to build a coffin shaped, wheeled, four handled contraption and decorate it however they want, with costumes to match. Imagine bobsleds on wheels and you’ll be pretty close to what they have. Each team has one “dearly departed” who rides in the coffin and doesn’t do much besides scream and hang on for dear life. The real work is done by the four “mourners” which translates to four of the tallest, skinniest, fastest guys you can find to push the coffin straight up the side of a hill. They race in sets of two and the winner of each set has their time entered and logged and the winner of the sets with the fastest time wins the race.

And, why do they do such a weird thing? The easy answer is that it’s Colorado and pot is legal here, but the actual answer is that the race is to honor a young lady by the name of Emma Crawford. Emma lived in Manitou Springs in 1890 and was loved by many and broke the heart of the town when she died suddenly of tuberculosis. As per her request, she was buried at the top of Red Mountain which overlooks Manitou Springs. Later, to the dismay of many, heavy rainfall broke down the dirt surrounding her and her coffin actually broke loose and slid down the side of the mountain. That’s the official story although I have heard many far more gruesome and interesting versions told by the locals including her open coffin actually sliding down the main street of Manitou, terrifying women and small children. Whichever way you hear it, it’s an interesting story and the fun surrounding the event to honor her is unending!

The day begins early for those who want to get a good spot on the narrow sidewalks of Manitou. We dawdled over breakfast and coffee with our friend Ruth who was in town for a visit and so we got there at 10:45 am. It took twenty minutes to find a parking spot and then had to walk a mile to find somewhere to sit. We claimed our spot at around 11:15, but between myself and Ruth, who is also not the largest person in the world, we didn’t fare too well in our viewing ability. Even the people who got there early just got shoved until whoever was biggest, strongest or the most annoying took over their spot. However, there were enough fun things to look at that it didn’t really matter.

Almost everyone was in costume. We saw Smurfs, Harry Potter, Strawberry Shortcake, the usual witches and goblins, pirates and punk rockers, but my favorite was the family of three dressed up in Star Wars outfits with Leia, Luke Skywalker and the 1 year old with an R2D2 costume. Even the dogs were dressed up, with my favorite being a monster sized black lab with a headless horseman strapped to his back. One of the best moments was when we overheard a mom saying to her young son, “Honey, you have to let me hold your chainsaw if you are going to eat ice cream”.

We didn’t have enough time to look at all the great costumes before the parade started at 12:00. It was the weirdest parade I‘ve ever seen! A motorcycle gang with the American and Colorado flags strapped to their bikes raced up the street first followed by about twenty hearses decorated in various amazing ways. Here are a few of my favorites.

This one had a flame thrower on the back, but this next one is my favorite.

Following them were the coffins. Here are a few of the best ones.

After the parade ended and everyone had their look at all the coffins, the teams began to get ready in earnest. Parts of costumes that created wind resistance came off, last minute bathroom breaks were achieved and they all stretched out, all the while eyeing their competition and whispering last minute strategy to their team leaders. Finally, the departed hopped into the coffin, the mourners took hold of their racing handles and the race was on!

The roar of the wheels on the pavement could be heard over the screams of the crowd. Some of the screams came from people who pushed the edge of the barrier and were clipped by a coffin or saw a near crash occur. It wasn’t an uncommon in years past for a coffin to spin out of control and land in the crowd.  The yells of encouragement flowed up the street, keeping time with the racers and the crowd would become even more intense as each team crossed the finish line. The times were announced and the team walked their coffin around the back of the buildings to await the final announcement of which team had won.

Since we had Jake with us and the crowd became a bit too much for him (he would clap wildly as every team started off and then cry for a second), we had to leave before the races were over. As we fought our way out of the crowd, I had to use my ninja skills to get us all out of there, but with a few well placed elbows and intense looks that managed to penetrate semi-intoxicated brains, we finally got out of there.

It was a hot, tiring and strange day, but I am SO glad we went. I loved being with a huge crowd of people, all excited and totally in to the same thing. The amount of pride that the organizers had in putting on an event really well and making it a fun and welcoming place was obvious. And appreciated!

At the end of the day, I realized that I don’t really know a town until I attend an event like this. I have walked the streets of Manitou at least dozen times, but I have never seen the tiny town like I did that day. I would like to say to Colorado Springs and Manitou Springs that I’m glad I’m getting to know you. Can’t wait for more!

And, congratulations to the winners of the 2010 Emma Crawford Coffin Races. The El Paso County Wildland Crew, or as everyone knew them that day: The Smurfs.

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5 Responses to The Adventure Wall: 2010 Emma Crawford Coffin Races

  1. Illyse says:

    I never got to go to the Coffin Races, but each year, the stories got better and better. Apparently, since I left in 1984, it has gotten wilder (and more crowded) with each passing year! Thanks for the report.

    Of course, now that you are a “real” Coloradan with all the history and everything. . . make sure you celebrate Alfred Packer day!

  2. Becky says:

    Weird. Totally fascinating. And weird.

  3. Ruth says:

    Yeah for the smurfs! so they beat out the reigning champs? NICE! they were firefighters, right?

  4. Brenda says:

    “The easy answer is that it’s Colorado and pot is legal here.” LOVE IT.

  5. Dottie says:

    Great story; makes me wish I’d been there to see it.

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