A 35-mile drive and a 3,200-foot climb through the foothills of Denver will lead you to the Central City Cemetery. This is a grouping of several smaller cemeteries and family plots that sits at a total of 8,495 feet (258 m) above sea level. The land is back-dropped by spectacular views of the Rocky Mountains and is peppered with colorful wild-flowers. The first grave-site was dug shortly after the Gold Rush period, in 1884 and the last grave was dug in 1913. It contains 17 families and groups, split between 26 cemeteries.
Central City Colorado is the largest town that is adjacent to the Central City Cemetery. However; many of the surrounding communities that once interred its residents here are now lost to time or ghost towns. Some such examples are; Nevadavilla and Apex Colorado. Meaning Central City and its cemetery remain, but the size of this Cemetery is attributed to many communities that no longer exist.
Central City was first discovered by John Gregory. Only two weeks after his arrival people began to join John and in just over two months over 10,000 people lived in Central City and it’s ancillary communities.
The area that we now know as Central City was formally incorporated by William Byers, from the Rocky Mountain News. He and his companions pitched a tent in the central square, in what was just considered a large mining district. This act elevated the area to more than a settlement and it became an emerging city center. This portion of town became known as “The Richest Square Mile on Earth”. In-fact there is a stone monument on the eastern side of the city commemorating the event.
In 1874, a great fire destroyed most of the buildings in town. However; this was almost a required step for a Western city to grow out of its timber construction methods. Like many cities, they rebuilt with more sturdy materials; such as stone and brick. This is why we can still enjoy and marvel at “Ol’ Central City” to this day.
Today Central City is home to only 765 living residents; however, they are becoming well known for the thousands of residents who have passed on and refuse to leave. The Central City Cemetery is home to countless fraternal orders, secret societies, and religious sects. Some of the most well known are the “Central City Mason Cemetery”, “The Catholic Cemetery”, “Independent Order of the Odd Fellows Cemetery”, and “The Knights of Pythias Cemetery” (all of which are sub-plots within the greater Central City Cemetery”).
Knights of Pythias Cemetery
While much attention is paid to the Freemason Cemetery (and I will cover this); the Knights of Pythias Cemetery has its own set of legends and ghost stories. The Knights were the second fraternal organization to receive a charter from Congress, in 1864. They were second to the freemasons, who received a charter in 1752 (this charter was passed down from its grand lodge in Scotland before we were a country).
The group's by-laws and charter were inspired by a play written by Irish poet, John Banim. The play was a political satire that told the story of Damon and Pythias. The central themes of the play were of friendship and loyalty. New members were provided a sword upon their induction; however, this practice no longer exists. Today, there are about 2,000 lodges, as well as many cemeteries that are scattered throughout the country.
Much of this fading brotherhood’s dead lie under the Central City Cemetery with their swords by their side. The Knights of Pythias grave-site is characterized by its rod iron gates that were once topped with faux Tesla balls. Remnants of the Tesla balls are still seen on smaller fences within the plot. This was likely a nod to Nicola Tesla, who built an experimental station in a nearby town and conducted much of his research in the City of Colorado Springs. With that said, you can see how the imagination tends to run wild with a deeper connection to Nicola Tesla and the Knights of Pythias
The Knights gravesite is bordered and sits across from the Independent Order of the Odd Fellows cemetery. On the border of these two sites you will find unmarked body mounds that curve skyward. There are many accounts of ghostly spirits lurking between these two burial grounds. The most frequent account is of a phantom woman, who is not from the period. Rather she wears a brightly colored red and teal track-suit; circa Mid-eighties or early 1990s. She sports short curly brown hair, yet has no face. Visitors claim to encounter her as they round corners or tree lines. Often she appears directly to the right of the passerby. Before anyone can say “excuse me” or “hello”, she disappears. These interactions have been reported to startle both the otherworldly guest as well as the passerby.
This portion of the Central City Cemetery is well maintained and is positioned away from most other grave-sites and cemeteries. The Freemason plot is the section that is often referred to as one of the “most haunted places in Colorado”.
It has been widely reported that every 5th of April and 1st of November, the grave of John Edward Cameron is visited by a woman. Unlike the Knights of Pythias spirit; this specter wears period clothing. She is said to be a beautiful young lady w ho wears a black Victorian-style dress and keeps her hair of their shoulders with a braided-chignon hairdo. She appears twice a year to lay flowers in the vase that sits directly in front of Mr. Cameron’s grave.
