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Historic Cottage Court transformed Grand Lake tourism

Lance Maggart
Staff Photo |

The history of Grand County is written into the buildings and byways that fill this land.

Cabins and ranches from the homestead era, in various states of disrepair, still dot the landscape and remind us of a history stretching back to an era before cars, when only stagecoaches and trains could traverse the high mountain passes to emerge in the Grand Valley.

More than 100 years ago, before the development of the automobile, Grand Lake was already carving out a niche as a world-class tourist destination. For the first decade and a half after the start of the 20th century Grand Lake was still primarily a vacation spot for elites and those who could afford to take weeks or even months off during the summer for extended vacations. The difficult mountain passes required days to traverse, excluding all but the wealthiest, or most hardy, from enjoying the high Rockies.

A series of fortuitous developments around 1915 transformed Grand Lake from a remote vacation destination for the wealthy into a relatively accessible summer hot spot for the newly emerging American middle class. In 1915 Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) was established, creating a focal point for tourists. At roughly the same time the automobile was becoming the chosen form of transportation for many citizens.

Against this backdrop the Smith Eslick Cottage Court was constructed. Now over 100 years old, the Cottage Court is finding new life as the Grand Lake Area Historical Society (GLAHS) works to rehabilitate the structure as an historical landmark.

The building is a quaint and unassuming facility made up of just a few cabins. It appears, to the untrained eye, to be an old storage shed or barn. But if you take a closer look you’ll find more than beds and carports. You’ll find an idea; one that transformed Grand Lake, and heralded a new age in American culture.

The Cottage Court was a first of its kind tourism business, decades ahead of its time. While motels and the scenic byways of America would become quintessential parts of post-World War II American culture; the Cottage Court in Grand Lake, it seems, was the first tourist rental facility created specifically to provide accommodations for those traveling by car, offering carports adjacent to the rented rooms.

It is all but impossible to determine, but because the Cottage Court is believed to be the first such business in the U.S. and because mass-automobile culture developed first in the U.S., it is possible that the Smith Eslick Cottage Court was the first “motel” or “motor-hotel” in the world.

The Smith Eslick Cottage Court was created, as the name implies, by the Smith and Eslick families sometime in the early 1900s, though the dates remain hard to pin down exactly. Smith family patriarch P.H. Smith moved to the Grand Valley from Breckenridge in 1882 to work at a sawmill. His daughter Georgia would eventually marry an English miner living in Idaho Springs named Alfred Eslick. Alfred and Georgia and their then six children lived in Idaho Springs but moved to Grand Lake around 1905, after Alfred began struggling with “miner’s consumption.” After moving to Grand Lake Alfred Eslick began working for his father-in-law P.H. Smith who owned a sawmill in the Town.

Sometime thereafter, but before 1915, the Cottage Court facilities were built by Alfred and his son Clyde Eslick. The information about this transformative structure was provided by the Historical Society, which has spent nearly a decade working to preserve the Cottage Court.

The facility was originally located on Grand Avenue at Vine Street where the Rocky Mountain Repertory Theatre is currently located. In 2009 the Society purchased property at 729 Lake Ave. on the corner of Lake Avenue and Vine Street for the Cottage Court, just one block south of it’s original location. Jim Cervenka, GLAHS Board President, explained the new location of the facility is still appropriate from a historical perspective as Lake Avenue was the original entrance to Grand Lake when the Eslicks built the Cottage Court.

In the fall of 2009 the difficult process of moving the structure was undertaken. According to Elin Capps, GLAHS Cottage Camp Committees Chair Person, the move was conducted by a professional firm that used a crane and other heavy equipment to move the structure, foot-by-foot, across Vine Street to the new location. The move, including the structure’s preparation phase took multiple days.

Over the past several years the GLAHS has raised funds from various grants as well as the Grand Lake community to rehabilitate the structure, including restoring some of the rental rooms, replacing the weathered roof, and placing the structure on a permanent foundation. This year water taps were added to the site had a lawn sodded.

While work on the project is ongoing, including the development of an additional lot immediately west of the building and the preservation of another cabin, the Smith Eslick Cottage Court will see extra activity next Monday, Aug. 24, when the Vintage Time Travelers Model T Community Chicken Dinner and Campfire event is held at the site. The event is part of the larger Rocky Mountain National Park Centennial Celebrations.

The event will feature a Buena Vista car club called the Vintage Time Travelers. They will attempt to retrace the steps of a group of early motorists by making the “Park to Park” trip, recreating a 1920 drive made by Model As through 10 of the then 12 National Parks in existence. The Vintage Time Travelers will head off over Trail Ridge Road after a ceremonial ribbon cutting Tuesday morning at 8:15 a.m. at the Grand Lake entrance to the Park. The event will feature local history buff Dave Naples portraying Teddy Roosevelt. Monday night folks can enjoy a chicken dinner at the Cottage Court for a fee from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. along with music and storytellers.

The Historical Society plans on beginning full restoration work on the Smith Eslick Cottage Court next spring thanks to a generous grant from History Colorado, the State Historical Fund. They also hope to place the facility on the National Historic Register in the near future.


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