Hotels in the Old West

Hotel Colorado, circa 1900

Hotel Colorado, circa 1900

The history of the American West is one of the most vibrant and dynamic periods that I’ve ever studied. You learn a lot in school about the taming of the frontier, the conflicts between the Native Americans and European Americans, gold, trains, wildlife, you name it. But in so many ways, it’s the time period that came after all of those initial wonders that holds the real fun of history.

Take, for example, the history of the many hotels that popped up in the new world of the West. One of the reasons I wanted to include a hotel—two, actually—in my Montana Romance series was because the function of frontier hotels in the culture of the West underwent a fascinating and dramatic change that more or less tells the story of the changes that the land and people themselves went through.

In the early days, when states like Montana and Colorado and California were still unsettled territories, hotels appeared along the major transportation routes. Although you couldn’t exactly call them hotels in the sense that we think of today in some cases. They were resting stops and watering holes where pioneers, miners, and fortune-hunters could enjoy a clean (in theory) room, good food, and entertainment along their journey. I think of these places in the same way I think of wild west saloons – lots of action but not so many amenities.

One of these places near Pike’s Peak in Manitou Springs, Colorado, a 20 room boarding house called “The Inn”, built in the late 1850s, was about to undergo a transformation that, to me, typifies hotels of the west in some ways and defies it in another.

There was a lot of call for hotels like The Inn in boomtowns like Pike’s Peak and other areas where gold or silver or other precious metals were found. The draw of potential wealth was irresistible, but for many there wasn’t as much interest in putting down roots. So hotels were built to house people who wanted to get in, get rich, then go home.

The Cliff House, Manitou Springs, Colorado

The Cliff House, Manitou Springs, Colorado

These early hotels were also important for entrepreneurs and industrialists who wanted to observe the west to see how they could capitalize on it. This is where the transition from flop-house to something grander began to happen.

A lot of hotels, like the Grand Union Hotel in Montana, experienced its heyday early on then ran into trouble with the railroad was finished. There were a lot of promising towns in the west that saw traffic when people traveled by stagecoach but that floundered and even died when the railroad passed through other towns, cutting them out. The Grand Union Hotel was the height of frontier luxury one day, then struggled to keep its doors open for the next 100 years when the railroad left it high and dry. That it’s still in existence now is a small miracle.

The Inn fared better. Much better.

The gold and silver rushes that brought people to the west in droves didn’t last forever. The mines played out, leaving an infrastructure that teetered on the verge of irrelevance. But for a few of the hotels that were built to serve the mining communities, salvation was in the water. Literally. The Inn had the advantage of being built near mineral springs. The Native Americans in the area had valued these waters for their healing powers for generations. As the mining era waned, enterprising men played up the “miracle” of these springs.

In 1886, a man named Edward E. Nichols who had come to Manitou Springs to battle tuberculosis was so impressed by the healing power of the springs there that he bought The Inn. At that point The Inn was a failing boarding house. Nichols renovated it and renamed it The Cliff House. He marketed it as a health resort

I first heard about The Cliff House on a tv program about amazing hotels of the 19th century. What began as a hotel turned into a HOTEL! From cheap housing for miners, The Cliff House and hotels like it became luxurious health resorts that catered to the cream of the crop of the Gilded Age. America’s richest and most famous citizens at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century took their vacations in these grand resorts.

Grand Union Hotel, Montana - I imagine it looked pretty much like that in the 19th century

Grand Union Hotel, Montana – I imagine it looked pretty much like that in the 19th century

We’re talking sprawling complexes with swimming pools in the front yard and electric-powered fountains that shot jets of water into the air. We’re talking gourmet restaurants and spa services that would make a 21st century reality star envious. Silk sheets and crystal chandeliers and silver cutlery on the one hand and rugged mountain landscape on the other. This was the new west, the result of decades of prosperity and progress that the old, pioneering west gave way to.

So really, it doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to me to think about the west transitioning from being a rough-and-tumble wilderness to, well, Aspen. The tradition of parts of the mountain west being a luxurious playground dates way back to the 19th century. I’m enjoying bringing some of that flavor to my Montana Romance series. And who knows? Maybe Delilah Reynolds’s hotels would still exist today if they were part of the real world.

Links and photo attribution:

The Cliff House – http://thecliffhouse.com/history
Photo By Bradley Gordon from Lakewood, Colorado, U.S.A. (the cliff house Uploaded by Gary Dee) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Hotel Colorado – http://hotelcolorado.com/history
Photo courtesy of Denver Public Library

Grand Union Hotel – http://www.grandunionhotel.com/about-hotel-history.htm
By JERRYE AND ROY KLOTZ MD (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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3 thoughts on “Hotels in the Old West

  1. Interesting post, Merry. Thanks for sharing. The Grand Union Hotel is beautiful.
    I could easily picture Mrs. Reynolds’s hotel being amongst these great and lasting hotels. 🙂

  2. Pingback: Featured History Blog Posts- September 2013 | History Republic

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