Inspired by a macabre mistake, coffins race down the streets of a small Colorado town every October

The annual Manitou Springs race honors Emma Crawford more than a hundred years after her coffin accidentally came barreling down Red Mountain

Photo: Diana Crandall

On the Saturday before Halloween, 70 coffins line the streets of Manitou Springs, Colorado, a small town about an hour and a half south of Denver. A handful of tricked-out hearses and thousands of people clad in costume wait for the unusual procession to make its way down the main drag. 

The Emma Crawford Coffin Race isn’t your average memorial service, but it has captured the hearts of people around the country as the event has expanded over the last 25 years. Each year before Halloween, coffins are built by teams of five people, decorated, and modified to roll down the street. Four of the people are pushers, the fifth sits inside, and it all started with Emma Crawford. 

Local lore says that at the turn of the 20th century, Crawford moved to Manitou Springs hoping that the alpine air could clear up her tuberculosis. When it became clear she wouldn’t survive, she left precise instructions to be buried on the top of nearby Red Mountain. Some say that construction forced her coffin to be moved and others that weather is solely responsible, but all versions of the story agree on one thing: Crawford’s coffin was dislodged from its resting place by outside forces and came barreling down Red Mountain. 

Nearly everyone grins the whole way
Nearly everyone grins the whole way. | Photo: Diana Crandall
Some participants use heavy make-up and prosthetics.
Some participants use heavy make-up and prosthetics. | Photo: Diana Crandall

In it to win it

The race may seem like a plot point in a Tim Burton movie, but it’s a surprisingly family-friendly event. The smell of fresh crepes is in the crisp October air and a local band has the crowd swaying to acoustic folk music. The teams—dressed as infectious-looking aliens, bloodied emergency room staff, and everything in between—comprise both children and adults. Some are here for the fun of it; others are in it to win it. 

This is the case for the Scooby Squad, a group of students and young professionals who live and work along Colorado’s Front Range. Their coffin is made from carbon fiber, aluminum, and fiberglass, optimized to go as fast as the four men in their early 20s can push it. The team’s “Emma,” Amelia Phillips, sits inside and each person dons a costume fit for the Mystery Machine they’re entering into the race. 

Sometimes, it’s all in the eyes.
Sometimes, it’s all in the eyes. | Photo: Diana Crandall

Some "Emmas" lay as flat as possible.
Some “Emmas” lie as flat as possible. | Photo: Diana Crandall

“We went lightweight, started with a snowboard and a mountain board,” says Brian Cerneck, 49, who designed and built the coffin in his garage. “The first coffin I built got 10th place with me and other guys my age running it. I got smart and got college kids to run.”

Last year’s second place wasn’t good enough for the team, so they got to work as soon as they wrapped the 2018 races. 

“We started the design immediately after we finished the race last year. We knew we were a little bit too heavy and we knew we were a little bit too rigid,” Cerneck says. Team member Atticus Fredrickson says the gang feels great about their chances. 

“We’re looking to win it this year,” Fredrickson, who is dressed as Daphne, says. “We took second last year, an upsetting defeat, but we’re coming back with a vengeance.” 

Classic hearses creep down the street during the pre-race parade.
Classic hearses creep down the street during the pre-race parade. | Photo: Diana Crandall

The pretty pollinator

Not everyone is here for a trophy. Several yards away stands a stunning coffin covered in flowers, butterflies, and bees. The Manitou Springs Pollinator Project designed it in support of their goal: for Manitou Springs to become a certified pollinator district. 

“It’s a very big deal,” says Beth Chorpenning, a founding member of the project. She has good reason to be excited: According to her and Judith Chandler, city council elect for Manitou Springs, the Pollinator Project was already part of a successful campaign to pass organic land management legislation in the city. 

Judith Chandler, city council elect, dressed as a bee.
Judith Chandler, city council elect, dressed as a bee. | Photo: Diana Crandall

Not every team is designed to terrify.
Not every team is designed to terrify. | Photo: Diana Crandall

“We no longer use any harmful chemicals in our city parks, our city gardens, and our open space,” Chorpenning says. And the project is just one component of a larger group that is looking to bring positive environmental change to the community. 

“We are actually planting trees and working on getting Manitou certified as an Arbor City,” Chandler says, noting that they shied away from a darker theme when it came time to decorate the coffin. “We decided we were going to go with a friendly theme instead of death and destruction, because we’re all about growth and renewal and organic.” The bright colors distract me enough to almost forget that this coffin was once used to transport a body.

Start your coffins

The races don’t start for an hour but the sidewalks are bursting with onlookers, and it’s time for the teams to parade down the street. The fastest teams move upwards of 10 miles an hour during the 195-yard race, which means there’s hardly enough time for the crowd to appreciate the elaborate handiwork that goes into each team’s designs, makeup, and costumes. There’s also an unusual glitch in the plan this year: Part of the road is under construction, which means that coffins go one at a time against the clock instead of racing next to each other. 

If anyone’s disappointed by the change, they don’t show it. The crowd whoops and hollers as the teams walk the parade. Some ride through on rollerskates while others perform acrobatic moves. Monsters and superheroes high-five children who line the orange blockades. Classic hearses creep down the street with “undead” drivers inside. 

A few of the teams use gymnastics in the parade.
A few of the teams use gymnastics in the parade. | Photo: Diana Crandall

It's up to the "Emma" to decide how she'll sit.
It’s up to the “Emma” to decide how she’ll sit. | Photo: Diana Crandall

Every year, lore, legend, and love for a community bring thousands of people to Manitou Springs from all around the country. Some people have never missed a race in 25 years. The race begins at 1:30 p.m, but seasoned onlookers arrive hours early to reserve their spots on the sidelines. As the race gets underway, the crowd shouts and cheers in waves as each of the 70 coffins barrel down the street. Some are slow, just running a few miles an hour, while others fly by in a blur.

Cerneck’s team crosses the finish line in approximately 30 seconds, with a top speed of around 12 miles an hour. They win first place, which allows the “coffin cup to stay in Manitou,” Phillips says. The race wasn’t so simple for everyone, though. Dennis Mantia, who pushed a coffin for local restaurant the Green Line Grill, says he was terrified the coffin would crash. 

“It tilted [and] almost flipped over,” Mantia says “And then everybody’s outside trying to hold it down, and then we’re going into the fence. We almost take off this poor boy’s legs.”

But Mantia’s team has run the race for the past six years and they’ll be back again next year with a better coffin. If Emma Crawford’s coffin and final resting place had been more secure, the Coffin Races may never have existed. But if she is watching from beyond the grave, I hope she approves of the race that bears her name—a quirky and spooky celebration of those willing to risk life and limb for a fast ride through a little mountain town.

If you go

The Emma Crawford Coffin Race and Festival takes place in Manitou Springs, Colorado each October.