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Colorado’s Bishop Castle is transitioning from father to son – Denver, Colorado

Denver, Colorado 2021-11-25 08:00:44 –

RYE — Jim Bishop shuffled slowly out onto the rickety metal bridge high atop the signature castle he’s been building in southern Colorado for more than half a century.

His back hunched, the wind whipping. Bishop stopped near the end of the bridge that leads to nowhere. He turned, grabbing the iron railing. A wry smile appeared on his face as he shook the bridge back and forth, his slight frame swaying in the cool mountain breeze.

“If I built it,” Bishop said, “I can sure walk on it.”

At 77, Bishop still has a wild side to him — the kind of attitude that tells you to keep building a castle in the middle of nowhere by hand and by yourself since 1969.

But what happens when the king of the castle can no longer rule?

Bishop Castle, one of Colorado’s quirkiest roadside attractions, is in the midst of a transitional period after decades of autocratic rule — a bridge without a clear destination.

Bishop beat the cancer that doctors thought he’d never overcome, but Parkinson’s disease has taken a toll on the builder. These days, he spends more of his time taking medication and resting by the fire than stacking stones, his son Dan having taken over day-to-day operations of Bishop’s magnum opus.

“Danny wants me to rest on my butt,” Jim Bishop said with a smile. “But if this probation goes too long, I’ll say, ‘Go to hell!’”

Dan Bishop isn’t sure what’s next for Bishop Castle since there are no blueprints, just a vision from the creator himself. He’s building a new gift shop to replace the one that burned down in 2018 and may eventually connect the bridge that leads to nowhere. He vows never to sell the land. But it all feels a bit weird to Dan. This isn’t his masterpiece.

“If someone picked up a Picasso and started painting on it,” he said, “then it’s not a Picasso anymore.”

The legend of Bishop Castle

Now in its seventh decade, Bishop Castle continues to wow visitors from its perch along Colorado 165 near the small town of Rye, nestled at 9,000 feet in the San Isabel National Forest.

By now, its origin story is the stuff of legend: Bishop says he bought the 2.5-acre plot of land at 15 years old for $450 as a way to escape from Pueblo. Over the next 10 years, he and his father Willard began laying the groundwork for a family cabin, using stones from nearby mountains.

Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

Jim Bishop walks on the metal stairs high up on Bishop Castle near Rye on Nov. 16, 2021.

As they built, neighbors remarked that the building looked awfully like a castle. Bishop’s father wanted nothing to do with a project of that magnitude, but Jim Bishop saw something there. So he continued to build… and build… and build.

On his website, Bishop claims his castle is the country’s — and maybe even the world’s — largest one-man project, though he’s only been on a plane twice in his life.

The castle is hardly a local secret anymore. It’s featured on travel sites like Tripadvisor and has been promoted on countless travel lists — “13 of the most Instagramable locations in Colorado” or “Ten Weird and Wonderful Colorado Attractions.”

“We don’t have a lot going on,” said Deb Adams, Custer County’s tourism chair, with a laugh. “Bishop Castle is one of our main attractions in Custer County. It’s such a unique architectural phenomenon — just the history of how it was built, how quirky it is.”

On a recent November day, the air unusually mild under an overcast sky, Bishop came to his castle ready to work — at least for a short while. His current project consists of building a wall around the entire property, a task that will take him the rest of his life, he said.

The Bishop Castle has one tower ...

Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

Bishop Castle has one tower that stands over 160 feet tall and a dragon head made of discarded stainless steel hospital trays.

Visitors from El Salvador stopped Bishop to take pictures with him in front of his life’s work and he happily obliged.

“They’re more likely to donate if I do,” Bishop said with a smile.

After loading up his yellow wheelbarrow, Bishop slowly pushed it down the hill, pausing at the bottom to rest. Clad in a blue, stained “Jim Bishop” polo shirt and worn jeans, the builder remarked that his joints feel “real good” today — though one of his hands was visibly swollen, an ace bandage wrapped around it.

