THE SOUTHWEST NATIONAL PARK LODGES #2
ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK AND THE STANLEY HOTEL
for Nov. 16, 2011
ON THE ROAD AGAIN
To the strains of Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again, our intrepid little foursome resumed our odyssey in a black Lincoln Town Car (because it’s the only car with a trunk large enough to hold three weeks’ of luggage for four people, including books and “priceless” souvenir coffee mugs picked up along the way). We then pulled out of our long driveway onto Conifer Mountain Drive with Connie and Lucy ensconced in their backseat nests and Bob and I in the navigational cockpit. Over time, we’ve developed a system that works well for us: one of us navigates (drawing upon maps) and reads out loud, to front and back passengers, about the history of the parks and lodges we are driving towards. This way, when we actually arrive there, we know what is important or significant; this way it’s almost like coming to a loved home.
We owe the dream of making the Great Circle to Ken Burns and his landmark National Parks miniseries on PBS. It was watching those riveting films that provided the impetus. The reference sources we rely on most heavily for these blogs are Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan’s The National Parks, Mel White’s Complete National Parks of the United States, and Christine Barnes’ definitive two-volume work, Great Lodges of the National Parks. Though I also refer to other works, these four books are our traveling reference bible.
Our pattern has been to first read out loud sections dealing with the founding and preservation of the national park, landmark, monument, forest, etc., first, then follow it up with the equally fascinating story of these fascinating and fragile national park lodges. It has been gratifying to discover how many people vicariously travel with us via these blogs. Some readers will no doubt follow in our footsteps by themselves making the Great Circle circuit, and others will content themselves with a metaphorical, almost virtual, experience. Either way, we welcome you aboard.
So it was that as Bob Earp took the wheel for the two-hour drive to our first night’s destination, I served as tour guide and patched together the story of Rocky Mountain National Park and the Stanley Hotel. We discovered that the mountainous area radiating out from the little town of Estes Park, because of its close proximity to Denver, had long been a popular tourist destination. The immediate magnets, of course, being 14,259 foot high Longs Peak and its shy sister, Meeker Peak, sadly ignored by many because it’s “only a thirteener.”
As we’d already discovered in our northwest national park peregrinations, invariably there were fascinating people who stepped in to preserve these natural wonders for us. All it seems to take are one or two local visionaries to do the spade work and two or three more to spearhead the project nationally. In the case of this particular park, as is true of virtually all other great national parks, one name towers above all others—John Muir. Without him, one shudders to think of the fate of all these magnificent parks we tend to take for granted. Second only in significance to Muir were Stephen Tyng Mather and his able associate, Horace Albright; this triad constitutes the founding fathers of our entire national park system, today the envy of the world.
Locally, two very different men stepped in to preserve this mountainous area for posterity: Enos Mills and Freelan O. Stanley. And what brought both to Colorado in the first place was a deadly malady known to contemporaries as “consumption” and to us as “tuberculosis.” Fully one-third
of Colorado residents back at the turn of the twentieth century were consumptives, each with a hacking cough that doomed them to an early death unless they managed to escape from the lowlands and settle in the brisk, invigorating, life-giving air of the mountains.
Earlier on, a member of the European nobility, the fourth Earl of Dunraven, had purchased a large tract of land near Longs Peak. Object: to turn it into an exclusive hunting preserve for himself and his wealthy friends. But the Earl lacked staying power. Enter F. O. Stanley, a twin to his brother, Francis Edgar, born in Kingfield, Main. The brothers grew up, both entered the teaching profession but soon left it because of entrepreneurial ventures. In 1884, the brothers (both inventors) fine-tuned a new film process, called Stanley Dry Plate, that revolutionized photography. Eventually, in 1904, they’d sell it to George Eastman for $530,000. But long before that sale, the brothers had become so fascinated with the automobile and steam-propulsion that they created their first steam-propelled auto—it became known as the “Stanley Steamer.” They completed their first Steamer in 1897, and launched a new model in 1901. Two years later, F. O.’s doctor told him that he’d soon be dead of consumption unless he moved into the high mountains.
So it was that F.O. and his wife, Flora, came to Denver; then, seeking higher yet ground, discovered Estes Park, which they promptly fell in love with. Constitutionally incapable of remaining inactive for long, Stanley purchased from Dunraven 160 acres of land adjacent to Estes Park. Object: to build on it a great hotel. Stanley then hired Denver architect, T. Robert Weiger, to implement his hotel plans. Weiger is also known as the designer of Denver’s iconic City and County Building. Ground was broken, fall of 1907. The Colonial Revival hotel (like Yellowstone Lake Hotel, one of the few surviving examples of neoclassical design in the wilds of the mountainous West), four stories high, was crowned by a two-layer hexagon-shaped bell tower, that has ever since been likened to a wedding gazebo atop a perfectly proportioned cake. It was flanked by perpendicular wings at each end, and graced by a long first floor veranda with six double sets of Doric columns and Palladian windows. Eight other separate buildings were added later.
With the nearest railroad 22 miles down Big Thompson Canyon, Stanley improved the road and imported a fleet of Stanley Steamers and Stanley Wagons to ferry guests back and forth from the railroad. Because his auto-stage line proved so successful, Stanley is known today as “the father of auto-tourism in America.” And the elite of America and travelers from abroad came, with their maids and nannies. Came to this “first all electric hotel in the world” to play croquet on the front courtyard; read, chat, or dream on the veranda; take trail rides, play billiards, pool, or golf; attend concerts, vaudeville shows, balls; and be feted with fine dining (with one waiter per table). It put Estes Park on the map.
