This is an extended and combined version of my previous posts entitled: “Postcards from Silverton” and “Doing the Durango,” as well as some additional notes for Montrose. It chronicles the historic lodging and other activities I engaged in during my visit in September 2022.
Nothing says “The Wild West” like a motorcycle rally outside your window at 8:30 AM. I would later learn that Silverton boasts the world’s highest Harley shop, and a popular motto here is “Get High on a Harley.”
Elsewise, Silverton is a quiet little town with a population of about 150 people after the tourists have left town. This mining town was established in 1874 and was named after the measure of silver ore that was transported from here. At 9,300 foot elevation, I end up buying a canister of oxygen on my second day here, but other than that, I’m having a pretty great time.
I stayed at the Grand Imperial Hotel. When it was finished in 1883 it was the largest building south of Denver, and was the social center of San Juan County. Third floor rooms rented for $2.50-$3 a day, with single meals costing 50 cents in the hotel dining room. But it wasn’t originally intended to be a hotel.
The main floor tenants at its opening included two clothiers and two hardware stores. The second floor was leased by the county for offices and courtrooms. It was the original site of the Silverton Standard newspaper which merged with the La Plata Miner to become The Standard & Miner. The Third House Saloon opened in the hotel basement in the fall of 1883 but lasted less than a year. The Silverton Public Library occupied the 2nd floor in 1886. The Grand went through a series of tenants and owners over the next several decades. After one of the owners went bankrupt in the 1960s, and just before the hotel was slated for demolition, it was saved by the Stott family, who sold everything they owned to invest in the Grand. Its current owners continue to improve the Grand Imperial and keep it the connection to the past that people like me look for when visiting towns like Silverton.
The lobby retains its original tin tile ceiling and is furnished in late Victorian style, except for the chandelier (bottom right) which I believe dates to the 1920s. The American Cafe used to be located here, and was the favorite eating place of the ‘working girls’ from Blair Street during the 1920s. The girls would be seated at a table and a curtain drawn around them to separate them from the more respectable restaurant patrons.
My room is on the top floor near the front left corner of the building, and came with its own little claw foot tub, antique brass bed and ceiling fan. (In period, rooms would have had a wash basin but the toilet and tub would have been a shared facility down the hall.) The last photo in this series is of the furnishings on the landing outside of my room, where I spent some time sewing.
I visited Professor Shutterbug in his Olde Tyme Portrait Parlour on Infamous Blair Street. His shop is located in the oldest brothel in Silverton, built in 1887. He explained the difference between a bordello and a crib. A crib was a single room just wide enough for a door, a window, a bed, stove and dresser. They rented for $25 a week to independent working girls whose fee ranged from 25 cents to $1.50. Crib girls were at the lowest ring of the prostitute hierarchy, with ladies of the bordellos and their madams being at the top. (I’m not clear if any of the cribs remain standing.)
Professor Shutterbug allowed me to wheel his velocipede (also known as a boneshaker) around the boardwalk of his studio until we found the perfect place for the shot. We then went into his studio so I could pose with his antique camera. I may be the first customer he has ever had who came with their own wardrobe.
I did not take photos of Natalie’s 1912 Restaurant, where I had dinner one night. (I recommend the pan-fried trout.) It is housed in Mattie’s Boarding House, the oldest bordello still standing in Silverton. The building is a composite of the original building built in 1883, and an addition in 1909 which now houses Natalie’s. It originally included a dance hall, a 22 foot long bar, a regulation-size bowling alley, a player piano and slot machines. (Sourced from Walking Silverton (a revised guidebook) by Beverly Rich.)
Mrs. Matties operated a boarding house on the second floor and charged $1 a day for room, board and a packed lunch for miners. Each room had its own coal stove, which is attributed to keeping the bedbugs at bay. (Other hotels in town were steam heated which encouraged the little critters to take up lodging.) The basement at Mattie’s held a railroad car’s worth of coal, which they supplied to the rest of the town during the winter when the supply trains weren’t running. During the 1918 Flu Pandemic, the ‘working girls’ of Silverton served as nurses, many of whom died as a result of that work. (Silverton had the highest death rate per capita in the US, losing about 10% of its population during the pandemic.) Mr. Matties turned his home into an infirmary and fed his patients chicken broth mixed with red wine, which he also supplied to the other infirmaries in town. It is said that only one of his patients died from the flu. (Sourced from Bordellos of Blair Street by Allan G. Bird)
I take a stagecoach ride around the town. The coach is a replica, the driver is David Shaw, and his horses are named Sonny and Cher. The leather strap (with The Bent Elbow in the background) functions as an armrest. There are canvas curtains that come down over the windows but I suspect they did little to keep out the cold and the dust. I found that even at a slow trot on even ground, a stagecoach was a boneshaker on its own accord.
