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.

OUR VISIT

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!

* * * * *

Next Wednesday, we will sidetrack to the December Book of the Month.

SOURCES

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).

THE PRINCE OF WALES HOTEL

Prince of Wales Hotel

The Prince of Wales Hotel almost wasn’t, for the Fates seemed
determined to keep it from ever being born. Louis Hill had long dreamed of creating a third great hotel that would link Waterton
Lakes National Park in Alberta, Canada to Glacier National Park.
More than a little envious, Hill looked across the border at the
chain of great hotels Canadian Pacific Railway had constructed
throughout the Canadian Rockies.

In 1913, Hill found just the place:  windswept knoll overlooking the magnificent Waterton Lakes that straddled the border between the two nations. Here he proposed to build a 300 room hotel. But then, World War I broke out, and travel for pleasure came to a virtual halt. After the war, it appeared for a time that the U.S. and Canada would jointly dam the narrows between the two lakes. Only when that plan failed to gain traction was Hill able to garner support for his decade-old dream hotel. But by now, Hill’s own enthusiasm for the project had begun to wane, partly because he began to doubt that sufficient tourists would find this out-of-the-way place to make it a paying proposition. Nevertheless, it was announced to the media that Great Northern would construct a 450-room hotel on the site. Estimated cost: $500,000.

Problems, one after another, delayed the project. All these roadblocks spawned such corporate pessimism that the proposed size kept shrinking, reaching a bottom of only 65 rooms. With torrential rain, heavy snow, deteriorating roads, and major transportation problems, the outlook for a hotel on this site was increasingly dismal. Except for Hill, who was then traveling in Europe, touring France and Switzerland. Every time he’d see a building he really liked, he’d have his photographer take pictures and send them back to Thomas McMahon (his architect). Result: the hotel was rebuilt four times; in the process, the hotel grew from four to seven stories, and from 65 to 90 rooms. Finally, it appeared that the hotel would become a reality after all.

There remained, however, one not-so-small problem: the wind. The building spot just happened to be one of the windiest places in North America. Hotel historian
Christine Barnes chronicles what happened on December 10 of 1926: “According to Oland’s memoirs [Douglas Oland, the builder], the resident engineer estimated readings of an average of 84 mph with gusts of 100 mph. ‘I would not have been too greatly surprised if the whole building had blown down, as it was, it blew eight inches off plumb,’ wrote Oland. Timber landed two miles from the site. Oland’s crew winched the structure back within four inches of the original site” (Barnes, 107).

There then followed snowstorms, a second major windstorm, cutting off all transportation. But indefatigable Oland refused to give up: when trucks couldn’t make it through, supplies and building materials were brought in by sleigh.

Romayne Wheeler giving a concert in the Prince ofWales Hotel & Waterton Lakes

It paid off: on July 25, 1927, the largest wooden structure in Alberta, the Prince of Wales Hotel, opened. It had cost $300,000. According to Barnes, “The exterior of the Prince of Wales Hotel seemed like a fairy-tale creation [others label it a ‘giant dollhouse”], but it is also a shelter from which to view the park. Eighteen-foot-high windows along the lake-side of the great hall frame a scene that none of Hill’s artists hired to promote the hotels could possibly capture. Every window, from the attic to the cocktail lounge, contains the spectacular surroundings” (Barnes, 107). As befits its name, the hotel leans more to rustic Tudor than to the “Wild West.” It is the most formal of any of the Great Northern hostelries.

* * * * *

Years passed. After its creator, Louis Hill, died in 1948, there was no one to ensure his legacy’s survival. It has always been victimized by weather extremes and winter road closures. But yet it still stands.

* * * * *

Connie & GregWheeler at the Prince of Wales Hotel

Connie and I love this place. And each time we return, we find it more difficult to leave. Strangely enough, even though its location is remote and often difficult to get to, the small town of Waterton,
about a mile away, keeps it from seeming isolated. The views out
those giant windows are to die for. If you revel in the elements,
as we do, you’ll stay in one of the high-up lake-side rooms where
you get the full force of the wind. On one never-to-be-forgotten
night, when I attempted to go out on the balcony, the wind blew so hard it was virtually impossible to open the door!

One ofthe local Grizzly Bears at Prince of Wales Hotel

People come here from all around the world, and here one rubs shoulders with a new breed of travelers: those who seek to escape from cookie-cutter boxes and ennui induced by five-star glitzy palaces of sameness. These new travelers revel in lodgings that have withstood the ravages of time, and still retain the unique
qualities that have endeared them to generations of travelers who
have loved them. So, if you have not yet come here, write down on
your Bucket List: I must stay at Prince of Wales Hotel before I die!

