Brief History of Rocky Mountain National Park

Although some evidence exists to indicate that man was in these mountains 10,000 years ago, Indians did not play a major role in the Rocky Mountain National Park region. The Utes, who lived in the mountains of western Colorado, frequented Grand Lake and occasionally came across the Continental Divide to hunt bison on the plains. The Arapaho, who migrated westward as Americans moved out from the Appalachians, were plains Indians who came to the Estes Park area frequently in the summer, regarding it as prime hunting ground. With the arrival of Americans, Indians seem to have avoided the Estes Park and Grand Lake area, for there were almost no contacts in this region between Americans and Indians.

Major Stephen H. Long came to the mountains on an official government scientific expedition in the summer of 1820. Leaving the Missouri River, he followed the Platte River -- and then the South Platte -- across the plains lying east of the mountains. The morning of June 30 the mountains rose into view, including the mountain which today bears the name of Major Long. Turning south parallel to the range (celebrating the 4th of July on the site of today's Denver) they reached the Pikes Peak area, where three members of the party became the first Americans to climb the Peak, and then turned eastward toward the Mississippi.

The fur trade seems, by and large, to have bypassed the Park area. The annual Green River Rendezvous, as implied by its name, was held in the Green River country of southwestern Wyoming and northeastern Utah. True, there were trading forts established along the South Platte in the 1830's -- Fort St. Vrain, Fort Lupton, Fort Vasquez, Fort Jackson -- but the trade was largely a trade with the Indians in buffalo robes, for by then the beaver market had been decimated by the popularity of the silk top hat.

The first documented American visitor to this region was Rufus Sage who spent 3 years roaming the Rockies, his activities centered about the fort of his friend, Lancaster Lupton. Sage visited Estes Park in the fall of 1843, spent a month hunting deer (for deer hides were bought at Fort Lupton for $2 apiece), and described his visit in his book "Scenes in the Rocky Mountains" which was published in Philadelphia in 1846.

The first settler was Joel Estes. Joel, a Kentuckian, was a wanderer who moved to Missouri and then set forth on several journeys to the west, some as far as California and Oregon. But in 1859 he brought his family to Colorado as a part of the 1859 gold rush and eventually settled as a farmer near the crumbling Fort Lupton. In the fall of 1859, as the mountains were mantled with the red and gold of the aspen, Joel and his son set forth on a hunting expedition. Following the trail of a bear, they came out on a high promontory and looked down into a beautiful valley which became the home of the Estes family in the summer of 1860. But winters were difficult for the cattle, so they sold out and left for a warmer climate in the spring of 1866.

Within a year, the Estes holdings came into the possession of a Welshman, Griff Evans, who added an extra cabin or two to his ranch and began to take in guests -- the first tourist accommodation in Estes Park.

Life was quiet in Estes Park until the arrival of Windham Thomas Wyndham-Quin, the Fourth Earl of Dunraven, in December of 1872. The Earl had come for "sport" and unquestionably the hunting in Estes Park was remarkable. He came again in 1873, and by the time he returned in 1874 be had begun to envision a feudal estate, a private hunting preserve for himself and friends, so he began to acquire land by various legal -- and illegal -- devices. Homesteads, sometimes acquired by men who had never been in Estes Park, ended up in Dunraven's domain. In 1877, here in the middle of the wilderness, he built a remarkable hostelry -- the Estes Park Hotel, though it was always referred to locally as the "English Hotel".

Legitimate homesteaders -- Horace Ferguson, Abner Sprague, Elkannah J. Lamb, the James family, Alexander MacGregor -- arrived about the same time as the Earl of Dunraven, and they of course resented (and fought bitterly against) the Earl's illegal acquisition of lands, particularly those which encompassed the streams and thus blocked access to water by the settlers' cattle. Finally the Earl became tired of these battles as well as the gradual intrusion of tourists into his private domain -- by the middle of the 1880's there were sometimes 200 tourists a summer in Estes Park! It seems he last visited Estes Park about 1886 though he retained ownership of the land until the early 20th century.

Before leaving Estes Park and the 19th century, we must note the passing of two important visitors. Isabella Bird, an Englishwoman whose extensive travels and writings earned her the first female membership in the Royal Geographic Society, visited Estes Park in the fall of 1873. Her book, "A Ladies Life in the Rocky Mountains", gives a fascinating description of life in Estes Park in the 1870's though we might wish a more complete description of her romantic relationship with "Rocky Mountain" Jim Nugent, a rough but surprisingly well-educated mountain man. Frederick Chapin visited Estes Park for several consecutive summers in the 1880's and described his various explorations in his book titled "Mountaineering in Colorado" though almost all of the book is directly related to his adventures in the Estes Park region.

Though Judge Wescott moved to Grand Lake in 1867, farmers and ranchers preferred the lower elevations of Middle Park, which were more hospitable to ranching. A few homesteads were established in the upper Colorado Valley in the 1880's but most were claimed in the 1890's and some after the turn of the century.

The western slope did not escape the gold and silver fever of the 1880's. Some discoveries were made at the head of the Colorado Valley in 1879, and by 1880 the rush was on for Lulu City. For a time it appeared there might be good ore -- some gold, mostly silver -- and the town boomed. By 1881 the sale of town lots had doubled; the town had several stage lines, 2 sawmills, a general store, a mining supply store, a grocery store, a barbershop, a clothing store, an assay office, a hotel and restaurant -- by the end of the summer there were 40 houses in Lulu. But the decline was already apparent to some. Businesses that were expected in 1882 never appeared, by 1883 the town was nearly deserted, and on November 26 -- officially acknowledging that the town was dead -- the U. S. government closed the post office. Dutchtown, established at timberline in Hitchings Gulch by some overly-inebriated miners who had shot up the town and were driven out of Lulu City, fared no better; by 1884 it too was deserted and abandoned.