“I’m getting younger,” he said.

With great care, Bishop tossed the rocks on top of one another. He’s adapted with age, learning to pivot on his feet to save himself steps.

Bishop looked across the two-lane road. He walks over there occasionally to pick up trash, the same place where his 4-year-old son, Roy, died in a tree-felling accident more than 30 years ago.

“He’s safe,” Bishop said. “He’s in heaven.”

Bishop is not a religious man — he doesn’t believe in it, much like his feelings on the White House — but he talks about God often.

“I’m God just by doing this,” he said. “We’re all gods.”

The castle has been host to some 350 weddings over the years, Bishop guessed. All he asks for is a small deposit to reserve the day, otherwise the place is yours. The castle has always been free — partly out of kindness and partly because the building can’t be insured.

Its magnificence — the stained-glass windows in the chapel, the ornate, twisting metal staircases, the menacing dragon’s head — belies the fact that it’s still an open construction site. Metal hangs low through arched entrances, small ropes cordon off areas where one could fall dozens of feet to the ground with a simple misstep.

There have been no serious injuries at the castle, the Bishops said — though one woman did die from a heart attack on a buttress near the castle’s base.

Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

Jim Bishop sits inside the large cathedral-like room inside Bishop Castle near Rye on Nov. 16, 2021. This room is often used for weddings at the castle.

Raves, drugs and a wedding gone wrong

While the castle has become one of Custer County’s most prominent attractions, the builder’s relationship with local officials over the years has been… complicated.

Bishop started construction on the castle before the county had zoning laws, said Jackie Hobby, a Custer County planning and zoning official.

“We don’t, at this point in time, have any apparent issues with them,” she said.

Bishop said county officials have mostly left him alone over the years — though that omits some relatively consequential details.

When Jim and his wife, Phoebe, were going through some struggles in the late 1990s, she started dancing at nightclubs, Dan Bishop said. Jim wanted his wife at the castle, so what did they do? They brought the party to Bishop Castle.

And by party, Bishop meant raves. Three-day, drug-filled benders with as many as 1,500 people that began on Friday night and didn’t stop until Sunday afternoon. Ravers once built a human wall on the highway, just because, Dan Bishop said. Mosh pits formed on the third level of the castle.

“People were literally passing out upside-down, sleeping in the middle of the yard,” Dan said. “Tourists would come Saturday morning and find these drunk and high partiers littering the landscape. That was a really bizarre time in the existence of Bishop Castle.”

The large dragon head, at the ...

Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

The large dragon head, at Bishop Castle, was made of discarded stainless steel hospital trays that came from St. Mary Corwin Hospital in Pueblo.

These parties drew the ire of neighbors, and got the attention of county commissioners and law enforcement officials, who received complaints on everything from trespassing and public urination to overt drug use and excessive noise, The Denver Post reported in a 1998 story about the raves.

“I’ve had people tell me they are afraid to go outside of their homes on weekends because of the types of clientele he has, and they’re afraid to go and leave their home vacant,” Custer County Commissioner Cleo Day told The Post at the time. “That’s not fair to the surrounding residents.”

The county eventually got a court-ordered injunction to stop the debauchery.

But in 2002, a wedding-turned-rave provided one of the most dramatic moments in the castle’s storied history — one that could have ended the entire project.

The way Dan tells it, some ravers wanted to get around the injunction, so they threw a wedding at the castle instead. That wedding turned into an all-night party.

“They refused to stop,” Dan said. “And it turned into a gunfight.”

Dan said he “made a noise with a shotgun” to get people to leave. “The next thing you know, it’s a two-year battle with the court system over 17 felonies.”

Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

The walkway that leads nowhere on Bishop Castle on Nov. 16, 2021.

Dan and his father were charged with a host of felony menacing counts. They went all the way to trial, with a Custer County jury finding Jim not guilty on all charges. Dan was acquitted on 16 of the 17 counts, receiving 30 days in jail and two years of probation for reckless endangerment, court records show.

