Rocky Mountain
Administrative History
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An administrative history of Rocky Mountain National Park must take into account the fact that the scenic features and natural resources of its locale had attracted settlers, visitors and business enterprises during a period of more than a half century before the Park was created in 1915. In other words, the residents and business men whose lands came to be included within the Park's boundaries, thriving villages like Estes Park that lay just outside the boundaries, and other nearby communities, as well as farms and commercial firms that had established economic ties with the Park land, formed important elements in administrative planning and policy determination for Park officials after 1915. Consequently, following a brief reference to the principal geographic features of the area, the present chapter will highlight the story of the settlement and use of the region before the Park was established.

Rocky Mountain National Park is located in portions of three counties (Larimer, Grand and Boulder) in north-central Colorado, about sixty-five miles northwest of Denver. It presently contains 260,000 acres of land and is oblong in form. The Continental Divide traverses the Park, extending from the northwest area toward the southeast, where it approaches the Front Range, which faces the plains. The Park's most notable landmark is Longs Peak, rising 14,256 feet above sea level near the southeastern corner of the Park. Fifty-eight other peaks reach a height of at least 12,000 feet above sea level, and numerous picturesque meadows and deep valleys are scattered throughout this mountainous region.

Several important rivers or streams begin in or near the Park, such as the two forks of the Big Thompson in the northeast section; St. Vrain Creek in the southeast; the Cache la Poudre in the northwest; the North Fork of the Colorado River on the western side of the Divide; and a number of small creeks which feed into Grand Lake, which is the main source of the Colorado River. The heavy winter snows of the region melt during the warmer months of the year to provide water for the streams and many small lakes, although some of the snow contributes to the glaciers found in the southern half of the Park. There is an abundant variety of flora, from the tundra plants of the high elevations to the various kinds of trees growing below timberline, some of which will be considered later as they posed administrative problems. Wildlife, too, is abundant and varied, as subsequent discussion will show.

Reserving for another section brief mention of the Indians that were associated with the Park area, it may be pointed out that for the entire Rocky Mountain chain there are records of visits to various areas by explorers, troops and a few fur traders of either France, Spain or Great Britain before 1800. The first official expedition sent to the future northern Colorado region by the United States government, however, was headed by Major Stephen H. Long (for whom Longs Peak was named) in 1820. It was followed by other expeditions in the next several decades, including those led by General Henry Dodge in 1835 and John C. Fremont in 1842. Throughout this period fur trappers and traders such as Louis Vasquez and Andrew Sublette traveled the valleys of the Rocky Mountains. Still, there is no firm evidence of any white man entering the present boundaries of Rocky Mountain National Park until 1859. In the autumn of that year, which marked the gold rush to Colorado, Joel Estes and his son Milton had set out to follow an old Indian trail in search of game. Each step took them further from their home in Fort Lupton, on the South Platte, where Joel raised cattle. Walking was nothing new to him. He had walked or ridden horseback from Missouri to California three times before settling in Colorado—first at Auraria, then at Golden Gate, and finally at Fort Lupton. Estes was a frontier wanderer in search of a home and a fortune. [1]

On October 15, 1859, [2] Joel Estes and history met by chance. After climbing to the top of a high ridge, he saw for the first time the park that would someday bear his name. [3] He liked what he saw and reportedly said, "The very place I have been seeking. Here I will make my home." After he had laid out his claims, he and his wife Patsy and their six children—Milton, Francis Marion, Joel, Jr., Sarah, Molly, and Mary Jane—moved to the park-like area. There, Estes resumed his occupation of raising cattle. [4]

The Estes family lived a secluded life with a rough twenty-five mile trail separating them from the nearest ranch. While neighbors were scarce, provisions were not. Fish, berries and game were plentiful and milk and cream were always available. According to Milton Estes, one fall and winter he used a muzzle loading rifle to kill one hundred head of elk, as well as some deer, mountain sheep and antelope. [5] Most of the clothing worn by the family was made from animal skins and flour sacks, but such clothing was sufficient to protect them from the usually severe winters. The pioneers made some money by selling dressed game and skins in Denver about every two months. It was on these infrequent trips that the Estes Family got their mail and staple supplies.

