Historic Hotels of the Rocky Mountains by Mary Jane Rust

Review by Ed Quillen

Travel – April 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

Historic Hotels of the Rocky Mountains
by Mary Jane Massey Rust
Published in 1997 by Roberts Rinehart
ISBN 1-57098-176-0

MANY MAGNIFICENT EDIFICES of the past have succumbed to the wrecking ball or have been converted to other uses — the opera house that became a movie theater, or the railroad depot now home to a gift shop. But some structures not only remain in place, but continue in their original role.

Of these standing survivors, many are hotels. In her handsome book, Mary Jane Massey Rust celebrates 25 Rocky Mountain hostelries, extending from the Prince of Wales in Waterton, Alberta (built quite close to the border in 1927, perhaps to assist Americans who desired a respite from Prohibition) south to La Posada del Albuquerque (Conrad Hilton’s first hotel, built in 1939).

Rust’s sense of history thus extends well into this century, and she generally focuses on the larger establishments.

Thus some that you might expect to see in such a book — say, the Palace in Salida or the Jackson in Poncha Springs, both historic and both still offering shelter to the traveler — aren’t in here.

But among her ten Colorado chapters, two are from our area: the Delaware in Leadville and the Inn at Zapata Ranch near the Great Sand Dunes.

Each hotel gets half a dozen pages, much of it history — the hotel’s, intertwined with local lore — along with some pictures and a general feel for what it’s like to stay there. Think of this as a travel guide for those who care about the places they stay, and you’ll have the general idea.

Rust’s unhurried writing is smooth and informative; here’s a sample, about the Delaware, owned by Scott and Susan Brackett, who began restoration in 1991:

According to the Brackets, one of the most demanding jobs was to create a lobby for the hotel, using what had served as retail space. Expensive surprises followed. When the old ceiling was removed, it was obvious that major shoring up had to be done. Tearing off a wooden wall at one end of the large room, they discovered two lovely brick arches that needed restoring. Sturdy square columns were swathed in rich damask-patterned wallpaper to match the wall treatment.

The Inn at Zapata, which I’ve driven past many times but never visited, is a converted ranch headquarters. It also remains a working ranch, where bison have replaced cattle:

There are two special treats for guests involving the bison. In late spring and early summer, a few cows and calves occupy a large pen only a few yards from the Inn. In a smaller pen farther away lives Amelia, the ranch’s pet bison. She was only a few hours old and orphaned when rescued. Hand fed by bottle and lovingly tended, Amelia grew up playful and light-hearted. Unfortunately, her full-grown size and strength now make her playfulness too dangerous for people, so it is a thrill to see this magnificent animal up close.

Her descriptions seem quite accurate when I compare them to my recollections of her featured inns — the Delaware, the Brown Palace, the Broadmoor, and the Taos Inn. (I must note, though, that in all these cases someone else was footing the bill — these are well beyond my personal means. The guidebook I need for my personal travels would focus on cheap and funky, like the Cattleman in Gunnison.)

Rust’s chapters made me want to browse the La Fonda lobby the next time I’m in Santa Fé, insist on a room at the Strater the next time I get a speaking gig in Durango, and examine the Alex Johnson in Rapid City when it comes time to visit relatives in South Dakota.

And I really wanted to stay at the Izaak Walton Inn in Essex, Montana, a great place for railroad buffs. Not only does it overlook the busy helper yards at the foot of Marias Pass, but guests may get rooms outside the main building in one of four remodeled cabooses.

Historic Hotels is several cuts above the usual travel book. It’s good reading even if you’re a homebody or a Motel 6 traveler, and it tells you much that you’ve always wanted to know about famous hostelries like the Broadmoor and the Peck House.

–Ed Quillen