SOURCES: The best source of information, by far, is found in Christine Barnes’ landmark Great Lodges of the West 1 (Bend, Oregon: W. W. West, Inc, 1997).

ONCE UPON A CHRISTMAS

She had no way of knowing – the dear girl – what those two apparently unrelated questions would do to me: How they would wrench the rocket of our lives out of one trajectory and thrust it willy-nilly into another, destination unknown.

But life is like that, epiphanies are like that: only in retrospect are we able to track down cause from the effect.

*******

It was a snowy December morning like so many others, before or since, when that first question happened. After one of my English classes, Naomi Snowdy (one of our English majors), skipped preliminaries and small talk, saying, “Dr. Wheeler, I’m so sick of dorm regulations and cafeteria food that if I have to endure another weekend of it I think I’ll go stark raving mad! Can I come home with you this weekend?”

I called my wife and quoted Naomi to her. She laughed and said, “Sure, I can remember feeling that way, too, during college. Tell her she’s welcome.”

So the stage was set. I can see it now as though it were yesterday rather than 21 long years ago. We’d reached our Annapolis home, on the shores of Maryland’s shimmering Severn River. Naomi had unpacked, we’d eaten a delicious supper, the wind was howling outside, and the snow was slashing at our windows.

After dinner, exhausted from the long week, I leaned back into my big brown easy chair, across from a cracking fire and Naomi. She had a contemplative look in her eyes that I mistook for a look of blissful gratitude that she had a break with little to do, for that was what I was thinking.

Oh, it all started so innocently! She leaned toward me, and said softly, conversationally, “Dr. Wheeler, have you ever thought of writing a Christmas story?”

Unaware of my doom, and just as relaxed as she, I lazily answered, “Yes, I’ve thought of it.”

“Well, why haven’t you?” “Oh, I will – someday.”

I had not a clue about what was behind that ostensibly dreamy look in Naomi’s eyes. But now, after all these years, I’ve finally pieced it together.

Naomi was in my creative writing class, the victim of many of my deadlines during the semester. I was completely blindsided by her reversal of roles as she sat up straight, lost the dreamy look, and barked out a question that was really a command: “Why don’t you write it tonight?”

Tonight? I looked at her unbelievingly. Surely she was just kidding.

Inexorably she responded with, “Yes, tonight. It’s going to snow all weekend anyway, so what else are we going to do? Besides” – and she gave me a malicious smirk – “I want to proof your story.”

I couldn’t believe it: sweet, soft-spoken Naomi turning out to be a tyrant in disguise! But try as I did to beg off, to get out of it, Naomi was as intransigent as Gibraltar . . . and my wife, Connie, was no help either. She just laughed and sided with Naomi, so it was two against one – no, make that three against one. My last hope was that the good Lord, in His great mercy, would grant me a severe case of writer’s block – that way I wouldn’t have to write the miserable thing. But God ganged up on me, too. Virtually instantaneously, He gave me a full-blown plot. All I had to do was flesh it out and write it.

So, I dutifully wrote all evening, all day Saturday, and part of Sunday. As fast as I completed a page, Naomi would snatch it out of my hands, read it, scribble viciously on it, and hand it back, saying, “Fix it!” . . . So that was my “relaxing” weekend. Eventually we finished. The story even had a name: appropriately, we titled it “The Snow of Christmas.” The topic was a young husband who deserted his lovely wife and young daughter one Christmas.

In creative writing class that next Monday morning, Naomi took fiendish delight in regaling her classmates with the story of the weekend and she handed out copies of my story to everyone. That started a chain of dominoes that are toppling still. I gave out copies to colleagues, friends, and family –

Big mistake! For next Christmas season, people said, “Well, you wrote a Christmas story last year – so what’s keeping you from writing one this year?”

So I wrote “The Bells of Christmas Eve,” ostensibly for my American literature class. Since my students were reading Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, I wrote this Christmas romance, set in Switzerland (about a little-known interlude in Alcott’s life), as a gift to them.

No big deal! Or so it seemed.

RHAPSODY OF THE SEAS & STORMS I HAVE LOVED

Yes, it’s possible to fall in love with a ship. They say there are only three perfect shapes in our world: a violin, a ship’s hull, and a beautiful woman—and each of these harmonizes with the other two.