While operating their ranch, the Estes family had no contacts with Indians. There were a few freshly cut Indian lodge poles in the Park area when they arrived. No Indians, though, intruded on their claims. There was, however, a Ute raid in 1865 to the east, on the St. Vrain River near the present site of Lyons, Colorado. [6]

Sightseers soon began to visit the region, attracted by the mountain scenery. Henry M. Teller, later famous as a Senator from Colorado, seems to have been the first health seeker. In the fall of 1861, he hiked into the park after an attack of mountain fever, and was a guest at the Estes home all of that winter. By spring, he had fully regained his health. [7] In 1864 William N. Byers, editor of the Rocky Mountain News, came with a party of mountain climbers and tried unsuccessfully to scale Longs Peak. [8] Byers was impressed with the hospitality of the Estes family and upon his return to Denver named the area "Estes Park" in honor of his host.

Cold mountain winters made more of an impression on Estes than this singular honor, however, so he sold his claim for fifty dollars and a yoke of oxen to Michael Hollenbeck and a man called "Buck." On April 15, 1866 the Estes family left the Park for the warmer climate of New Mexico. [9] Joel Estes never returned. He died at Farmington, New Mexico on December 31, 1875, at the age of sixty-nine. [10]

The Estes Park area did not have long to wait for other interesting pioneers, after the Estes family had left. Barely a year later, it was settled by two rather explosive characters. They were Griffith ("Griff") J. Evans, a Welshman who bought the Estes property from its former purchasers, and James ("Rocky Mountain Jim") Nugent, a man of unknown origin, who settled in Muggins Gulch with a yellow dog of equally obscure ancestry. Jim's cabin overlooked the trail from Lyons, the only road to Estes Park.

Gracious when sober and dangerous when not—which was much of the time—Jim made his living by trapping bears and entertaining tourists with tall stories. A run-in with a bear cost Jim his right eye, right thumb, most of the right side of his face and all of his left arm. Indeed, the bear almost scalped him and only a primitive, haphazard bit of surgery saved for Jim an irregular hairline. His strange, scarred appearance and flamboyant personality typified for many tourists the wild, romantic spirit of the West.

Isabella Bird, a well-known author of the nineteenth century and an Englishwoman with an indomitable spirit, was one of the early visitors to the Park area, arriving in the early 1870's. She was enraptured with the scenery and interested in the area inhabitants, especially Jim. They spent a great deal of time together, for Jim served as her guide and she became his confidant. [11]

Unfortunately Jim could not control his combustible nature and he soon had a disagreement with his neighbor, Griff Evans. While the cause for the argument is obscure, there is no doubt about its end. Evans won after blasting Jim in the head with a shotgun. Somehow Jim remained alive for several months—long enough for him to write several articles for a Fort Collins newspaper—before a combination of liquor and buckshot resulted in his death. [12]

Jim's articles had protested the proposed sale of lands to an Irish nobleman, the Right Honorable Windham Thomas Wyndham-Quin, Fourth Earl of Dunraven. [13] The Earl, having heard of the fine hunting in the American West, had visited Estes Park in 1872 and again in 1873. In 1874 he decided to take the whole of Estes Park as a game preserve for the exclusive use of himself and his English friends. By stretching the provisions of the Homestead Act and the rights of preemption, Dunraven claimed 15,000 acres in the Park. His efforts resulted in what has been called "one of the most gigantic land steals in the history of Colorado." [14] The coming of more settlers in 1874 and 1875 stopped this wholesale entry of land. Although for thirty—three years Dunraven considered the Park his personal property, the settlers did not. Their hostility forced him to give up the game preserve idea.