With the prospects for mineral wealth essentially gone and a climate not overly conducive to ranching, slowly the ranches of the upper Colorado Valley converted to the tourist business, and dude ranching was the primary occupation by the 1930's.

A giant boost was given to tourism in Estes Park after the turn of the century by the arrival of F. O. Stanley. Stanley, co-inventor with his brother of the Stanley Steamer, came to Estes Park for his health in 1903. Impressed by the beauty of the valley and grateful for the improvement of his health, he decided to invest his money -- and himself -- in the future of Estes Park. The first requirement was a first-class hotel so in 1909 he opened the Stanley Hotel. He built an electric plant on the Fall River to provide electricity to the hotel, donated a considerable sum of money for road improvement, and when everything was ready, transported visitors from the railroad into Estes Park by Stanley Steamer buses.

Largely due to the efforts of F. O. Stanley, the Estes Park Protective and Improvement Association was established in 1906 for the purpose of protecting the wildflowers and wildlife and improving roads and trails.

But there was one who had an even larger view of the future. Enos Mills, born in Kansas, came to the Longs Peak area when he was only 14 years old. He became Colorado Snow Observer, was appointed Government Lecturer on Forestry by President Theodore Roosevelt, bought the Longs Peak Inn from which he conducted nature walks, and began to write the earliest of many books about the natural history of the area.

In 1909 the Estes Park Protective and Improvement Association began discussion of some sort of game preserve, and eventually Mills proposed the establishment of a national park. At first they called it the Estes National Park and Game Preserve, but they finally settled on Rocky Mountain National Park. Most of the local civic leaders -- F. O. Stanley, C. H. Bond, Abner Sprague -- supported the idea as did the Denver Chamber of Commerce and the newly-formed Colorado Mountain Club. Those in opposition were the mining, logging, irrigating, and grazing interests.

As a result of the publicity and political pressure developed by Mills and his friend Horace McFarland of the American Civic Association, Secretary of the Interior Fisher assigned Robert B. Marshall, Chief Geographer of the U. S. Geological Survey, to study the area and prepare a report. On January 9, 1913 Marshall submitted his report, supporting a national park of some 700 square miles, embracing roughly the area in today's Park plus the Indian Peaks to the south. James Grafton Rogers -- Yale graduate, distinguished Denver lawyer, and first president of the Colorado Mountain Club -- had been making a detailed study of legislation creating existing national parks, so he responded promptly when Marshall invited him to submit to Secretary Fisher a draft of the bill creating Rocky Mountain National Park. The bill was introduced in the House of Representatives on February 6, 1913 by Representative Rucker of Colorado and in the Senate the next day by Senator Thomas of Colorado.

Throughout the next two years, Mills fulfilled many speaking engagements, wrote many articles, and worked vigorously to gain support for the Park from additional groups, both local and national. But Mills, who had a fiery temper, often antagonized his own supporters if they did not fully agree with him and was unwilling to recognize the fact that considerable compromise was necessary to placate those opposed to the Park. That task was assumed by James Grafton Rogers, a negotiator with considerable influence and skill in both Colorado and Washington politics.

Mills had envisioned a huge national park extending all the way from the Mummy Range, past Longs Peak, down to Mt. Evans. Rogers knew that business interests would bitterly oppose the inclusion of the southern part of this area in the national park, for it included regions such as Central City where great mineral wealth had been produced and where some believed more remained to be discovered. So when Rogers drafted the bill, he included only what is essentially today's Rocky Mountain National Park except for the Never Summer Range which was added in 1929. This brought about the final break in their relationship, and Mills on more than one occasion accused Rogers of consorting with the "enemy". The Park bill as drafted by Rogers passed the Senate on October 9, 1914, the House on January 12, 1915, and President Wilson signed the bill on January 26, 1915.

Preparations had been underway for weeks as the communities of eastern Colorado vied to see which could provide the greatest delegation to the Park's dedication in Horseshoe Park on September 4, 1915. It was foreordained that Denver would be the winner; for days Denver newspapers had urged motorists to meet at the Majestic hotel at 7:30 for the run to Estes Park. But other cities were determined not to be left out. The Fort Collins Weekly Courier urged residents to get out and go: "Put banners on your machines ... so other may know Fort Collins is on the way. Make it clear to Denver that the National Park is not owned by Denver". And so they came -- some said it was the largest gathering of automobiles yet in the State of Colorado, but they came also in carriages, in wagons, on horseback and even on foot.

Enos Mills opened the ceremonies just as the rain began. Stephen Mather, Associate Secretary of the Interior and soon to become the first Director of the National Park Service, donned a raincoat for his speech. But as the program continued the rain stopped, the clouds parted, the sun emerged, and Longs Peak -- resplendent in a new coat of snow -- came into view. Somehow it seemed symbolic of that glorious afternoon when 2000 people came together in this meadow to dedicate this land -- and to dedicate themselves to its preservation.

By D. Ferrel Atkins


Rocky Mountain National Park
Questions? Comments? Contributions? Email Us!
Maintained By Michael Dallin (dallin@cs.colostate.edu).
Site Space Contributed By Estes Park On-Line