Participants brave the cold to learn Grand Lake’s history
A walking tour brings the resort town’s past to life
On May 28, despite the cold, Grand Lake was bustling. Visitors meandered down the boardwalk, seeing which shops called their name. Music played in the public square. At the Kauffman House Museum, five participants, including me, arrived for Grand Lake Historical Society’s Walking Tour.
Tour guide Brook Mark was excited to see participants had braved the weather. As we waited for the tour to start, icy wind blew across the lake, underneath mountains still dusted with snow. Everyone on the tour was eager to be immersed in history. Mark began by discussing Grand Lake’s environmental importance, located by the headwaters of the Colorado River. The Colorado River (which was originally named the Grand River until it met the Green River in Utah) travels into Grand Lake, through the Grand Canyon, then down to Mexico.
In the 1900s, Grand Lake was isolated, but its beauty called many to travel here. People rode the train from Denver to Granby along most of the same route Amtrak takes today (when it was completed in 1928, the Moffat Tunnel made the trip quicker and easier). From Granby, people traveled by stagecoach to the lake. The Kauffman House became a main stagecoach stop.
“Because it took so long to get here, people stayed here several weeks to a year,” Mark said.
Grand Lake was a haven for fishing. Mark explained most of the fishing cottages on the opposite side of the shore were built in winter, when builders used sleds to transport materials across the ice. Many cottages were built from the 1920s-1930s. In 1900, Grand Lake had about 100 full-time residents, but over 1,000 people stayed during summer.
“Boating was a popular diversion for early visitors and residents,” Mark added.
Boaters founded the Grand Lake Yacht Club in 1902, then built the clubhouse in 1912. For 72 years, it was the highest registered yacht club in the world at 8,300 feet, drawing Denver’s elite to enjoy the water.
Our next stop on the tour was a gift shop, formerly the county clerk’s office. During the mining boom, Grand Lake became a hub of activity, so the county seat was moved there from Hot Sulphur Springs in 1881. This created a fierce rivalry between Grand Lake and Hot Sulphur; the county seat was moved back in 1888.
From the county clerk’s office, we continued our travel through time to the busy boardwalk. We stopped by the former location of the Corner Cupboard, a family-run, first-class restaurant from the 1920s-1960s.
Mark pointed out an antique sign gracing the top of a shop, which read “Humphrey’s Gifts.” That store was the first-erected building in Grand Lake after the town was surveyed. Humphrey’s had a barber shop and beauty parlor, plus a soda fountain.
“My mother-in-law worked there as a soda jerk behind the fountain,” Mark said. Today, the store is Cabin Fever Humphrey’s gift shop.
We continued to the end of the town, where we stopped at one of the largest granite boulders in town, deposited there by glaciers around 30,000 years ago. Nearby are a group of quaint log cabins, formerly the Grand Escape Cottages, where visitors could stay.
Then we walked down to the Grand Rapids Hotel, located beside the North Inlet Creek. Thanks to a nearby water-powered generator, the Rapids was first hotel in the area to have running water, electricity and heat. The hotel also has a mysterious side.
“It’s had over 30 owners in its colorful history, which included gambling, prostitution and bootleg liquor,” Mark said. “Perhaps this notorious past explains the frequent ghost sightings here.”
It is rumored that the ghost of a friendly old lady and her husband float through the halls. With the day’s gray sky and cold winds, I almost imagined the ghosts of Rapid’s past.
We traveled back to Grand Avenue, where rodeos and horse races once blazed through town. We stopped in front of Lariat Saloon, where Mark pointed out old hitching posts. Here, cowboys hitched their horses before traveling inside.
Our next destination: Sagebrush BBQ & Grill. In the 1880s, Sagebrush was the site of the county courthouse and jail. Today, patrons can eat next to a wall that displays the original jailhouse doors.
From Sagebrush, we ventured to the public square, once the spot for the town’s annual fish fry. The community house in the square held many events over the years, including funerals, church services, craft shows, and book fairs.
“In 1935, there was a grand opening for a movie theater,” Mark said. “The community house served as a movie theater until 1988.”
The community house continued its entertainment legacy when the Rocky Mountain Repertory Theatre performed shows there in the 1990s.
Next to the community house is the Juniper Library. Before the library was built, bibliophiles found book collections in homes, stores, the school, the community house or the fire station. The construction of Juniper Library was completed in 2011, finally creating a convenient place for books to be housed.
Back on the boardwalk, we visited several shops that held different purposes in the past. The jewelry store Mine Design was a school in the early 1900s (with only 5 pupils), and served as the town’s first telephone exchange. Bob Scott’s Authentic Indian Jewelry was originally a grocery and butcher shop.
“One night, a bear got into the shop and was found the next morning,” Mark said. “The bear was butchered, and the town enjoyed many meals of bear meat!”
Our next stop was the former ice house. Here, residents bought blocks of ice which were cut from the lake, then covered with sawdust to stay frozen. Some say the ice house was also used to store bodies in the winter, when it was too cold to bury the dead.
For our last stop, our group traveled down Vine Street, the beginning of the original road that led from Grand Lake to Granby. Here, our walk culminated at the Smith-Eslick Cottage Court, where Elin Capps gave us a tour. Built in 1915, the Court is the oldest original motel in the U.S.
Today, tourists can drive to Grand Lake, park at a quaint cabin or motel, and enjoy the same views visitors and locals did in the 1910s. Grand Lake has evolved over the years, but still holds fast to its heritage. Those exploring the town can find history around every street corner, and in every gift shop and museum.
Grand Lake’s Walking Tour opened my eyes to the past, giving me a newfound respect for the small town nestled by a big lake. Next time I step inside Sagebrush for dinner, or Cabin Fever Humphrey’s for shopping, I’ll remember what stood there before, and imagine what the future holds for this Grand County gem.
Stay tuned for Soyars’ next article on the Grand Lake history tour, where she’ll take readers to Cottage Court Museum and back in time to the days when the Model T was king and tourists hit the road for the mountains.
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