Dunraven later described the influx of settlers and his consequent plans:

Folks were drifting in prospecting . . . preempting, making claims; so we prepared for civilization. Made a better road, bought a sawmill at San Francisco, hauled the machinery in, set it up, felled trees, and built a wooden hotel. . . . [15]

The noted landscape artist, Albert Bierstadt, induced by Dunraven to paint in Estes Park, helped select the site for Dunraven's English Hotel, which was built in 1877. It was situated in a meadow east of the present Estes Park village and was the first strictly tourist hotel built in the Park. The hotel was a three—story frame building. There were twelve narrow windows, and a large door opening onto a one-storied, columned porch. The roof of this porch formed an open deck surrounded by a small hand railing. The porch ran the full length of the front of the building and about halfway around each end. [16]

Despite the success of this "English Hotel and Lodge," the disillusioned Dunraven left the area forever in the late 1880's. He later explained:

People came in disputing claims, kicking up rows: exorbitant land taxes got into arrears; and we were in constant litigation. The show could not be managed from home, and we were in constant danger of being frozen out. So we sold for what we could get and cleared out, and I have never been there since. [17]

His hotel burned to the ground in 1911.

When Dunraven realized it would be impossible for him to control all of the park region, he first leased the land he had acquired, about 6,000 acres. Theodore Whyte held the lease from about 1883 to 1890, at which time C. Golding Dwyer took it over. Frank Bardolph was another lessee. In 1907 Dunraven sold his property to B. D. Sanborn of Greeley and F. O. Stanley of Estes Park.

The plans of Dunraven and his general manager, Theodore Whyte, to transform Estes Park into a British colony touched the lives of most of the area's early settlers. In the early 1870's when "the West was still fresh, and the Union Pacific railroad was young," [18] other pioneers moved their families and belongings to the Park. Some selected desirable sites in the vicinity of the land owned by the English Company. Claims were made in Black Canon, Beaver Creek, Willow Park, and the Wind River area. Among the early settlers were A. Q. MacGregor, H. W. Ferguson, and W. E. James.

Alexander Quinter MacGregor was a native of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He had come to the Colorado Territory in 1869 and settled in Denver to practice law. He first visited Estes Park in the summer of 1872 on a hunting trip. The next year, he and his bride, Clara, took up a homestead in the Park on land not claimed by the English Company. There on a slope along Black Cañon Creek the MacGregors grazed cattle. Not long after his arrival, MacGregor built the first toll road in the area. It connected Glenn Evans, a few miles from Lyons, with Estes Park. His wife distinguished herself as the Park's first postmistress, in 1876. MacGregor also operated a sawmill, off and on, until he was struck by lightning and killed in June 1896. [19]

Successful hunting trips influenced others to settle in Estes Park. After a winter hunt in 1875, Horace W. Ferguson decided the mountain climate would have a therapeutic effect on his wife, who was ill. He took up a claim a half mile north of Mary's Lake. Subsequently, in April 1875, his family joined him. There, in his crude homestead cabin, the Park's first wedding took place. In October 1876, Ferguson's daughter, Anna, married Richard Hubbell, a Longmont merchant. Ferguson later distinguished himself by shooting a brown bear on the shores of a park lake, thereby providing it with the name Bear Lake. [20]

Yet another pioneer was persuaded to settle in the Park after a successful hunting trip. W. E. James, a former grocery store owner from New York, brought his family to Estes Park in May 1875. They settled down in a dirt roof homestead cabin near McCreery Spring. James soon found a more suitable location near Alexander Q. MacGregor's homstead on Black Cañon Creek. The family, however, moved again in April 1877, to the present site of Elkhorn Lodge. There they opened a modest lodge to the tourist trade. [21]

In the mid-1870's newcomers to the Park mingled with old-timers to create a pioneer potpourri. Some like the Rowes, Hupps, and Cleaves remained obscure, while others like the Spragues would be remembered for significant contributions to the region. [22] One historian has concluded: "The year 1875 might be said to mark the beginning of permanent settlement in the Park." [23]

The influx of pioneers to the region did little to change Estes Park's rural character. By 1892 only two buildings were located along what would become the main street of Estes Park village. One was a frame house belonging to John Cleave, and the other was an eight-by-ten-foot frame post office. By the turn of the century, though, Estes Park village was gaining the appurtenances of a town. It could then show a shoe repair shop, a bakery, barber shop, and livery stable; by 1906 the first of the village's hotels—the Hupp, run by Mrs. Josie Hupp--had been erected. It contained twenty-three rooms, with steam heat and hot and cold water.