John Cameron died on November 1st, 1885, and was a member of the Freemasons. There is a lot of speculation and rumors in regards to the connection to Cameron and the “Lady in Black”. There is a record of a man named John having died November 1st from “paralysis of the heart”. It is rumored that John was a sought after bachelor. Despite the local women's advances, he was not tempted. John’s heart longed for and was devoted to a woman who lived near Bald Mountain.
The first sightings of the Lady in Black date back to the 1880s. People speculate that the lady planted the rosebushes that once bloomed each spring beside John’s grave. The phantom-women continued to appear and deliver her bouquet of roses until June 1888, when the church-sexton removed the bushes. This seemed to stop the ghostly encounters but, only two years later the sexton saw her again. This time she carried a bouquet of columbine flowers; which bloom commonly in the surrounding meadows. He recalled that she placed the flower in the vase; reflected for a moment, before turning to Bald Mountain before disappearing.
Once there were twelve paranormal investigators who gathered on Cameron’s grave and awaited her arrival. They spent most of the afternoon here and they expected a long night. However; as dusk sets in and to the amazement of the group the Lady in Black appeared. One of them attempted to approach her, when he attempted to grab her she reportedly “flew off and suddenly vanished into a nearby hillside”.
This sprawling grouping of cemeteries is mostly overgrown; however, a good portion of its residents are fortunate to have been buried in the meadows and are not likely to be overgrown. Fortunately, the majority of the damage is due to decay, not vandalism. However, to my shock, I did see a recently removed headstone, during my visit. To add insult to injury, it was a child's headstone. All that was left was a toy left in the child's memory.
The cemetery is listed as active by the Colorado Dept. of Health, who maintains the list. This list indicates that the site is now maintained by Central City. If you are interested in donating time or money to the preservation of the site please contact. The Gilpin County Historical Preservation Commission, in this link.
Photos from Central City Cemetery
In this month's article, I would like to visit Woodland Park, Colorado. This town is so steeped in forgotten history that I will likely revisit it a few times. That said; today's tale is about a piece of property that barely missed Wal-Mart's wrecking ball and housed some of the world's earliest skiing enthusiasts.
I am focusing on land that was sold; in 2005, to Roger Thompson of the Wal-Mart real estate corporation. His intention was to develop a low-end department store combined with a grocery store. This news sparked community outrage over fears the store would eclipse main street businesses, damage historical property, and destroy the city's small-town quality of life. That April, town hall meetings were a roar with accusations, conflicts of interests, and preservation concerns
They pointed to the fact that city voters had already voted; in 1988, to not allow the town council to build city-funded infrastructure. This infrastructure was designed to entice Wal-Mart into opening a store in Woodland Park. The difference between 1988 and 2005 is that Teller County's population nearly doubled in those 17 years. With so much growth Wal-Mart no longer needed incentives to be interested in opening up shop.
Arguably Wal-Mart did not wreak all of the havoc that people feared, but the list of businesses that closed, opened, and closed again since the Wal-Mart opened is too large to keep up with. It’s a safe bet to say that the small retail-business market in Woodland Park became more volatile, but as a whole, the town seems to be better off with Wal-Mart and its tax revenue.
The town hall discussions concerning Wal-Mart was where we learned of the land’s historic significance. In response to these (and other) concerns Wal-Mart assured the people of Woodland Park that they would; preserve historic buildings, set aside 37% of the land for open space, pave the Crystola trail, and create a bronze sculpture of a local hero. As soon as the development was approved by the city council the land was transferred to “private developers” and no one heard from Roger Thompson again. These private developers only followed through with two of Rodgers’ promises; they preserved the historic buildings on the land and paved less than a mile of the Crystola trail.
The buildings that were spared served many uses during its time. The most obvious is that it was used as a cattle ranch in the 1800s. What is not so obvious is it was once the hub of Southern-Colorado Skiing and was the home to one of the first “ski clubs” west of the Mississippi River, The Silver Spruce Ski Club. This area was one of three ski areas developed by Don Lawrie and the buildings that remain were once used as a warming house for Don’s crew. Don was a pioneer of the sport of skiing and eventually became the president of the Silver Spruce Ski Club
Don developed ski areas with the help of volunteers and he funded this with the little donations they could put together. This was demanding physical labor that was done during the heat of summer.
