As we continue our celebration of Isabella Bird, who defied social norms of the time with unscathed determination to put Estes Park on the map, we continue to sit down with historians to eagerly learn more about Bird and her travels. Among one of her most famous excursions, Bird managed to summit Longs Peak along with her rumored, love-interest, Rocky Mountain Jim. 150 years after her iconic trip to Estes Park, we are still fascinated by her story and hope you are too!

In this interview, we spoke with Sybil Barnes, who has been a year-round resident of Estes Park since 1973, and a summer resident even before that. She has worked as the history librarian at the Estes Park Library, as well as the reference librarian for Rocky Mountain National Park, and not to mention, she has a listing in the Library of Congress! She is passionate about local history, and we had the honor of asking her all about Isabella Bird. Read the full interview below.

Isabella Bird 3


Could Isabella Bird be considered the “Mother of Estes Park,” or would it be more appropriate to deem her the “Mother of Estes Park Tourism?” –some may argue that Flora Stanley or Esther Burnell Mills would be the “Mother of Estes Park.” 

I would say that Isabella was more the "Rick Steves" of Estes Park tourism. She visited at a time when not that many people were traveling in a sparsely populated area. She made it seem irresistible and fun instead of how hard it actually was. The fact that A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains is still in print indicates that people enjoyed her writing at the time and continue to enjoy it.  

I rather doubt that most people who have visited here or moved here had read that book before they got here. I don't think that her book spurred a wave of visitors.

The people who might be considered "mothers" of  Estes Park would be the wives of the early settlers. Clara MacGregor, Eleanor James Hondius and Alberta Sprague were all women who supported their husbands in trying to make a living through ranching and eventually running lodges for tourists. Other women like Josie Hupp, E.M.A. Foote, Esther Burnell Mills and her sister Elizabeth Burnell ran businesses which helped the town develop services for those tourists in later years.  They and many of the women in that collection of short biographies that were collected by the Woman's Club a couple of years ago continued the matrilineal lines that define the community.


Do you think it is true that Estes Park was Bird’s favorite place on earth as her book made it seem?

Most people who have visited Estes Park consider it "their favorite place on Earth."  Isabella visited so many other places but ended up in Scotland, which is similar to Estes in many ways. Colorado was new and "undiscovered" in the 1870s.  We forget that leisure travel was not possible for most people in any part of the world until about the middle of the 20th century.


Are there any interesting things we know about Isabella Bird that we could not get from her book or some of the other things already written about her?

I wonder how Isabella afforded to even begin her travels.  I don't think her family had that much money.  She had a small inheritance after her father died and was making some money from her travel writing.  She was unusual in traveling alone. The trouble with history is that we only have what people write down and not that many women had time or inclination to write things down. Too busy running the house and raising the family, dying in childbirth, etc.  


What was the perception in Europe at the time of a “Mountain Man?” Do you think people overseas could relate to her experience and her mysterious romance with Rocky Mountain Jim?

Colorado and most places west of the Mississippi were mostly considered wilderness by the citizens of the eastern states and other countries.  Possibly one of the things that surprised Isabella's readers was that she didn't have contact with "wild natives."  Rocky Mountain Jim was definitely seen as a person living on the fringes of society. He was basically homeless - living on land that didn't belong to him and subsisting on what he could trap or shoot.  


What made Isabella Bird stand out amongst other women like her in her time period? How rare was it for a woman like her to take it upon herself to go on this sort of expedition? 

At least two other women climbed Longs Peak before Isabella got there.  We really don't know what her physical problems were - but they didn't keep her from traveling or at least not complaining about them when she was traveling. The two young men from Longmont who climbed with them weren't any help. I doubt she would have even thought about climbing a mountain without assistance. She was a good horsewoman so possibly would have been content to go as far as she could on a horse and come back.


What else do we know about Isabella after she returned from her travels to Estes Park? 

When she got back to England, she ended up marrying the doctor who treated her sister.  That may have been a marriage of convenience or security. Another thing we tend to forget is that women didn't have a lot of autonomy at that time.  And, as forthcoming as Isabella was about her travels, she was reluctant to write down much about her personal involvement with other people when she got home.  Or those letters or diaries were tossed or lost.


Do you have any interesting commentary on her claim that Rocky Mountain Jim came to her in a dream the day he died? 

Spiritualism was a hot idea in the late 1800s so her vision of Jim might have been just another way to try to attract more readers. There is some controversy about whether her vision occurred in Scottish time or Colorado time. Hard to tell what kind of connection they had outside the fact that she was an outsider to the small world he inhabited. Personally, I believe there's a possibility that something like this could occur.  I don't think she even mentions the idea of romantic entanglement in her other books. 

And when it comes to her biggest accomplishment, Barnes says in overcoming her own health problems and making a life for herself pursuing her dreams, Bird's writing encouraged people to follow their own dreams and travel as much as they wanted to or could afford.


Sybil Barnes

"I have always been a reader and collector and feel a connection to those who came before. I served on the Advisory Board of the Estes Park Area Historical Museum for 20 years, as well as contributing my editing and proofreading expertise to several local history publications. In the early 80s, I worked at the Bond Park Library and the Baldpate Inn with the key collection.  I was the very part-time librarian at Rocky Mountain National Park from 1993-2013 and the local history librarian at the Estes Park Public Library from 1994-2008. I have conducted many oral history interviews for the Library and Museum collections.  I am the author of several articles in "100 Years: A Celebration of Women" and the author of "Images of America: Estes Park." I share my birthday, October 7 with the day that Isabella died which may or may not be the reason I picked up, A Lady's Life, to read when I was 16 and thinking about climbing Longs Peak. There is a lot about these mountains and this area that gives me a sense of home."- Sybil Barnes