A century ago the small village of Estes Park had dirt streets and board sidewalks. Livery stables lined Elkhorn Avenue. The Stanley Hotel was painted a mustard yellow and Stanley Steamer Mountain Wagons brought visitors up the narrow canyon roads. Only 117,000 people visited Rocky Mountain National Park.
On April 17, 1917, the 317 year-round residents voted to incorporate Estes Park. Many wondered why it took them so long.
Businesses already lined Elkhorn Avenue thanks to Cornelius Bond, who sold prime lots along the main street for $50 and less desirable lots farther east for $35. Many of the shops one sees today were buildings that started out as hotels, schools, and private homes.
One of the first businesspeople to cater to the tourist was Fred Clatworthy and his Ye Little Shop under a big sign that boasted “Everything for the Tourist.” His shop sold leather souvenirs, hand-tinted photographs, Kodak cameras and film, rustic furniture, camping equipment, eggs, and fruit.
No elk roamed Estes Park because they had been hunted to extinction. Pieter Hondius and others arranged to have 25 elk imported from Wyoming in hopes that the animals would draw tourists.
Those who settled the Estes valley quickly learned that it was easier to host guests than it was to grow crops or raise cattle. The YMCA of the Rockies grew from a summer-only camp after the turn of the 20th century to a world-class, year-round facility today. Joe Mills built and managed the Crags Lodge that still overlooks downtown, Estes Park. For 40 years resort owners Andy and Marty Anderson welcomed tourists to their cottages with the stunning view of Longs Peak.
As cars replaced horses downtown, Charlie Eagle Plume entertained visitors with Indian dancing and “Casey” Martin offered children rides on his Silver Streak train. In the off-season when tourists were scarce, grocer Ron Brodie extended credit to the locals and George Hurt ran lifts for skiers at Hidden Valley.
The Colorado-Big Thompson Project diverted water from the west side of the Continental Divide to irrigate farms along the Front Range. Completed in 1944, the project changed the landscape of Estes Park with Olympus Dam and Lake Estes.
But it was adversity that tested Estes Park and defined its character. After the 1982 Lawn Lake Flood inundated Elkhorn businesses, town officials revitalized the downtown landscape with urban renewal. When the devastating 2013 flood washed out mountain roads and isolated Estes Park, local businesses banded together and were Mountain Strong.
Today, 100 years later, the Town of Estes Park has 5,858 residents (2010 census) and is nearly seven square miles in size. Elk numbering in the thousands bed down on the area’s golf courses and stop traffic on Elkhorn Avenue. We remain a destination where visitors from around the world come for adventure, to connect with nature, and to see the beauty and experience the grandeur of the Colorado Rocky Mountains.
Happy Anniversary Estes Park.