Lawrie was quoted in the book “Lost Ski Areas of Colorado” saying; “Back then, the ski club built all their areas with donations and with volunteer labor. We never had any money, and we had to improvise and make do. We worked hard, we skied hard and we had a wonderful time.”
At this time skiing was considered somewhat barbaric and was not widely accepted in the United States. None-the-less Don encouraged people to try the sport and coached people to enter tournaments around Colorado. In addition to being a mentor to new skiers, he also participated as a competitor in cross-country and jumping events. Some of these events were said to have drawn up to 800 people. The competitions evolved into a great fundraising opportunity for many of the local ski clubs.
In 1929 Don implemented a plan to reduce the club membership fees in order to make skiing available to more people. Also at that time, he merged his club with the US Western Amature Ski Association. This incorporation literally brought busloads of people who were interested in skiing to the Edlow course in Woodland Park.
By 1936 Don’s incorporation of local ski clubs had grown out of its cross-country skiing roots and evolved into a club that was more focused on downhill and slalom skiing. The new focus of the club and the larger group brought with it a new name, “The Pikes Peak Ski Club''. That same year he adapted an old Whippet automobile engine into a mechanical tow rope, to help people up the hills. This made it so people could get up the hill without using busses or hiking. More interestingly this was a first of a kind tow rope that was widely mimicked in the Western United States
In 1948, Don Lawrie had become the Pikes Peak Highway administrator. He decided to find a new ski area that would be less windy and have more shade. With his army Weasel, he scouted a north-facing slope on Pikes Peak. This slope would later become the “Elk Park Winter Sports Area”, but it was better known as the “Pikes Peak Ski Area”. The ski run was originally cleared by the Highway Road crew, but only when they could take time away from their normal responsibilities. The area was completed by volunteers including Soldiers from Fort Carson and students from Colorado College. These hearty volunteers spent most summer weekends working on the ski runs. By night they would sleep under the stars with just a sleeping bag. Similar to the Woodland Park Ski run, a warming house was used however; in this instance, it was an old CCC building that was moved to the base of the new ski area.
In 1954, skiing was finally authorized at Elk Park. Don had created a fun and affordable ski destination. All people needed was skis, a $1 toll for the highway, and an additional fee for using the tow rope. People flocked from the nearby cities to enjoy an affordable afternoon skiing.
Don then went on to be influential in the formation of the non-profit “Pikes Peak Ski Corporation”. This charity was used to finance improvements to the ski areas for many years. Don served on the Board of Directors of the organization until the mid-sixties.
Pikes Peak became the major ski area for Colorado Springs for many years. The ski area was very small compared to runs in places like Vail Colorado or Keystone Colorado. In the early 1980’s they added a $700,000 triple chair made by Poma-USA. The Poma provided new terrain above the timberline, but snow is really hard to come by in this area. The trails were often wind-blown and packed. After the lift was put in the ski area had a terrible season, with very little turnout. Subsequently, it was not able to pay its taxes or pay Poma-USA for their newly installed lift.
Skiing on Pikes Peak or “Americas Mountain” continued until the mid-1980s. By this time the operation was becoming increasingly expensive to maintain. This is because all of the snow was man-made or shipped down from higher elevations. The city of Colorado Springs purchased the property for a brief period. But it was promptly determined to be too expensive and was sold again to Vail Resorts. The lack of snow and increased costs made it a bad investment. Vail Resorts took the opportunity to close the ski area after the 1984 season. Not only did they close down their competition, but they also closed the chapter of U.S. history about Skiing in Southern Colorado.
The heyday of Pikes Peak’s organized skiing took place near the Glen Cove area and Woodland Park. These were the sites that Don Lawrie and his friends chose before Elk Park grew into a skiing destination. Heck, it was even before Colorado was considered a ski destination. Don’s grand ideas never wavered and he was fortunate to have seen many of them become a reality. Lawrie died in 2000 and was long retired by then. But it was his dreams and ambitions that helped to create the ski scene in Colorado. He brought the skiing industry to life before it boomed in higher elevations and in well-known towns like Aspen, Vail, or Telluride.
