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Rocky Mountain National Park turns 109: A timeline of notable events and figures

Posted at 1:29 PM, Jan 26, 2024
and last updated 2024-01-26 15:29:20-05

On Jan. 26, 1915, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Rocky Mountain National Park Act, creating the nation's 10th national park. But before it got that important designation, a lot of work was done to convince those in power that the 416 square miles of land that make up the park was worth preserving.

In the beginning, Rocky Mountain National Park saw just a small number of visitors compared to the numbers it sees today. With very little infrastructure at the time, it was a popular destination for those seeking adventure in the West.

"Rocky Mountain National Park certainly was coming to be in 1915, when tourism was just continuing to be very popular. Where people were coming from other places in the United States to really experience the West and all it had and all that meant," said Kyle Patterson, an RMNP spokesperson.

Today, the park sees more than 4 million visitors every year, making it one of the most visited parks within the National Park System. In 2019, it was the third most visited in the country.

Here are some notable moments in the park's history:

Rufus Sage was the first European-American to explore and write about the area that is now Rocky Mountain National Park. His book, "Scenes in the Rocky Mountains," was published in 1846. The book includes his depictions of the park and the following colorful description:

“The scenery of this neighborhood is truly delightful. It seems indeed like one of Nature’s favored spots, where Flora presides in all her regal splendor, and with the fragrance of wild flowers, perfumes the breath of spring and lades the summer breeze with willing incense; —now, sporting beside her fountains and reveling in her dales, — then, smiling from her hill-tops, or luxurating beneath her groves,” an excerpt reads.

The town of Estes Park is the gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park and its history is intertwined with the park itself. The town was founded in 1859 by Joel Estes, who ventured to the valley from Kentucky in search of gold.

"Joel Estes, the first Estes Park settler, was born into a heritage in which red-blooded courage, the pioneer spirit, rigorous moral and ethical conduct based on fundamental religious convictions, were traditional," read an excerpt from an article published in The Estes Park Trail on April 19, 1935.

When RMNP was designated in 1915, the park headquarters was located in the city of Denver. It took determined town leaders to convince the federal government that Estes should be the permanent home of the park, where it currently is located.

“At a mass meeting - held in this village tonight, which all of the prominent business men and property owners attended, ways and means were discussed and resolutions adopted proposing the transfer of the headquarters of the Rocky Mountain National Park from Denver to Estes Park,” read an article in the Rocky Mountain News from Nov. 7, 1915.

The infamous Stanley Hotel in Estes Park is home to many stories, perhaps none more famous than Stephen King's stay in Room 217. But the hotel served as a gateway to the region and helped pave the way for national park status.

Hotel Stanley opened in 1909. It was built by Freelan Oscar Stanley, whom the local newspaper called an "automobile magnate" from Boston. Stanley and his hotel helped create Rocky Mountain National Park.

The hotel was profiled in The Estes Park Trail in 1913, described as having a "commanding presence" in the town:

"The first large building to strike the eye of visitors as the automobile stage rounds the last bend in the canon and emerges into the broad valley that constitutes the center of the Estes Park region proper is the Hotel Stanley," wrote The Estes Park Trail on June 14, 1913.

The Boulder Daily Camera compared it to the Waldorf Astoria when Hotel Stanley first opened in 1909.

Dubbed "the father of the Rocky Mountain National Park" by newspapers at the time, Enos Mills was an important figure in the park's history. Mills was born in Kansas but moved to Colorado at the age of 14 and settled in the Estes Park area in 1884.

Mills championed the push for national park status through exhaustive lobbying and public events beginning in 1907. A nationally known naturalist, author, and owner of the Longs Peak Inn, Mills was also fond of sharing "bear stories."

In 1917, Mills attended the national parks conference in Washington DC. During the conference, The Canon City Record reported that Mills regaled the attendees with tales of his bear encounters.

"Everyone attending the conference is looking forward eagerly to Saturday night’s talk by Enos Mills, which will be 'Bear Stories.' Mills has had some remarkable experiences with bears, not only in Colorado's mountains, but in Alaska and British Columbia. His talk probably will draw the largest audience of any in the entire conference," wrote The Canon City Record on June 11, 1917.

"It would be wonderful to be able to ask the individuals who really came together to protect this place. It was people from all walks of life that created it. Enos Mills is known oftentimes as the founder of Rocky Mountain National Park. But there were so many people behind the scenes that also work just like what happens now," Patterson said.

Mills championed for more national parks in Colorado after the 1915 designation was signed into law, saying "The people of Colorado should never rest until they have the greatest system of national parks in the world."

Mills died suddenly on Sept. 21, 1922, at his home at Longs Peak Inn. Newspapers reported at the time that Mills was in poor health the summer before his death.

The hard work of Enos Mills and many others paid off when, on Jan. 26, 1915, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Rocky Mountain National Park Act.

"President Wilson yesterday signed the bill creating the Rocky Mountain Park. One of the most magnificent scenic regions in this or any country, the borders of which are within three hours’ ride from Denver, has thus been set aside as a national playground and pleasure resort," wrote The Rocky Mountain News on Jan. 27, 1915.

