The strange bedfellows who created Rocky Mt. National Park
Enos Mills and F.O. Stanley shared a vision
You’d be hard-pressed to find two people more different than Freelan Oscar “F.O.” Stanley and Enos Abijah Mills.
F.O. Stanley and his twin, Francis Edgar “F.E.” Stanley, were wealthy East Coast businessmen who made their money in dry-plate photography but were renowned for inventing the Stanley Steamer, which ultimately fizzled out in the face of gas-combustion engine cars. Educated, erudite and impeccably dressed, they lived an upper-crust life outside Boston.
Mills was a sickly farm boy with an eighth-grade education, the son of Quakers, who grew up on a wheat farm hearing about his mother’s love for the Rocky Mountains.
But poor health brought both Mills and F.O. Stanley west: Mills came to Estes Park in 1884 and began work as a housekeeper at the Elkhorn Lodge; Stanley arrived in the same town with wife, Flora, in the summer of 1903 after his tuberculosis flared.
Both men became enthralled by the mountains, and both left a lasting legacy in the high places they loved.
Mills’ cousins, the Rev. Elkhanah Lamb, and his son, Carlyle, lived at the foot of Longs Peak, and took visitors up the mountain. Mills ascended Longs Peak with Carlyle for the first time in 1885, and fell in love with the climb and the peak.
In 1901, Enos bought the Lamb Ranch, which he eventually renamed Longs Peak Inn. The inn was free of smoking, alcohol, music and cards, all of which he considered a distraction from the natural beauty that surrounded his guests. He tracked animals just to observe their habits, never carried a gun and was never attacked by any wild animal, despite the fact that his cabin sat in territory shared by five grizzlies, says his great-granddaughter, Eryn Mills.
“Enos spent his life trying to dispel the myth that wild animals were ferocious and the wilderness was dangerous,” she says. “Right up until the day he died, he urged people to get out into the wilderness and experience it peacefully.”
F.O. Stanley had a very different vision for his eponymous hotel, which he began building in 1907. Designed by Stanley, and Denver architect T. Robert Wieger and contractor Frank Kirchoff, the Stanley Hotel was built to appeal to the well-heeled East Coast elite Stanley called friends, with modern comforts such as electricity, telephones and an elevator. The main building, opened July 4, 1909, was the first of 11 built on 160 acres over time.
“The thing about Mr. Stanley and his hotel was the utter audacity of the undertaking,” says James Pickering, a University of Houston professor and long-time Estes Park summer resident who has written extensively about the history of the area. “At a time when there was no railroad within 22 miles of Estes Park. He did it as a kind of gamble on the future: If I build it, they will come.”
Stanley was the area’s first patron, Pickering says.
“He invested in the town; he became the first president of the bank. He gave us our water system, our electrical power system,” he says. “I like to say that F.O. Stanley is the model of a life lived well. The generosity of the man was enormous, and his impact on this area was profound. And of course, it lasts to this day.”
The year The Stanley Hotel opened, Mills began working in earnest to establish Rocky Mountain National Park.
Mills was deeply influenced by his friend John Muir, whom he met by chance during a trip to California. And he found an ally in Stanley, who wanted to make Estes Park’s roads and infrastructure tourist-friendly. Mills took the message across the country, and Stanley paid for his travels, and lobbied East Coast politicians, Pickering says.
Mills started a “prairie fire of action” around the state in his quest to create the park, says National Parks Foundation President and CEO Will Shafroth, whose great-grandfather, Colorado Gov. John Shafroth, supported Mills’ quest.
“Enos Mills was a classic citizen-activist in terms of the kind of people who were passionate about protecting special places in this country, and there are many of them related to national parks who were the early champions of places like Rocky Mountain National Park,” Shafroth says.
Rocky Mountain National Park was created by Congress in January 1915, by which time the region was being visited by more than 250,000 people a year. The Denver Post called Mills, who gave the dedication at the ceremony, “The Father of Rocky Mountain National Park,” a title that endures to this day.
In 1918, the 2-year-old National Park Service, which Mills helped create, granted exclusive transportation rights in and out of the park to the Rocky Mountain Transportation Co. Local businesses such as The Stanley Hotel and Longs Peak Inn, which had their own cars to take visitors into the park, were no longer welcome.
Mills and Stanley fought the monopoly; after Mills’ death in 1922, Stanley and Mills’ widow, Esther, and her sister, Elizabeth, continued the battle until they ultimately prevailed in 1927.
The park was, at last, as Mills and Stanley had envisioned it: open to all who had a will and a way to get there.
“There’s no reason in the world, given their background and their interests, why these two people should have come together in a symbiotic way to form this relationship,” Pickering says of Mills and Stanley. “They shared this mutual passion and a desire to do something about it, as a gift to the nation.”
At 100 years old, Rocky Mountain National Park remains one of the largest of the country’s national parks and welcomes about 4 million visitors each year to its 358 square miles – 265,769 acres – of wilderness, 355 miles of trails, 450 miles of streams and 156 lakes.
Longs Peak, Mills’ much-beloved mountain, is the park’s tallest peak at 14,259 feet.
The Stanley Hotel is perhaps best known for serving as the inspiration for Stephen King’s 1977 bestseller, “The Shining,” although the Stanley Kubrick movie was filmed at the Timberline Lodge in Oregon. The connection spawned the Stanley Film Festival, an independent horror film festival held every spring.
After fielding the question, “Where’s the maze?” for decades, hotel owner John Cullen, whose Grand Heritage Hotel Group purchased the Stanley in 1995, thought installing a Shining-style hedge maze would be the perfect act to commemorate his 20-year anniversary of owning the hotel.
A design contest drew 329 entries; the maze, which opened in June 2015, is free to hotel guests.
The cabin built by Mills at age 15, located 8 miles south of Estes Park, is now a museum, open by appointment.