Don’s grandson; Don Sanborn, was quoted in Colorado Springs, in regards to his Grandfather saying: “Even in his 90s, he still harbored a dream of starting a ski area, like at some hill behind the Wal-Mart in Woodland Park. We told him, ‘You need to see what ski hills and areas are really like now!'”. While Don was well aware of what modern ski resorts had become, he longed for a more simple and pure version of his sport. And to some degree, we can all understand that. To Don, this wasn’t an unreasonable idea, especially when we consider that behind this Wal-Mart was where he helped to make one of the first ski runs in Colorado. This is why I propose that the Woodland Park Wal-Mart follow through with its promise of building a bronze statue, by erecting a statue of Don Lawrence and the Silver Spring Ski Club.
Photos From The Day:
W.C. Davis and G.C McGee first purchased the Ida L. and Dauntless mining claims in 1888. By 1893 Davis sold his interest in these and other claims to W.F. Abrams of San Diego, California. McGee kept his interest until selling it to A.G. Bruner in 1910. Beginning in 1917 Bruner fell behind in tax payments and Charles L. Larson of Denver purchased the Ida L and Dauntless mines, in 1933 for only $200. Charles and family were the last few prospects in the town of Ironton Colorado. This became evident to the Larsons' when in 1920, only 3 years after purchasing their mine; the Ironton post office closed. The next year the railway stopped all service to Ironton.
Despite the closure of the post office, lack of rail service, and dwindling population Charles and his sons continued to build on their property for 4 years. During this time they constructed a small flotation mill, a bunkhouse, blacksmith shop, and a snow shed over the mine adit (or mine opening). The concrete foundation from the mill is still visible today, behind the adit. The mine eventually had a 180-foot tunnel and a two-compartment mine shaft. In 1937 the Larsons' shipped out 25-tons of concentrated ore at a rate of $100 per ton. Which would be $2,500, but in today's currency (that would be equal to $44,811. The same year the Larson mine began to turn a profit, Charles Larson passed away. Leaving behind his two sons Milton and Harry Larson; later the duo became locally known as “The Larson Brothers”.
Despite their recent financial success, the Larson Brothers were in debt. Which limited further development on the property. They struggled to get their mine off the ground for three years. In 1940 a man named Kenneth Gerard offered to partner with the Larson Brothers and bought out W.F. Abrams. By 1951 Gerard started a diamond-drilling program. He wanted to use the flotation mill once more; however, this never came to be. Very few leases worked the mine off- and-on up until the 1960s.
In the late 1950s, the nearby Beaver and Belfast Mines owed back taxes. Kenneth Gerard and the Larson Brothers took this opportunity to buy the mines. Milton and Harry Larson operated their original mine for an additional 9 years. People who visited the brothers said that no one left without sharing a bowl of soup with the brothers. They were said to have only mined enough minerals to have what they needed. They traded their findings in town for basic supplies and trundled back up the mountain once a month. The pair shared this humble existence until Harry died in 1959
Milton continued to live in Ironton alone. In-fact Milton (Milt) Larson was best known as Ironton’s last resident. His friends and the locals dubbed him “Ironton’s mayor”. In 1964 he was given an all-expense-paid trip to New York to appear on the television show “I’ve got a secret” where his secret was; “I am the entire population of Ironton, Colorado.” Milton may have been alone; however, he was reported to be in good spirits. He was known for his detailed stories that he entertained the occasional tourist with his tales. And he allowed children to take small pieces of galena ore from his mine, as a memento. Milton continued the remainder of his days this way, until his death in 1964.
With Milton gone the property-ownership and the mining-claim went to the Gerard family. The property remained in the family for 41 years. Like the rest of Ironton, it fell into abandonment and ruin. Thankfully in 2005, Ouray County purchased the mining-claim from the Gerard family with a grant from Great Outdoors Colorado.
The property sat for another 13 years before minimum preservation began. Fortunately, the boarding house and office building were re-roofed in 2005 and the building's structure was repaired in 2018. Today The Larson Brothers Mine is an important historic site and is listed as a Ouray County Historic Landmark. A conservation easement on the property was given to the Trust for Land Restoration and this ensures the protection of the historic site from inappropriate development.