Enos Mills, on the other hand, came from a very different background: the plains of Kansas. He moved here when only fourteen, dying of consumption. Like Stanley, here in the mountains, his health was restored. He would build a hotel facility that could not have been more different from Stanley’s: the plain-looking, almost primitive Longs Peak Inn, which took in summer guests who were willing to participate in Mills’ conservative spartan lifestyle: no drinking, dancing, or card-playing, but rather take strenuous hikes, study nature, and attend lectures (three times a week, given by Mills himself).
Mills and Stanley soon discovered they shared a common passion: preserve for posterity those beautiful mountains they’d come to cherish. Mills, in a chance meeting with John Muir in San Francisco in 1899, caught a vision for his life work: to help bring the Rocky Mountains into the fledgling national park system. Mills and Stanley now enlisted the powerful support of Mather and Albright in Washington, D.C. A bill to create the park (at 265,800 acres, smaller than they wanted) was introduced in Congress in 1914. But unlike the stories of other national parks, it did not languish there—John Muir died. Because of Muir’s support for the park, and the sentiment generated by his passing, the bill was rushed through in only a month! It was dedicated on September 4, 1915, with both Mather and Albright in attendance. The way the final bill was drawn, the Stanley Hotel ended up a couple of miles outside the park.
And thus was born Rocky Mountain National Park, which straddles the Continental Divide and includes more than sixty peaks 12,000 feet high or higher, 50 alpine lakes, 450 miles of streams and rivers, 355 miles of trails, and great diversity of habitat (given that its elevation ranges from a low of 7,840′ to a high of 14,259′ (Longs Peak). It is crossed by the legendary Trail Ridge Road, the highest continuous road in America (reaching 12,183′). Massive snowfalls keep it closed during winter, so it is only open from June 1 to October. The lower sections are open year-round. Not surprisingly, the park is one of our nation’s most popular tourist destinations.
As for the Stanley Hotel, its very survival was for a long time in doubt. One man, Roe Emering, somehow kept it alive during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Even after selling the hotel, the Stanleys returned here every summer; here F.O. would sit on the veranda, gaze out at the majestic mountains, and dream. He died October 2, 1940 at the age of 91. From 1971-1995, the hotel ownership went through a soap opera series of events (time-share schemes, lawsuits, tax problems, closure, bankruptcy), but in 1995, Grand Heritage Hotels saved it, and has lovingly restored it to its former beauty. Today it is part of the National Trust’s Historic Hotels of America.
And Stephen King provided extra survival insurance: while living in nearby Boulder, King and his family discovered the Stanley, and found in it the inspiration for a book he was then writing, The Shining. The movie, however, was filmed by Stanley Kubrick in England, with exterior shots taken at Oregon’s Timberline Lodge. In 1996, King decided to film a six-part miniseries—this time filmed at the Stanley. Since the restored lobby was now light and airy, King requested that it be repainted so as to give it a dark and sinister look; this was done. Not surprisingly, ghost stories were born in its wake, along with murder mystery dinners, Halloween balls, daily ghost and history tours (from the creepy basement to the cobwebby attic); and stories abound of creaking floorboards, tinkling pianos, scurrying ghost children, etc—but all agree that there is nothing sinister or evil here, given that even the ghosts appear to love coming back just to enjoy themselves.
Connie and I remembered back to two special visits, first when a cavalcade of cars wound down from the mountains, preceded by police cars with flashing lights; soon the Emperor and Empress of Japan arrived, emerged, smiling their delight, and walked up the steps to the veranda only a few feet away from us. They were eager to be off into the high country to see and photograph places and vistas they’d only read about. The second was the night of Princess Diane’s funeral; Connie and I woke up in our room at 4 a.m., turned on the TV, and watched the pagentry until long past dawn.
Now we checked in, hauled in our smallest suitcases, and walked downtown to meander through the shops and eat home-made ice cream. Later on, we drove into the park so Connie could get her national park passport book stamped, and Bob and Lucy could view an elk herd.
Inside the Stanley, we played dominoes in a room adjacent to the bar. Later we became acquainted with a lovely waitress named Olga, from Hungary (most of her family had been killed in the Holocaust). She’s now taking Hotel Management courses at Denver University. Afterwards, we chatted by one of the great fireplaces on the first floor. Then we struck up a conversation with Ute (from Germany) at the front desk. She told us that over 150 weddings are held at the Stanley between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Also that lots of corporations hold retreats here; and that the employees come here from all over the world. In spite of it all, she said, it’s quieter here than one might think—even serene. Though the Stanley remains a formal hotel, it’s more comfortable than most—a great place in which to work.
Then we snuggled down in our beds. During the night, the wind battered the hundred-year-old hotel—and snow. For it was early in May. We fell asleep wondering how we’d make it over the pass the next day. The last thought, however: How grateful we all ought to be that this grand dame of the Rockies is still with us!
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Next Wednesday, we will sidetrack to the December Book of the Month.
Barnes, Christine, Great Lodges of the National Parks, II (Portland, Oregon: Graphic Arts Books, 2008).
Duncan, Dayton and Ken Burns, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (New York: Alfred A. Knopf/Random House, 2009).
White, Mel, Complete National Parks of the United States (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2009).