Well, I just fell in love with Royal Caribbean’s Rhapsody of the Seas; it is that rarity: a near perfect ship (both inside and out). For a ship is either a work of art—or it is not. Perfect ships don’t just happen: they must be dreamed up by visionaries; visionaries who know that perfection rarely results from happenstance. It’s like a perfect dinner: every piece of it mut appeal to all one’s senses without a false note anywhere. As is true with a beautiful woman, it is impossible to define what makes her so; it is either there or it is not. I seek the same perfection in our books; indeed I agonize over every piece: the choice of stories (emotive power, length, mood, velcroishly impossible to forget once read, etc.), the position each is slotted into, the illustrations, the cover, the typeface, the paper—each is a totality that is either a beautiful work of art or it is not. Just so a ship like Rhapsody.

Connie and I have cruised on a number of beautiful ships owned by Carnival, Olympia, Celebrity, Silversea, Norwegian, and now Royal Caribbean. Several of them I have loved enough to incorporate into stories: Carnival’s Jubilee, in “White Wings (Christmas in My Heart 10); Olympia’s Stella Solaris in “Stella Solaris” (Tears of Joy for Mothers); and the Norwegian Sun in my upcoming Christmas story, “Journey” (Christmas in My Heart 19). But of them all, only Silversea’s Silver Cloud is as beautiful as Rhapsody of the Seas.

But I really didn’t fall deeply in love with Rhapsody until May 19. I had no sooner finished my “Thousand Miles to Nome” lecture for the entire ship when the waves began to grow as we faced the full 10,000-mile-across power of the Pacific Ocean in British Columbia’s Queen Charlotte Sound. By dinner-time, we spent half the time looking out the window at the gathering storm.

Each minute that passed, the storm grew worse—of course, loving the elemental power of storms so much, I’d personally classify such storms as ‘better.” In spite of sophisticated stabilizers, the ship began to rock. Occasionally a broadside-wave would hit us so hard you could almost hear the Rhapsody cry out in pain. Connie went to bed early so that she’d have something firm to hang on to. I, on the other hand, left the room and ricocheted from wall to wall as I attempted to walk down the long hallways. Few people were about, for they’d even had to stop the evening show part way through, fearing the performers would break legs or worse. But the venturesome ones who were out—well, we bonded, for it would have been great fodder for America’s Funniest Home Videos. We reeled – staggered – sashayed like so many thoroughly soused drunks. The wildest sensation was doing stairs, for when taking steps up, the steps would rise up to greet you; when taking steps down, the steps would drop away from you. I was so enchanted with this stair phenomenon that I did the aft set of eleven flights of stairs a number of times. What was really funny was seeing the look of disbelief on the face of a first floor staff member who couldn’t believe this lunatic was back for another run at it.

Afterward, since I couldn’t even stand up without crashing into something in our stateroom, I tumbled into bed and blissfully fell asleep to the night-long rocking of the deep while poor Connie couldn’t sleep at all. Come to think of it, Christ must have loved storms as much as I, for His disciples couldn’t believe it when He slept through a violent storm in mid Sea of Galilee.

I was reminded of several other great storms in my life, especially the one on the rim of Mexico’s Copper Canyon. We were visiting my brother, acclaimed concert pianist, Romayne Wheeler, and staying in his Eagle’s Nest studio on the canyon rim. A terrific storm hit, and the wind-driven rain fell up at us from the mile-deep canyon below, so it came at us from all directions. The battered studio began to leak like the proverbial sieve, both from the roof and from below through the shuttered windows. The two grand pianos getting drenched, we formed a brigade to help save them from ruination, sloshing around barefoot all the while. Terrifying because continuing lightning pyrotechnics could easily have electrocuted us all.

The only comparable storm I can remember on the sea to the one on May 19 (waves 40 feet high and 70 MPH winds) was one I experienced when I was 13 on a banana boat en route from Trujillo, Honduras to Tampa, Florida. This 300-foot-long fruit tanker ran straight into a full-strength hurricane—weather forecasting was still in its infancy back then, so we had no warning. In the absence of stabilizers, the ship rolled from side to side and frontally plunged deep down and then leaped sky high, to such an extent that almost everyone was throwing-up from nausea. But where was I? You guessed it: up on the top deck holding on to the railing for dear life as great waves all but buried me. Oh it was wonderful! My folks were too sick to care if I washed overboard or not. Undoubtedly the long line of New England sea captains in my paternal lineage has much to do with my reveling in the fury of great storms.

After the May 19 storm had run its course, the master of the ship, Captain Stein Roger Bjorheim [what intrigues me no little is that almost all cruise captains seem to come from Norway] came on the intercom and after-the-fact reassured us, declaring that the safest place to have been in a storm such as yesterday’s was in the Rhapsody of the Seas for she’d earlier on ridden out a Category 5 hurricane with hardly a scratch. That’s when I fell deeply in love with Rhapsody of the Seas. I yearn to tryst with her again.