In 1907, a major land purchase helped spur the growth of the village. B. D. Sanborn and F. O. Stanley purchased approximately 6,000 acres from the Earl of Dunraven. The purchase included the Estes Park Hotel, the Earl's cottage, stables, dairy, and the Country Club House. The reported price was "in the neighborhood of $80,000." [24]

To consummate the deal, Sanborn and Stanley had formed a significant partnership. For one-half the interest in the Estes Park Development Company, Stanley had agreed to build a hotel and an electric light plant. As part of this agreement, the now famous Stanley Hotel was opened in 1909. F. O. Stanley, who, with his brother F. E. Stanley, had earlier invented the Stanley Steamer automobile, is still remembered as "the man who brought the modern tourist business to Estes Park." [25]

While Estes Park Village steadily grew, it did not become a boom town. A bank opened in 1908 with F. O. Stanley as President. That same year the Estes Park Water Company and the Electric Light and Power Company were incorporated. One year before a volunteer fire fighting group had organized itself, while in 1906 a new school house employing three staff members had opened. Still, by August of 1908, it was believed that "the development of Estes Park was just getting started." [26]

Before the white man came to Grand Lake, less than twenty miles southwest of Estes Park village, the Ute Indians of the Shoshone tribe, who roamed the western slope of the Continental Divide in Colorado and Utah, often camped on the shores of the Lake during the summers. East of the mountains their enemies, the Cheyenne and Arapahoes, hunted. [27] By the time that the first white settlers visited the Lake, most of the Indians had left, for reasons that still puzzle the historian. To replace the Indians as frequent occupants, there came an influx of pioneer personalities, some bizarre, almost all interesting.

In concert with the pioneer history of Estes Park, the Grand Lake area could boast of hunting expeditions by European noblemen, but not until June of 1867 did the first white settler come to that area. He was Joseph L. Wescott, a former Civil War Union cavalryman. Suffering from inflammatory rheumatism, he had come first to bathe in the waters of Hot Sulphur Springs in 1865. Later he moved to Grand Lake and remained there until his death in 1914. [28] He built a log cabin on the west shore of the Lake and for several years had the country generally to himself. He hunted, fished and trapped for a living. Often he prospected for gold in the "big mountains," certain that he would make a rich strike some day. [29]

In 1877 Wescott became Grand Lake's first postmaster, his "post office" being a canned-goods box from which fishing parties sorted their mail. [30] Wescott also assumed the role of preacher pro tempore, when, a few years later, an anxious intended bridegroom lamented, "Hell, we ain't got no parson!" [31] Although Grand Lake was no Gomorrah, it did lack the trappings of religion. For Wescott to perform the marriage ceremony, it became necessary to borrow the nearest Bible from "old lady Kinny" in Hot Sulphur Springs, twenty-four miles away. According to a contemporary, a drunken prize fighter named Pete Gallagher then punctuated the proceedings by pummeling the bridegroom. [32] Later, in 1881, when the town of Grand Lake was surveyed and platted, the settlers elected Wescott justice of the peace with the title "judge"—a title that would stay with him for the rest of his life.

