The Colorado Man Who Single-Handedly Built A Castle Over 53 Years

At some point or another in their lives, loads of people have likely thrown up their hands and said of the daily grind, "To hell with this! I should build a cabin in the woods in the middle of nowhere and get away from everyone — permanently!" Lots of dreams collide in this kind of frustrated, rebellious feeling: the desire to be self-made, the desire to be off-grid, the desire to discard bills along with society's bickering foolishness. For those who've ever felt this way: take heart. You've got a patron saint in the form of Jim Bishop, a Colorado man who took more than five decades of his life to build not just a wooden cabin in the woods, but an actual, stone-and-iron castle in the mountains. And most critically, he did it all by himself, by hand.

Bishop Castle, as creator Jim Bishop named it, rests 145 miles south of Denver in the San Isabel National Forest 9,000 feet above sea level. As Roadside America describes, Bishop started his one-man art-and-architecture statement of defiance all the way back in 1969. "Every man wants a castle," Bishop simply said. He calls his 1000-tons-of-rock citadel "a monument to hardworking people," complete with weirdly designed, towering spires, a "Grand Ballroom," and a mechanical dragon that breathes fire, per Bishop Castle. He fought with authorities to build it, and now his 70s insists (per the Los Angeles Times), "No one will ever control this castle but me."

From the ground up

"The world's, largest one man project" — as the Bishop Castle website says of itself — will likely inspire many, many questions in many, many people. Chief amongst them: What possessed Jim Bishop to single-handedly construct an edifice of such magnitude? As the Bishop Castle website says, the project began as a mere 2.5-acre piece of land bought for the then-15-year-old Bishop in 1959 for $450. He'd dropped out of high school and convinced his parents to buy the land for him. Then, he and his dad Willard set to work on a cabin that would grow, balloon, and accrete over decades into the castle we see today. 

As the story goes, Jim and Willard Bishop laid the groundwork for the cabin over the course of 10 years. At the time folks commented and thought that the design "looked like they were building a castle" with walls and turrets. Willard thought that the idea of building a castle was absurd and far too much work, but the idea ignited something in his son Jim. Whether it was defiance of his father and everyone else's expectations, sheer stubbornness, inexhaustible artistic drive, visionary madness, or all of the above — Bishop hacked, chipped, hefted, hauled, and built all by himself. "By God, I've gotten this far by myself," he thought back then in typical ornery fashion. "If you're going to do something right, do it yourself!" And after his father died that's exactly what he kept doing.

With his own two hands

Aside from the physical difficulties of architecting and constructing a working castle of stone and mortar that can be lived in and survives the elements, Jim Bishop contended with a lot of legal difficulties over the years. Roadside America says that "Washington bureaucrats" wanted to charge Bishop for the stones he used, which came from the nearby San Isabel National Forest. The Colorado Chamber of Commerce, meanwhile, refused to list the castle as a tourist attraction. Per The Denver Post, the whole project almost came crashing down in 2002 when Bishop pulled a shotgun on some nearby, noisy ravers. Two years and 17 felonies later he continued his work. 

Nowadays, the castle gets loads of visitors, even those traveling from as far away as Australia. Bishop and his castle have become an anti-government, anti-authority symbol. "There ain't a dime's worth of difference between a Democrat, Republican and Marxist," the Los Angeles Times quoted him in 2015. 

That year, Bishop and Phoebe — his wife of 50-plus years — often sat at a table outside the castle with a donation box. Three years later Phoebe died of cancer. "I felt like dying then," Bishop told The Denver Post. "But God had more plans for me." Bishop himself overcame Merkel cell carcinoma, a rare form of skin cancer. Now, he has Parkinson's and bipolar disorder to contend with. "I'm God just by doing this," he said of his castle. "We're all gods." 

[Featured image by Library of Congress/Carol M. Highsmith via Wikimedia Commons | Cropped and scaled | CC BY-SA 3.0]

Like father, like son

Despite all the work that Jim Bishop put into Bishop Castle, the project still isn't done — at least not in Bishop's mind. Roadside America describes how he wants to build a moat and drawbridge, a roller coaster attached to the outside, and a balcony "big enough to hold an orchestra." As it stands, the big metal dome at the top spins like a horizontal hamster wheel when people run around inside it. Bishop told the Los Angeles Times, "When I don't wake up one morning, then it will be done. And I don't need no help from nobody!"

And yet, Bishop is getting old. The Denver Post said that he spends more time nowadays dozing by the fire and taking medicine. His son Dan — "Keeper of the Castle," per a documentary on Coolest Thing — has taken over the castle's maintenance and construction. The elder Bishop told The Denver Post, "Danny wants me to rest on my butt. But if this probation goes too long, I'll say, 'Go to hell!'" Such statements are characteristic of Bishop. There are even signs outside of the castle reading, "You might experience foul language!" and, "You might experience strongly expressive behavior!"

Roadside America sums up the whole thing thusly: "Bishop's Castle may look like Hogwarts, but Jim Bishop is no cuddly Dumbledore. He's a tough-talking man with strong beliefs." Words like "tough," "strong," and "magical" apply to Bishop's work as much as Bishop himself.