At the time of the park's designation, there was very little infrastructure but there were still several private landowners within the park's boundaries. Many of them hosted guests and visitors to the park and helped build trails and maintain roads.

andrew treaster photography.jpeg

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"When the first Superintendent arrived, he too began to construct facilities to support visitors. The earliest managers of the park had a meager budget with which to protect the 358.3 square miles under their jurisdiction," according to a brief history of Rocky Mountain National Park.

"Some of the things that have stayed the same have been amazing. When you think about a place that's been in existence for 109 years and you think about what has happened in our world and in our United States and in Colorado, you know, it's very global, and then bring it to be very local. There's a lot that hasn't changed. People are still coming here for the same reason," Patterson said.

During the Great Depression, with labor readily available, the National Park Service built Trail Ridge Road, the highest continuous paved road in North America.

Work began on the Trail Ridge Road in 1929 after park officials realized the importance of having a road traverse through the park. It was completed in 1933.

"Many visitors came to Rocky Mountain National Park in their automobiles. Unlike other western national parks like Yellowstone, Glacier, and Grand Canyon, a railroad never served Rocky. Indeed, it was always an auto park. Because of this, road building was a high priority. Although the Fall River Road traversed the Continental Divide through the park, the road was outdated and difficult to navigate. The new, professionally-designed Trail Ridge Road undulated between forests and meadows and took drivers to spectacular heights," according to Rocky Mountain National Park.

Hidden Valley opened in 1936, but it didn’t become a commercial success until the mid 1950s. It was a favorite ski area for Estes Park locals.

It was run by Estes Park Recreation District, and then purchased by the Park Service. The T-bars, one double chair and surface lifts were eventually sold to Vail.

Hidden Valley’s layout was awkward and 70% of the terrain was rated "most difficult." As a result, the National Park Service removed a chairlift and it closed in 1991 due to financial difficulties.

Hidden Valley remains a popular sledding hill for locals in the winter and offers several hiking trails for summer recreation.

More information and shared memories of Hidden Valley can be viewed here.

Imagine visiting Rocky Mountain National Park without paying a fee! There was a time when you could do just that. But in 1939, that all changed when a man by the name of Abner Sprague won a coin toss to be the first person to pay a park entrance fee. Sprague paid $1.00 to visit the park.

Sprague was no stranger to the park. The Illinois native was an integral part of the region's history, settling in the Estes Park area in 1874. Sprague Glacier, Sprague Pass and Sprague Lake were named after the colorful park pioneer.

Through the years, Sprague guided hikers up Longs Peak and welcomed tourists to his ranch in Moraine Park, which was eventually demolished years later. In 1940, he celebrated his 90th birthday.

"Arrangements were completed this week to celebrate Abner Sprague’s 90th birthday at a community party at the Auditorium next Thursday evening, March 28th. Abner is known and loved by the entire population of Estes Park, where he has made his home since 1875. He and Mrs. Sprague will be the honor guests, and will dress in old time costumes. The feature of the evening will be reminiscences of the early days by Mr. Sprague," wrote The Estes Park Trail on March 22, 1940.

On Dec. 27, 1943, Sprague died of heart failure at the age of 93 at a Denver hospital.

In 1982, the Lawn Lake Dam, a 26-foot-high earthen dam located in Rocky Mountain National Park collapsed, causing a massive flash flood that killed three people and significantly damaged parts of Estes Park.

"The dam released 674 acre-feet of water, at an estimated peak discharge of 18,000 cubic feet per second, down the Roaring River valley. Initially, the flood wave was described as a wall of water 25 to 30 feet high. Three people were killed, and public and private damages totaled $31 million. The Colorado State Engineer determined that the most probable cause of failure was deterioration of lead caulking used for the connection between the outlet pipe and the gate valve. The resulting leak eroded the earthfill, and progressive piping led to failure of the embankment," wrote The Estes Park Trail on June 7, 1985.

"Rocky Mountain National Park is the headwaters of a lot of major water systems as well, like the Colorado River on the west side, the Big Thompson River on the east side. So sometimes, flood events or major water events that happen were at the headwaters. And oftentimes, a lot of the impacts are downriver as well as more so than oftentimes they are in the park," Patterson said.

Colorado’s second-largest fire in history, the East Troublesome Fire, began on Oct. 14, 2020. It killed two people, destroyed more than 400 structures and charred 193,812 acres of land. It was human-caused, but exactly who started it and how remains under investigation.

In about 36 hours, the fire grew from 19,000 acres to 170,000a record for rapid-fire expansion in Colorado — and forced the evacuation of more than 35,000 people. It barely missed Grand Lake, but did enter RMNP.

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East Troublesome, combined with the Cameron Peak Fire, burned a total of 30,000 acres in the park.

The East Troublesome Fire was officially contained on Nov. 30, 2020.

The Lawn Lake Dam in RMNP collapsed in 1982