“I was happy to serve my 30 days,” Dan Bishop said.

The castle is the way it is today — “a nice, calm, do-what-you-want experience,” Dan said — because of what he went through during that seven-day trial.

“It’s been a life!” Dan said with a laugh.

Alyesia Miranda walks down the steep ...

Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

Alyesia Miranda walks down the steep steps that lead down from Bishop Castle on Nov. 16, 2021.

Tom Flower, a current Custer County commissioner, chuckled when a Post reporter said they were calling about Bishop Castle.

Flower likes to tell people that if they want the real Bishop Castle experience, “holler for Jim and tell him you think the government is doing a good job. He’ll lose his mind.”

There are numerous signs outside the castle that let visitors know exactly how Bishop goes about his life, and he frequently goes off on diatribes about various government entities and their, err, disfunction or alleged sinister dealings.

“You might experience foul language!” one sign reads outside the castle. “You might experience strongly expressive behavior!”

Roadside America, an online guide to offbeat tourist attractions, added a disclaimer on the bottom of its Bishop Castle entry, saying: “Bishop’s Castle may look like Hogwarts, but Jim Bishop is no cuddly Dumbledore. He’s a tough-talking man with strong beliefs, and sometimes he expresses them bluntly and loudly. If you or your children want to avoid potentially offensive rants, you may want to steer clear.”

Bishop was arrested in 2016 and charged with a series of bias-motivated crimes after authorities say he repeatedly yelled a racial slur and threatened a group of Black tourists visiting his castle, according to a Custer County Sheriff’s Office incident report. A jury acquitted him on all charges, court records show.

Castle builder Jim Bishop sits by ...

Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

Castle builder Jim Bishop sits by his fire pit outside of the Bishop Castle on Nov. 16, 2020 in Rye.

What’s next for Bishop Castle?

When he’s not working, Jim Bishop likes to sit by the campfire on the site of the not-yet-built gift shop next to the castle with his dog Marley, an excitable brown spaniel.

He pulled out old pictures of Phoebe, who died of cancer three years ago. They were married 50 years, and Bishop invokes her name often. He recalled the time Phoebe took a halogen light miles away to test how far you could see from the top of the castle.

They used to discuss who would play each other in a movie of their lives — Bishop pulling for Catherine Zeta-Jones to portray Phoebe, while she quipped that he should be played by Clint Eastwood.

After a few minutes, tears streamed down his cheek, Bishop’s body shaking slightly.

Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

Jim Bishop shows photos of the building of his castle, right, and his wife Phoebe of over 50 years who died of cancer in 2018, center, and his family, left, as he sits by his fire pit outside of Bishop Castle on Nov. 16, 2021.

“She did a lot for me, I’ll tell you,” Bishop said quietly, looking at a younger portrait of his wife. “Guess I’ll put ’em back in the case now.”

As he and Phoebe both fought their own forms of cancer, “I felt like dying then,” Bishop said. “But God had more plans for me.”

With his cancer gone, it’s Parkinson’s and bipolar disorder that have led Bishop to cede the castle’s reins to his son.

He holds out his palms.

“See? No shakes,” Bishop said.

But Dan Bishop has had to put his father on a type of probation — changing the code on the Bobcat construction vehicle and taking his father’s car keys to save him from himself.

“I think his mind will go before his body,” Dan said. “Dad lives in a fantasy world sometimes.”

His father goes through spells of mania that he can’t control, even ending up in court recently after he fought someone over crayons at a behavioral health unit.

Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

Jim Bishop sits on the steep stairs that lead up the tall towers in Bishop Castle on Nov. 16, 2021. He says he was inspired by castles from his mother’s home of Ljubliana, Slovenia where a Medieval fortress was built above the downtown area in the 11th century. He says he was also inspired by the famous La Sagrada Familia Basilica by architect Antonio Gaudi in Barcelona Spain. “I am most proud that people come to see my castle. I wouldn’t want to be here by myself,” Bishop said. “My castle will be a work in progress until my dying day.”

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