Charles, Milt, and Harry lived and died on this land. It was an important part of their lives that almost was lost to time. Thanks to the money generated by Great Outdoors Colorado we will be able to experience their home for years to come.
Milton Larson on "I've Got A Secret":
In this article, I would like to take a break from covering US history and forgotten places to dive into the history that is being made by the Novel Coronavirus (Covid-19). As much of America is on lockdown and practicing “social distancing”, our cities are looking more like the ghost towns that I typically cover. I would like to tour you through my hometown and review the history of the last time the world saw a major Pandemic. To paraphrase the Greek God Janus; “The man that looks to the past and the future is blind in one eye, but the man who looks to only the future is blind in both eyes.”
Despite popular belief, we have not seen a major pandemic in living memory. There have been major; yet localized, epidemics; such as SCARS or MERS. Both of which are more deadly than Covid-19. Not to forget, the most deadly epidemic in recent history; ebola, which killed 11,323.
To find the last Pandemic we have to go back to January 1918. When the “Spanish Flu” was first reported by the Spanish army. However; it had been circulating in the European armies for over a year before it was noted and reported in a British Army hospital in 1918. Some say it started in China and then mutated at a US military base in Kansas, where it was eventually spread to the frontline.
Regardless of how it started; it made its way around the world because at this time the world was in the throes of World War I and we had little knowledge of viruses and the diseases that they caused. Furthermore, the news of Spanish Flu was suppressed by the US, French, British, and German governments as they feared it would impact their troops' morale and show weakness. This information suppression was instrumental in spreading the disease early on. Later in 1918 the soldiers returned home and brought with them a very virulent version of the virus.
Just like Covid-19, the world population had no immunity or tolerance for the virus built up in their system. This is the key difference between the common flu and the Spanish Flu. Even to this day, the common flu kills 650,00 people worldwide. However; this is a known variable. Meaning we can account for what it will do and where it will do it. Whereas with novel-viruses we have no history to go off of and do not know what to expect.
The Spanish flu went on to become the second-largest health-crisis, second only to the bubonic plague of the middle ages. It managed to spread to every continent and infect upwards of 30% of the world population, of 1.8 billion people. Before the flu pandemic was through it had claimed over 50 million lives. This is a solemn reminder of what can happen if a pandemic gets truly out of control.
We now know the Spanish Flu was an outbreak of the H1N1 virus. A breed of virus that is common in birds and pigs; which is why it is often referred to as “bird flu” or “swine flu”. Similar to Covid-19 it jumped from one species to the next from close contact with infected animals within the food chain. Even though the Spanish Flu is an influenza virus and Covid-19 is a Coronavirus they both attack the lungs. Those who have survived the worst cases of Covid-19 are often left with scarring on their lungs and reduced lung capacity.
A report from the Chinese Center for Disease Control (CCDC) found the mortality rate of Covid-19 to be 2.3%. The Spanish Flu killed its hosts at a rate of 2.5%; to give a frame of reference: the common flu kills at a rate of 0.1%. Meaning the Spanish Flu was 25x more lethal and Covid-19 is 23x more lethal than the common flu.
Now, what’s most important is to not panic. We are going to be ok and better than ever. Just because the data is similar to Spanish Flu, this does not mean the outcome will be similar. The differences between 1918 medicine and today are too numerous to count. And epidemiologists have learned a lot from our past. However; it is time for us to focus our attention on the present and write history together. Let’s change how deadly Covid-19 is to the world. It starts with social distancing and better sanitation habits. And no, toilet paper hoarding is not the answer. Thank you to the medical staff, first responders, and social distance superstars. For the most up-to-date information on Covid-19 Please visit the link below:
Photos from the day:
It is not uncommon to stumble on a Colorado town, ranch or mining settlement while hiking through the area. Especially when you consider that Colorado had 1,500 settlements and today only 600 of these are known and 300 still stand. Of those, only a fraction have been preserved or documented. Most are lost to time, absent from maps, and are returning to nature. But, these structures still offer us historic insights and a glance into the lives of the American Pioneer and the people of the early 20th century.
In this article, I would like to tour you through one such settlement and discuss how the architecture that we found came to be. However; finding these locations requires a certain amount of preparation, navigation, and experience with backwoods hiking. This trip (and journeys like it) are not to be taken lightly as you could lose your bearings quickly in the woods.
