The history of Estes Park begins with the powerful geologic forces of tectonic uplift and glacial erosion that over millions of years formed and then sculpted a magnificent mountain valley and its surrounding peaks in the heart of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. Together they have giving us the beautiful and unforgettable landscape and ecosystem that we are pleased to share each year with millions of visitors from around the nation and around the world.
Archaeologists tell us that our human history, at least on a seasonal basis, reaches back some ten thousand years to the ancestors of today’s Native Americans. Until the late 1700s, the Utes dominated the mountain region to the west, increasingly being forced to share their territory with the Arapaho, Comanche, Shoshone, and even, it has been suggested, with roving bands of Apache. Until a decade before the arrival of the first Euro-Americans, the valleys to the east along the Front Range belonged to the Arapaho, who began to arrive in the 1790s, having been pushed west across the Great Plains by their Sioux enemies. Penetrating the foothills, they frequented the Estes Valley and the area now embraced by Rocky Mountain National Park. Evidence of their summer encampments and activity, including the hillside ovens used to cook their meals, has been found in many places. Artifacts, located around the base of Oldman Mountain, the conical granite knob overlooking Fall River and the west end of Elkhorn Avenue, suggest that its summit was once used by early visitors as a vision quest site.
The word “Park,” in the parlance of the mountains, means upland valley. The name “Estes Park” (or “Este’s Park” as it was first known), was bestowed on the valley by William Byers, founding editor of the Rocky Mountain News, in honor of its first permanent Anglo residents, Kentuckian Joel Estes and his wife Patsy. Byers, and his party, on their way to a failed attempt to climb Longs Peak in 1864, stayed with the Estes family, paying his hosts $2.20 for food and lodging. Writing of the experience for the News, Byers predicted that “eventually this park will become a favorite pleasure resort.”
The Estes family did not stay, leaving in 1866, in search for a more temperate place in which to ranch their cattle. Others, however, soon arrived, and by 1874, the valley had been opened for settlement under the terms of the Homestead Act. Though the first pioneer families (the MacGregors, Spragues, Jameses, Hupps, Fergusons, and Lambs among them) came to ranch and farm, most soon discovered that a more profitable living could be made by taking care of the needs of the summer visitors who arrived, and in ever-increasing numbers, to recreate and rest among scenery that many described as rivaling Switzerland itself.
The Town of Estes Park was platted by Abner Sprague in the spring of 1905, surveyed out from the small group of existing buildings clustered about what is now the corner of today’s Elkhorn and Moraine avenues. Lots sold quickly, and within a decade the footprint of the town we know today was largely in place. Most of the town’s early infrastructure—its electricity, its water and sewerage system—came from the generosity of steam car pioneer F. O. Stanley, who had come to the Estes Valley in June 1903 hoping to recover his health. His legacy lives on most visibly in the magnificent Stanley Hotel complex overlooking the town, built between 1907 and 1909.
Thanks to the efforts of F. O. Stanley and other early residents, and their sense of Western self-sufficiency, for more than a decade the primary needs of the new town were taken care of by citizens themselves. These included the construction of a new fish hatchery on Fall River, the reintroduction of elk into a region that had hunted them to extinction, and the building of roads and trails—all in the hope of attracting summer visitors. In the years after 1907, thanks to the organizational and inspirational talents of local naturalist and hotel owner Enos A Mills, residents rallied behind an even larger cause: the creation of a new national park.
Rocky Mountain National Park was established in January 1915. Two years later, in April 1917, came the formal incorporation of the Town of Estes Park and the beginnings of local government to guide the affairs of a fast growing community.
Much, of course, has happened in the century since. Milestones include the completion of Fall River Road over the Continental Divide in 1920, and its successor Trail Ridge Road a decade later, as well as the completion in 1944 of the thirteen-mile Alva Adams tunnel, keystone of the Colorado-Big Thompson Trans-mountain Irrigation Project, bringing water from Grand Lake under Rocky Mountain National Park to irrigate farms along the Front Range. There have also been major challenges, most notably the Big Thompson Flood of 1976, the Lawn Lake Flood of 1982, and the epic flood of September 2013, all of which challenged the resiliency, courage, and resolve of a community that has proven itself time and time again to be “Mountain Strong.”
In 2017, our Centennial Year, the Town of Estes Park invites all its residents together with our millions of year-round guests to reflect upon the achievements of our first century and the rich heritage that inspires this remarkable place. We welcome your participation.
James H. Pickering
Historian Laureate, Town of Estes Park