Saturday, February 6, 2010

How Isabella Got Her Groove Back, in Longmont

Isabella Bird's name is well known in this part of the country. Restless with her home in Scotland and suffering from perceived health problems, she sought to travel the world. In 1872 at the age of 41. she set out for Australia, Hawaii, and then the Rocky Mountains. Fiercely independent, she rode horses astride (unusual for a woman back then), which she claimed cured her back problems. And she climbed Long's Peak, with the help of mountain man "Rocky Mountain" Jim Nugent. She eventually was named a Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society, the first woman to obtain such an honor.

A nice recent book "Following Isabella" (2009) by Robert Root retraces Isabella's adventures on the Front Range and reminds us of the time she spent in Longmont, in 1873.

Having been traveling for nearly a year, Isabella sailed from Hawaii to San Francisco, and then took a train to Cheyenne. From there, she took the rail to Greeley where she spent her first night in Colorado. This was September, 1873.

Determined that she wanted to visit Estes Park, she made the day-long journey from Greeley to Ft. Collins in sweltering heat and arrived there "sick and dizzy." It got worse, though. She spent the next few days in a frustrating and futile attempt to get to Estes Park. She was thrown from her horse while traversing steep rock and fell on some cactus. Her guide appeared to be clueless about how to actually get to their destination and got their travel party repeatedly lost. And to top it off, the guide despised her homeland, as Isabella says:
"He hates England with a bitter, personal hatred and regards any allusions which I make to the progress of Victoria as a personal insult".
Despondent with her dead-end attempt, she gave up on her goal of reaching Estes Park. "My hopes are down to zero", she said. With the colder weather approaching, she changed her plans to leave for Denver, and then to New York. On her way south to Denver via a wagon ride, she stopped at the St. Vrain Hotel in Longmont to recuperate from the "miserable" trip which had taken two days, in the baking sun, because her driver had got lost three times!

Isabella's first impressions of Longmont when she arrived on September 25, 1873 (she calls it 'Longmount' in her letters home), were not favorable until the sun went down:
A two-storey (sic) house, one of the whitest and most glaring, and without a verandah like all the others, is the " St. Vrain Hotel," called after the St. Vrain river, out of which the ditch is taken which enables Longmount to exist. Everything was broiling in the heat of the slanting sun, which all day long had been beating on the unshaded wooden rooms. The heat within was more sickening than outside, and black flies covered everything, one's face included. We all sat fighting the flies in my bedroom, which was cooler than elsewhere, till a glorious sunset over the Rocky Range, some ten miles off, compelled us to go out and enjoy it.
Remember that Longmont was very new at this time with just a few hastily-constructed buildings on the top of a dusty and bare hill. Trees were non-existent.

Here's a picture of the St. Vrain Hotel, from the excellent photo archives of the Longmont Museum. Sitting on the east side of Main Street, with no trees, structures, or canopies to block the western sun, you can see why the hotel appeared furnace-like to Isabella:

The hotel occupied the second floor while offices (including that of the Chicaco Colony), the justice of the peace, and a store used the first floor.

During dinner at the St. Vrain Hotel that evening, things started to turn around for Isabella. First, she was offered tea, which she had not tasted for some time. Then, the hotel proprietor, a "jovial, kindly man" named Colonel W. B. Sigley offered her a trip to Estes Park with two "young men" who had just checked into the hotel, and were miraculously making the voyage the next day. Sigley already knew of Isabella's failed Estes Park attempt and thought it would be a "real shame not to see the most beautiful scenery in Colorado." Sigley also found a horse for her but first Isabella had to confirm that she was ready to "rough it", including riding horseback and battling the cold.

Wary of the upcoming trip based on her Ft. Collins disaster, and with the hotel still sweltering from the heat, she slept poorly that night and still was considering giving up. But they did set out for Estes Park at 8:30 in morning, with Isabella wearing her Hawaiian riding dress, which she described in a later edition of her book:
For the benefit of other lady travellers, I wish to explain that my "Hawaiian riding dress'' is the "American Lady's Mountain Dress," a half-fitting jacket, a skirt reaching to the ankles, and full Turkish trousers gathered into frills falling over the boots, —a thoroughly serviceable and feminine costume for mountaineering and other rough travelling, as in the Alps or any other part of the world.
Once they got going, Isabella began to "not only feel better but to be exhilarated by the delightful motion." Her guides, which she described as seeming "very innocent" also got lost a few times on the way, but having done the route before, they recovered and successfully made it to Estes Park. She triumphantly wrote on September 28:
"I have just dropped into the very place I have been seeking, but in everything it exceeds all my dreams. There is health in every breath of air; I am much better already, and get up to a seven o'clock breakfast without difficulty."
Isabella settled nicely into Estes Park and made her legendary climb of Longs Peak a few days later. She stayed in the area for about three weeks before traveling by herself down the continental divide, going as far south as Colorado Springs. She also visited Longmont again in October, on her way to Denver. Returning to Estes Park one final time on November 20, she then set out for Greeley where she caught the train to Cheyenne on December 12. Her time was done in Colorado and she would never return again.

Want to read Isabella Bird's full story? Google Books has the complete version of one of the editions of her successful 1879 book "A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains" book online, and free.

What became of the St. Vrain Hotel, where Isabella's historical turnaround occurred? As described in "The History of St. Vrain Valley" by Billy Boyles (1967), the hotel was destroyed by fire six years after Isabella's stay, on September 12, 1879. The fire had started in a bakery just to the south of the hotel.

Boyles mentions that the St. Vrain Hotel was situated close to the existing Woolworth store, at the time of the book's writing in the sixties. Woolworth's was at 380 Main Street, which is on the SE corner of Main and Fourth Avenue. Today the old Woolworth's building sits empty but it's not too difficult to stand at the corner (especially on a hot summer day), look to the mountains, and imagine the old St. Vrain Hotel where Isabella's dream of reaching Estes Park was rejuvenated.


hugh morris said...

This is an excellent article about Isabella Bird. Where did you find the very high quality picture of the St Vrain Hotel?
I enjoyed the historical info from Billy Boyles' "The History of St. Vrain Valley" which you included.
You are obviously a fan of Bird's American Adventure.
I've enjoyed this greatly.

Peter said...

Thanks, Hugh. That picture is straight from the online Longmont Museum archives, and is also included in Boyles' fine book.