With that said; even with proper preparation, you will need to use your senses when you feel that you are generally close to a ghost town. The biggest indicator of a nearby ghost town is debris and rubbish on the ground. As you approach an abandoned area you will begin to see pieces of tin, glass, and wood fragments scattered about. Modern Colorado is very clean and seeing debris of any variety is out of place. This makes it easier to distinguish from modern rubbish and historic debris. Most ghost towns have a designated garbage pile or rubbish area. If you’ve found such a pile you are typically 50-100 yards from a ghost town. However, you will begin to see debris as far away as 1,000 yards from the center of the site.
The site that I explored is a hybrid of two architectural styles that are native to Colorado; “Rustic” and “Pioneer-Log”. Both of these styles are characterized by their use of stones, logs, and the natural materials. They are intended to blend in with the environment around them and because of this can be very difficult to spot. These buildings are often vacant homesteads or hunting lodges. Some are used to this day as tourist-facilities or dude ranches.
The building techniques used emphasized craftsmanship and were typically built by hand. The vast majority of these buildings were constructed between 1900 and 1940. The Rustic style is often categorized by its stone foundations, projecting roofs, battered (sloped) walls, small-paned windows, and stone chimneys. Rustic buildings used more commercially manufactured hardware and materials; for instance, wood paneling, window frames, and interior doors. The roofs often featured “Hip-Roofs” and have space for storage or additional living space
The differences between the Pioneer-Log and Rustic style are subtle but reflect the time in which they were built. Pioneer-Log cabins; as their name implies, were built during the initial U.S. settlement period. They exhibit a quick and crude form of construction. In contrast to the stone chimneys found on the rustic cabin, the Pioneer-Log building used metal flues attached to iron stoves. The roofs were simple structures with soft pitches.
The buildings that we came across are mostly Pioneer-Log style, but the main structure is a mixture of both styles. This is because it uses manufactured wood and has a hip-roof. However, it doesn't have a stone chimney or foundation. This experimentation and hybrid style is likely a contributing factor to the buildings' partial-collapse.
The land was a homestead built in the early 1900s. In the warm months, they used the land to harvest potatoes, carrots, and other vegetables that were shipped by truck or rail to Denver. Throughout the year they raised livestock; such as cattle and bison. In the winter months, most of the ranchers worked for a privately owned ice packing company. This company helped to bridge the wintertime gap in income for many of the area ranchers. The company would cut large blocks of ice from Lake George and ship them to the Pikes' Peak region via the Colorado-Midland Railway.
This region was flush with agricultural work year-round. These ranchers' lifestyle was the petri-dish for mountain-farming and subsistence agriculture in the west. This is especially significant because Colorado wasn’t exactly considered a “Garden of Eden” at that time. Early explorer John C. Fremont wrote:
“The impression of the country traveled over today was one of dry and barren sands” and the next day he said; “The same dreary barrenness, except that a hard, marly clay had replaced the sandy soil…”
Fremonts’ expeditions/reports combined with a perceived threat of Native American attack gave the nation the perception that Colorado was an untamable, barren wasteland. At this time it was referred to as the “Great American Desert”. This was the true “wild-west”.
Regardless, a group of hearty Colorado Natives was already well-practiced in subsistence agriculture. The Ancestral Puebloans, from the Mesa Verde region, planted crops and used shared irrigation for centuries prior to U.S. settlement. Eventually, Hispanic migrants moved from New Mexico to the San Luis Valley. They transplanted their crops and shared irrigation traditions that are used in the region to this day.
It was thanks to a man named Alvin Steinel who saw potential in Colorado agriculture. In 1926 he wrote:
“To the practiced eye of the grazier, it was clear that these western grasses differed in character from the varieties to which he had been accustomed in the States...It was a discovery confirmed by later experience that grasses cured by Nature on the ground not only maintained stock in good flesh, but that animals actually increased in weight during the winter”.
Eventually, the barren landscape and unnavigable rivers that Fremont saw gave way to lush valleys and healthy livestock. The land was being irrigated and water laws were rapidly developed throughout Colorado. Once derelict farmland; such as the one we explored, were some of the earliest settlers to harvest well-watered Colorado land. In fact, it was the loss of water to a nearby ranch that eventually doomed the farm that we explored.