The first family to visit Grand Lake regularly was the Proctor family, consisting of the father, Alexander, the mother, Tirzah, and their eight children. They spent each summer and two winters at the Lake between 1877 and 1885. Two of the boys, A. Phimister and George, had spent the summer of 1875 with Wescott hunting and fishing. At that time there were only two cabins on the west side of the Lake where Wescott lived, and none on the present site of Grand Lake village, located on the north shore. [33]

A. Phimister Proctor remembered that along with Wescott there were a Jack Baker and his eighty-year-old father, as well as two characters called Mowery and Munger, although "nobody knew what their names were back East." [34] Even earlier than 1873, there were prospectors and trappers "who used to come to Grand Lake to get grub and booze" but did not live there. Among these early foragers were Len Pollard, Sandy Mellon, Tom Coppard, and "Doc" Porter, men of superhuman qualities, if one believes some contemporary accounts. One old timer remembered that

The story went the rounds in those days that Len, Doc and Tom shot an antelope one morning, and by night they had eaten it all up and tanned the hide and patched their buckskin clothes with the skin. [35]

The last time A. Phimister Proctor visited Grand Lake was 1889, when he went on a hunting trip with Henry L. Stimson, later Secretary of State under President Herbert Hoover. At the time of the visit, Wescott still had a box containing the grease from the first grizzly bear ever shot at the Lake, back in 1876.

Through the 1870's and early 1880's, "outsiders drifted in" and began populating the west and north shores of Grand Lake. Joe Shipler built the first cabin on the North Fork of the Colorado River in 1876. He and the other early prospectors were perhaps representative of the good and bad that settled other western areas. Jim Bowen is remembered because Bowen Gulch and Mt. Bowen were named for him, while Jack Baker gave his name to Baker Gulch and Mt. Baker. Perhaps of equal importance, Hank Booth ran the first saloon in Grand Lake village and served the volatile temperaments of men like Jack Bishop who came to Grand Lake from Georgetown, Colorado, after having killed a man named Snyder there. Then there was "Texas Charlie," a trigger happy pioneer who lived near Hot Sulphur Springs and regularly used an old single action Colt revolver in his favorite past-time, making a "Ute Bill" dance in the streets of Grand Lake. Texas Charlie met his end near the Lake when he went down to "clean out the court one day." [36]

A mining boom of the 1870's and the 1880's brought substantial changes to Grand Lake. It became the distributing point for supplies to the mining towns of Lulu, Gaskill, and Teller. Lulu was located on the headwaters of the North Fork of the Colorado River about twenty miles northwest of Grand Lake, and was named after Lulu Burnett; it was settled mostly by Fort Collins people. Gaskill, about seven miles from Grand Lake, had a population of only sixty to eighty people, but was considered one of the "toughest mining camps in the country." Some of its characters were John Mowry, the first saloon-keeper, Prince Dow, George Pops, and a man named La Roche. Teller was the largest of the mining camps, with a population of between 500 and 1,000, and about twenty "thriving" saloons. [37]

In January 1880, the Grand Lake Mining and Smelting Company was formed. It owned mines in both Baker and Bowen Gulches. Some of the mines were the "Wolverine," "Toponas," "Sandy Cambell," "Lone Star," "Manxman," "Jim Bowen," and "Hidden Treasure." Among the prominent prospectors were Jule and Everett Harman, Andy Eairheart, Alonzo Coffin, Ezra Kauffman, Isaac Alden, "Doc" Dudy and Bob Plummer. Because of the influx of people drawn to the area by the "get-rich-quick" philosophy of the day, the county seat was moved to Grand Lake village from Hot Sulphur Springs in April 1881. There it remained until November 1888, when it was moved back to Hot Sulphur Springs.

