As we celebrate Estes Park’s Centennial, let’s imagine what this mountain village looked like a century ago. Elkhorn Avenue was a dirt street lined with board sidewalks and livery stables. Still, downtown businesses thrived thanks to Cornelius Bond, who had sold prime lots along the main street for $50. Stores popped up, like Fred Clatworthy’s Ye Little Shop and the Sam Service Store.
Inventor F.O. Stanley, builder of the Stanley Hotel (painted a mustard yellow during those early years), built much of Estes Park’s early infrastructure—electricity, water and sewer systems. It was needed. Visitors were beginning to discover Rocky Mountain National Park, which was created just two years before in 1915 thanks to the efforts of Enos Mills.
Before 317 year-round citizens voted to incorporate the Town of Estes Park in 1917, Ute and Arapaho Indians roamed this rich hunting ground. In 1864 Rocky Mountain News owner William Byers named the valley for pioneer Joel Estes. Soon after Abner Sprague homesteaded Moraine Park and, after providing provisions to hunters, realized “there was more money in milking tourist than milking cows.” He built a successful guest lodge on his property—and he was not the only one. Lord Dunraven erected the Estes Park Hotel, Elkanah Lamb built the Longs Peak House, and William James constructed Elkhorn Lodge, to name just a few.
Today many of the businesses that existed in those early years are still active: Crags Lodge (1914), the Park Theatre (1922), Macdonald Book Shop (1928), The Taffy Shop (1934) and Miller’s Indian Village (1935).
During World War II, engineers drilled a 13-mile tunnel under the Continental Divide to divert water from the western slope to irrigate farms along the Front Range as part of the Colorado-Big Thompson Project. Completed in 1944, the Alva Adams tunnel changed the landscape of Estes Park with Olympus Dam and Lake Estes.
As cars replaced horses downtown in the 1940s and 50s, 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.
But it was adversity that tested Estes Park and defined its character. On July 31, 1976 the Big Thompson Flood killed 143 people and injured 150 more. 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 elk numbering in the thousands that bed down on the area’s golf courses and stop traffic on Elkhorn Avenue. The Stanley Hotel is painted white and more than four million people visited Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park by car.
Help us honor Estes Park by attending the 80517 Centennial Celebration, in reference to Estes Park’s Zip Code. The Saturday event, held on August 5, 2017 of course, will include music, children’s activities, artists, food and beer. There will be historic walking tours as well as shuttle rides to the Stanley Hotel for tours. Officials will also dedicate the Centennial Open Space at Knoll-Willows.