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Photos from the day:
When people around the globe think of the American highway system, images of motels along Route 66 is often what comes to mind. These motels were typically family-owned and operated. Bringing with them a certain kind of kitsch and charm that made its way deep into the American culture. Increasingly these icons are being abandoned, repurposed, or being demolished. With that in mind, I would like to take a moment to reflect on how these icons of American innovation came to be and eventually fell from favor.
Like all innovation, Motels were created out of necessity. One that began on October 1, 1908, when Henry Ford unleashed his Model-T on the American market. Thanks to his innovation of the assembly line; he was able to offer the Model-T for the shockingly low price of $360. For the first time, the American working class could afford a vehicle and they were hungry to explore their vast country. And this group was growing daily, by 1914 Ford had sold half a million cars. With the advent of Ford’s “Tin Lizzie” car the pace of sales increased. So much so that by 1927 they comprised half of the cars on the road. By this time Mr. Ford had sold over 15 million automobiles.
Now that the automobile was ubiquitous the American people's desire to explore was at an all-time high. However, travelers and adventure seekers were growing restless with the local roadways. Many of these roadways were not yet paved and seldom connected from city-to-city. The roads that did connect were long-established trails that were converted for automobile use. Travelers east of the Mississippi River were fortunate to have colonial-era Inns to stay in while traveling between towns. However, these Inns were few-and-far-between. In the western half of the country, the drivers relied on camping and makeshift shelters to rest in between drives. As the number of people on the road increased the cost of the Inns increased too. So much so that they eventually became too expensive for the average American consumer. To help alleviate this problem the U.S. Department of transportation set up camps across the country. The camps were simple and comprised of army surplus tents.
The road improvements that the U.S. citizens wanted would have to wait. After some of the largest economic growth in history, the U.S. stock market suddenly crashed; in 1929. Ushering in the “great depression”. This period in U.S. History was fraught with economic hardship, desperation, and hunger.
Fortunately, by 1933 America was roaring back from the great depression. But many people were still out of work and the roadways had seen little improvement. The Americans' desire to explore had not gone away, it was merely put on hold until the economy was stable. The Work Progress Administration (WPA) and similar organizations were able to put many people back to work by building the roadways and the electrical infrastructure that millions of Americans crave.
In 1939, a man named John Steinbeck envisioned a road that crosses the country from Chicago to Los Angeles. He called his design “the road of flight”. Later his vision would become the internationally known “U.S. Highway 66” or “Route-66”. The original name was designed to evoke the realities of the great depression-era immigrants and migrants. These were people who were removed from their land by failing crops, heartless banks, and the storms from “the great dust bowl”. In many cases, the land that was taken from them was land that they (or their family) settled and homesteaded.
This group struggled to find a sense of home as they drifted along the roads. At this time some of the earliest motel concepts were developing in the Western U.S. These were small, simple structures with a door, a bed, and a window. One of the most commonly used designs was “Sears Roebuck chicken-coops” that were repurposed as motel-like cabin structures. The privately-owned cabins were sometimes painted to match a design theme; such as western homestead or bavarian village. This was one of the earliest attempts to bring a sense of home and familiarity along for the road trip. However; the cabins themselves sported little amenities. Often a bucket of water and wood was included with your cabin, but sheets, pillows, and mattresses were only available with an extra fee.
Back in the Eastern U.S., the Colonial-Era Inns were completely full, but an alternative had developed. People began to open up their homes to tourists. These homes would simply place a “Room for Tourists” sign and instantly open a new income stream for their home. Each “tourist-home” was as colorful and unique as its owner. In contrast to today’s hotels, these were commonly found in-town and required searching out to be found. This option gave travelers all of the comforts of home or at least all of the comforts afforded to them by the homeowner.
This practice was so common that a side-industry of printing the signs developed. Buried in attics and deep in antique shops you may still find some of the original cardboard “Rooms for Tourists” signs. While the homes helped to bridge the gap, there were more Americans on the road than there were rooms to rent.