During the mining boom and perhaps because of it, Grand Lake's history was spiced with just enough murders to give it an "out—west" flavor. County Commissioner Wilson Waldron, the man responsible for building Grand Lake's first jail, became its first prisoner, after his cold-blooded murder of Bob Plummer at one of the Lake's colorful dances. Waldron then established another "first" by being the first man to break out of the jail. Inadequate as a jail, the building was turned into an ice house. [38]

Another exception to the usual tranquility of Grand Lake occurred at the July 4, 1883, murder of six men. The participants were the three county commissioners (E. P. Weber; Barney Day; and J. G. Mills, chairman of the board); the county clerk, Captain Dean; the sheriff, Charlie Royer; and the under-sheriff, William Redmen. Some testimony indicates that the murders resulted from a dispute over politics, while other sources suggest that the dispute concerned a conflict over mining claims. The true cause is impossible to determine. Day and Mills died instantly; Weber lived until about 2:00 a.m. the following morning. Captain Dean lived several days, although literally shot to pieces. Royer and Redmen later committed suicide, perhaps distraught over their parts in the July 4 murders. [39]

Grand Lake, though, had not been turned into a shooting gallery. The residents did not spend most of their waking hours dodging bullets and digging graves. Mary Lyons Cairns, an early settler, remembers the leisurely life and the winter sports, but especially the dances, as many as five a week during the boom times. The frolics at the ranch of Henry Lehman and his wife drew people from all over Middle Park to dance to the fiddling of "Old John" Mitchell, a local trapper. [40]

The mining boom also caused the constructive build-up of Grand Lake village. The increase in population of the area prompted the erection of new hotels, notably the Grand Lake House, the Fairview House, and the Garrison House, and a rustic circle of cabins a few miles from Grand Lake called Camp Wheeler, or "Squeeky Bob's Place."

"Squeeky Bob" was born Robert L. Wheeler, the cousin of the famous General Joseph, "Fighting Joe," Wheeler of the Spanish-American War. He gained the name "Squeeky Bob" because of his high pitched epithets when angered. After having served in the Spanish-American War he came to Grand Lake in 1902 and homesteaded in 1907 on the North Fork, where he established his Camp Wheeler or "Hotel de Hardscrabble."

His place was the first dude ranch in the area and was visited by guests from around the world, attracted by "Squeeky Bob's" hospitality. He always left his cabins unlocked and fitted each with a sign saying: "Blow your nose and clean your shoes. Use all the grub you need and leave things as you find them." One oldtimer remembered that Bob never changed his sheets but scented them with talcum powder. [41]

Guests rarely objected to his meals. He used to say, "The reason people think my food is so good is that they get so darned shaken up on the way coming that they are starved when they get here." Then, too, Bob spiced his porcupine dinners with "little stories." Wheeler eventually sold out his place in about 1927. [42]

Another Grand Lake fixture was "Cowtit Ike" Adams, who homesteaded a mile south of the Lake and peddled milk for a living. A. Phimister Proctor remembered that

Ike was a great tobacco chewer and could squirt juice further and straighter than any man in town. He always had a big 'chaw' in his face which made that cheek look as though there was a rat's nest in it. Ike always had his quid in the cheek on the opposite side from the hand that carried the milk pail and when he shifted hands the tobacco slid to the other cheek, evidently to balance himself. [43]

According to legend, Ike weighed only thirty-five pounds with his over coat and boots on.

While "Cowtit Ike" and "Squeeky Bob" exemplified the colorful history of Grand Lake, other solid, if less picturesque, citizens did as much to build up the area. James Cairns, lured from Canada by tales of the "boom" at Lulu and Gaskill, came to Grand Lake in 1881. He started a grocery and general merchandising store, the first building erected in the town after it was platted as a townsite. [44]

Perhaps best typifying the spirit of settlers at Grand Lake was the life of two indomitable sisters, Annie and Kitty Harbison. They homesteaded, ran a guest home, ranched, operated a dairy farm, and provided almost all of the milk for Grand Lake. They lived and worked and shouldered all of their pioneer burdens together. And when one died the other followed a few days later—some say of pneumonia, others say of a broken heart. [45]

This has been a mosaic of the pioneer history of the Estes Park and Grand Lake regions. Against this backdrop stood Enos A. Mills, a fiery personality who welcomed the twentieth century with a controversial and consuming idea for establishing a national park, which, when adopted, would influence the development of the district between and surrounding the two villages described above.

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Last Updated: 15-Jan-2004