I spend my last morning here, drinking coffee in the lobby of the hotel and listening to the honkey-tonk pianist Lacey Black, at the Lone Spur Cafe next door. A small storm swirls up, and a gust of wind sends me chasing my hat at the train stop, which I recover before boarding the train to Durango.
Durango was established in 1880 as a result of the Rio Grande Rail. It is at about 5,500 feet and has a population of 20,000, which extends to about 25,000 when college is in session. Pedestrians are a mix of backpackers, hunters in desert camouflage, and older sightseers like me although dressed differently. I check into the General Palmer Hotel, built in 1902, just a few yards from the train depot. The smell of diesel permeates the air, and bells and whistles signal arrivals and departures of the twice-daily trains.
A big brass key unlocks a second story room in the Palace Wing, the original hotel built circa 1890, and in a separate building from the main hotel. My room turns out to be a small suite, with all the modern amenities that most people want, but which I promptly hide from view, and a bed that is so tall it requires it’s own staircase…
Dinner tonight is at the Diamond Belle Saloon in the Strater Hotel, built in 1887. Each room in the hotel had its own wood stove and wash stand, and the hotel became so popular that even those living in Durango, closed their homes during the winter and moved into the Strater. Western author Lois L’Amour and his family spent their summers there between 1966-76, and Lois spent his time writing in a corner of the Diamond Belle Saloon.
I find the last table in the mezzanine, which I would later learn was the storage space for the apothecary when the building housed a drug store. Just as I am taking a seat, another patron points to me and says: “You’re the woman who lost her hat at the train station in Silverton.” We converse about our travels for the next half hour.
My dinner arrives. The food is inexpensive but is served on china and glassware and silver that matches, which has become my new measure of quality in restaurants here. I order chicken and dumplings and a Monte Cristo (a bourbon cocktail) in keeping with my efforts to order meals that my great grandparents may have eaten in their day.
After dinner, I admire the lionhead supporters for the chandeliers, the tin ceiling that is original but which was painted during restoration, and a myriad of other details my camera fails to capture. Downstairs, there’s an old piano player playing old-time music. He has played piano since he was 5 years old, and has played at the Belle for the past 40 years. He’s as much a fixture here as the saloon girl waitresses and the red and gold flocked paper that covers the walls.
“Work is the Curse of the Drinking Classfrom the History of the Strater Hotel, as printed on the back of their bar menu.
The next day, I chanced upon Second Story Books, which is on the second story of the building and has my recommendation should you ever “Do The Durango.” I took a 15 minute walk to a museum that was actually an hour away, and rode back into town on the trolley after getting a thorough soaking in a rain and lightening storm.
After changing into dry clothes, I spend some time in the General Palmer Hotel library. I tried out every chair, I’ll let you guess which one was my favorite.
The stagecoach isn’t running today, so I catch a carriage for a tour of the historical homes on 3rd Avenue. I do my best Bolivian Milkmaid pose with the horses upon returning to the hotel, and have a final whiskey at the Strater before packing to catch the 9 AM train back to Silverton.
The city of Montrose was established in 1882 with the arrival of the Denver & Rio Grande Rail. Elevation is 5,794, population is about 20,000. I came here for the two museums, but I should have stayed an extra day to take in the rest of the city’s historical sites.
I stayed in a 1909 home that had been converted into a bed and breakfast. Kendra is a wonderful hostess and freely shared the history of the building and her work to restore it.
I had booked the Idarado Room because it met my criteria of having turn-of-the-century furnishings, including a clawfoot tub. I found it filled with relics, including a Royal typewriter and Edison style lighting next to the bed.
I share my family photos and my 1900s inspired wardrobe with Kendra. She asks me if there is anything she can serve for breakfast that will help me to stay in the proper historical mindset. And then she says, “You should visit the speakeasy that’s just around the corner…”
The barkeeps are in 20th century dress, but everything else is spot on. The room is darkly lit, with a ceiling that looks like the floorboards from the room upstairs. There are no TVs or video screens. The drink menu features cocktails that mostly date to the 1920s-30s. Stephan, who appears to be the head barkeep, tells me the history of every drink he prepares.
When on travel, always share your stories…
Breakfast in the morning is an omelette and the first fresh fruit I’ve seen all trip, and photos of me coming down Kendra’s stairs, which she send me, appropriately, in sepia.
Sadly, there are no historic hotels in Gunnison now, but my time at their museum more than made up for that deficit.