THE ELK MOUNTAIN HOUSE by Barbara J. Mason
Crested Butte, Colorado was incorporated on July 3rd
, 1880. At that time, there were about 400 people in residence. Fifty businesses, including the Crested Butte Water Company, a smelter, three sawmills, freight haulers, a stagecoach line, several hotels and a boarding house were in operation. These provided a wealth of commercial opportunities and jobs. A toll road connected Crested Butte to Irwin mining camp. Another one followed the East River to the junction with Taylor River and the confluence of the Gunnison River, now the location of Almont. Area visitors and pioneers either rode horses or mules, drove wagons, took the stage, or walked! The entire distance was a dusty, rocky trail over uneven ground to and from Gunnison City.
Many people were arriving in town by whatever means available. There were not enough accommodations for them to stay. People were living in tents. Local businessmen, under the direction of Howard Smith and the Crested Butte Town Site Company, built The Elk Mountain House for the sum of $40,000. The first class luxury hotel took a year and a half to complete. Most materials and furnishings were hauled to town by wagons and jack (mule) trains! This was an amazing feat considering the Denver and Rio Grande narrow-gauge railroad between Crested Butte and Gunnison was finished one month before, bringing many more people. They needed somewhere to live while they built their houses. Hotel rates were $2.50-$3.00 nightly. Businessmen, salesmen, hunters, wealthy visitors and young singles would stay for weeks, months, even years!
The Elk Mountain House, #332 Elk Avenue, corner of Elk and Fourth Street, is this very building, now occupied by Donita’s Cantina! It was a wood frame structure that stood three and a half stories high, with dormers on the top floor, a balcony and a raised wooden walkway to protect visitors from the dirt street. A connected, multi-storied outhouse at the back of the building serviced the upper floors. On the ground floor, centrally located in the main lobby, an immense stove heated the floors above. Front desk employees tended this stove and the numerous parlor stoves on the upper floors. Needless to say, the rooms could be quite chilly on bitterly cold days!
The spacious interior contained: a large lobby with office; dining room; kitchen with a large copper boiler to heat the water, a Van patent range, carving tables and steam heater, shiny tin and copper vessels, a pantry and storage; a bar, gambling and pool room; forty-two bedrooms; well-appointed sitting rooms, and a grand parlor with an exquisite chandelier was connected to the ladies reception room. These rooms were handsomely furnished with walnut furniture of the Eastlake style, thick Brussels carpet of light colors with a contrasting blue border in modern patterns, and window draperies of raw silk.
The halls were carpeted and heated. The bedrooms were carpeted and furnished in solid walnut; each containing a bedstead, washing-stand, small table, rocking chair, folding chair, ordinary chair. No mention is made of wardrobes, but most travelers occupying these rooms would have a large trunk! Three bathtubs and water closets were located on the second floor. The hot and cold water was supplied from the force pump in the kitchen. This was also an ingenious sprinkler system! If there was a fire, the pump, was reported to have the power to throw water all over the building. Being connected to a stand pipe, water would be forced up to the attic and into connections to hoses on all floors, quickly flooding each floor. At the official opening of The Elk Mountain House, 150 well-dressed guests were treated to a formal dinner and grand ball. Opulence, along with the luxuries of civilization had arrived in Crested Butte!
One 1882 visitor to The Elk Mountain House, geologist John Hallowell, had only praise, stating that Crested Butte “is blessed with a good and well managed hotel.” And, “If the town company will always keep as good a hotel in the future as now, may it be my lot to spend a portion of each summer with them.” There was the proprietor of a general merchandise store, M.I. Roth, who lived at the hotel for eighteen years! Legendary Gunnison County sheriff, C. W. “Doc” Shores, and his deputies stayed at the hotel while settling arguments and mitigating agreements between coal mine officials and strikers. During one 40 below zero night, gunfire was exchanged between Shore’s posse and striking miners only blocks away from the hotel. Out of twenty-seven strikers who were shot, only one died later from his wounds. Shores had instructed his men to aim low!
On stormy days stranded winter visitors would tell tales sitting around the warm lobby stove, waiting for the train to be plowed out from the snow drifts. Time passed. Two young ladies from Nebraska came to Crested Butte in 1923 to teach school and avoid marrying their amorous pursuers! One of the teachers, Helen, lived at the hotel until her marriage to a local miner, Tim Morgan, who resided at the Elk Mountain Lodge (located on the other side of town). He courted Helen in the second floor parlor of The Elk Mountain House. Their wedding banquet was celebrated in the hotel dining room.
1882 Crested Butte was hustling and bustling! Accounts document 1,000 inhabitants; businesses include one bank, numerous hotels, restaurants and saloons, sawmills and stables; two doctors and countless lawyers. Plans were made to landscape the town with up to three artificial lakes, surrounded by trees and shrubbery. Prosperity was in the air! Time passed. The hotel had other managers and owners. Then in 1927 a serious fire gutted the top floors and attic and seriously damaged the first floor. The state-of-the-art fire extinguishing system failed! Newspaper accounts state the fire coincided with an attempted robbery of the safe holding the miners’ pay and script at the Company Store building at the other end of the block. Three holes were found drilled in the safe. It was never determined whether the fire was set as a diversion, or if the robbers were scared off by the noise and commotion from the fire!
After the fire, a new roof was put on the hotel in preparation of rebuilding the entire structure. This never occurred. For the next ten years, the ruined building was the home of several bachelors and temporary squatters. In 1938 the top stories were torn down. In 1939 Gunnison County took over the hotel for unpaid back taxes. Then for seventeen years, the once elegant dining room became the county highway garage. Charred beams from the fire were still visible. Railroad rails were embedded in a concrete floor. The rails were used to support the bulldozers stored in the shop. Over the years, thick layers of soot and grease covered up the beautiful pressed and burnished tin ceilings in the former hotel lobby, bar, dining and gambling rooms. By the 1950’s, local mining operations were at a standstill.
Change was in the air for Crested Butte in the 1960’s with the opening of the local ski area! Margaret Dunlap from Wichita, Kansas purchased the building, transforming it into The Way Station Restaurant and Bar. For years to come, many rousing polka dances were enjoyed by all under the gleaming original pressed tin ceilings that had been laboriously and painstakingly cleaned. In 1970’s the Thirasant family opened a fantastic Chinese and Thai restaurant in the building.
Presently, the salvaged first floor of The Elk Mountain House is the location of the tremendously popular Donita’s Cantina! Over the past thirty odd years, modifications to the building have been added. Just remember to “look up” to appreciate the original pressed and burnished tin ceilings in the bar and dining room. As with any historic building, you can imagine there are plenty of unexplained encounters and ghost stories that come with the territory, but those are saved for another time.
Barbara J. Mason’s research for THE ELK MOUNTAIN HOUSE comes from accounts by Cyrus Wells “Doc” Shores, John Hallowell, Betty Wallace, early local newspapers, George Sibley, Myrtle and Michele Veltri, Duane Vandenbusche, Nelsa Burkett and The Crested Butte Mountain Heritage Museum archives, Molly Minneman, Bob Gillie and the Town of Crested Butte archives. Note: Several dates and accounts from these sources vary. Submitted 11/20/ 2016.