In the 1930s and 1940s the Eastern U.S. concept of Mom and Pop tourist-homes was combined with the cabin concept, developed in the Western U.S. These hybrid properties resembled what we’ve come to know as a motel. At the time they were referred to as “cottage-courts” or “tourist-courts”. Unlike tourist homes or downtown hotels, these were automobile friendly. Many sported carports and filling stations. The cottage court was becoming a classy alternative to damp cabins and smoky campsites. They were designed to catch the eye of the passing and weary travelers. This is where the tradition of silly and gaudy themed Motels came into existence.
Later cafes and restaurants began to appear alongside cottage-courts. These cafes were the innovation hub for American cuisine, bringing to us some of the staples that we cook to this day. In fact, it was at “The Sander Court & Cafe”, where Harland Sanders, created the first batch of fried chicken. As you may be aware, Harland later took the name the “Kentucky Colonel” and founded the KFC company. To me, it’s somewhat ironic that he left the lodging industry to help create the fast-food industry. Both of these were satellite industries made possible as a result of Henry Fords’ invention and the new roadways.
The U.S. Motel industry had its second big recession during World War II. This is because nearly everything needed for a road trip was rationed. All tires, gasoline, and oil went to the war effort. Many of these materials were used to transport troops across the country to be deployed. During this process, soldiers saw areas of the country they wanted to revisit once they had leisure time.
U.S. President, Dwight D. Eisenhower became frustrated with how long it took to transport troops and tanks across the country. He pushed for a Highway system that mimicked the German autobahn. His push succeeded and gave birth to the “Federal Interstate Highway System” (FIHS). This new organization was tasked with constructing four-lane highways that stretched from coast-to-coast. However; this would take half a century to complete and they are still being built on to today.
Fortunately for the cottage-court owners, they had many years before the interstate highway system would snake through the country and circumvent the highways they relied on; such as Route 66. This time period was the golden age of the American Motel. Post-war American families were ready to explore the country once again!
At this time the name cottage court gave way to “motor-court”. Further verifying and cementing Americas' love of and reliance on the automobile. At this time, motor courts specifically catered to automobile owners and were no longer individual cabins, rather they were multiple rooms under one roof. Each one brought its own breed of neon lights, bright signs, and eye-catching flair. The buildings themselves were plain and functional concrete block structures. However, they sported elaborate facades that reflected the flavor and style of the region that the hotel was in. Periodically the sparkly facades and signs would invoke regional stereotypes and cultural appropriation. But this was done at a time before we had these considerations.
The name “Motel” was coined in San Luis Obispo, CA at the “Milestone Mo-Tel”. The name stuck to this day and is used to refer to a roadside hotel designed primarily for motorists, arranged in a low building, with parking outside.
As most know, the good times came to an end for the majority of these Motels. By the early 1960s, the F.H.I.S. and the interstate highway system were very advanced and had circumvented most of the state highway systems. Family-owned motels and motor courts were being replaced by large chains; such as Howard Johnsons and Holiday Inn. These Hotel chains were able to build and grow alongside the Interstates. The consistency and cleanliness that these chains offered were unparalleled. And for the first time, travelers could cross the country knowing exactly what to expect from their Hotel chains.
Holiday Inn blurred the distinction between motels and hotels in a manner that was exciting. Their signs were taller, brighter, and very different from the other flickering neon motel signs. The Holiday Inn sign was designed to be seen from the new interstates. As Holiday Inns popped up everywhere, the signs became understood to mean: “Turn here for a predictable, quality experience”.
This consistency and sameness came at a cost. The unique look and feel of the Mom and Pops Motels had a charm and aesthetic that is mimicked and appreciated in pop culture to this day. Much of the signage that you see in modern-day New York or Las Vegas harkens back to the motels of yesterday. It’s amazing to me, what the invention of the automobile has done. Even more fascinating; it was the innovation of a simple cardboard sign stating “Rooms for Travelers”, that sparked countless more inventions, roadside attractions, foods, and most importantly memories.
Today most Americans prefer the ease and reliability of the interstate highway system and the numerous Chain Hotels that sit directly off the road. You can still find open and thriving roadside attractions and Motels on state highways. Most often you will find them at the intersection of state highways and interstates. I encourage you to give a Motel a try the next time you find yourself in a position to stay in one. Even if it’s for one night, it's worth it to experience a classic Motel. Especially if you haven't yet had the chance to.
If you have stayed in a vintage motel in the past, please comment below with your experiences and thoughts:
American Motel Photos:
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