Freelan Oscar Stanley, inventor of the Stanley Steamer automobile, first came to Estes Park in 1903 on doctor’s orders. Impressed by the beauty of the valley and grateful for the improvements to his health, Stanley decided to invest his money and his future in the budding tourist community.
Freelan, and his twin brother Francis, were both accomplished inventors and both considered to be geniuses. Together they founded the Stanley Motor Carriage Company after selling their photographic dry plate business to the Eastman Kodak Company. Their first automobiles, known as Stanley Steamers, were built in 1897 and relied on steam power. Demonstrating their rivalry with gasoline powered vehicles, one of the Stanley models set the world record for the fastest mile in an automobile in 1906. Clocking in at 127.6 miles per hour that day, the record stood until 1911.
In 1903, at the age of 53, Freelan was advised by his doctor to visit Colorado. Suffering from tuberculosis, the doctor told him not to make any plans beyond the autumn, expecting the disease to take his life within the next several months.
Stanley's summer vacation in Estes Park, however, put him back on the road to good health. Soon he moved to Estes Park and purchased 160 acres of land where he would build a luxurious hotel for vacationing Easterners. Stanley designed the hotel, as well as the manor house, casino building, concert hall, tennis courts, 9-hole golf course, trap shooting range and eventually an airfield for small planes.
This photo of the Stanley was taken by H. T. Cowling and appeared in the National Park Portfolio of 1916/1917:
At a cost of more than a half-million dollars the resort opened in June of 1909. Some of the early guests to visit the Stanley Hotel included J.C. Penney, Harvey Firestone, Dr. William Mayo and Theodore Roosevelt.
In that same year Freelan built a hydroelectric plant along the Fall River, which allowed the hotel to claim it was the first in the country "to heat, light, and cook meals exclusively with electricity…" Eventually his plant would provide electricity to the growing citizenry in Estes Park. Within just a few years the influential Freelan O. Stanley was earning the reputation as "The Grand Old Man of Estes Park."
The hydroelectric plant would supply electricity to Estes Park until July 15, 1982. On that day the Lawn Lake Dam broke and sent 300 million gallons of water down the Roaring River valley and killing three campers, before rushing down Fall River Road and destroying the plant’s power generating capabilities. Twenty years later the plant would reopen as the Estes Park Historical Museum.
Despite the dire prognosis from his doctor, Freelan would live another 37 years before dying in 1940 at the age of 91.
Several decades after his death, the Stanley Hotel became famous once again when novelist Stephen King found his inspiration for "The Shining" after staying in an almost empty hotel on the night before it closed for the winter. Although the hotel wasn’t used in the movie, it was used as a backdrop for the three-part 1997 television mini-series.
In more recent years the hotel has gained notoriety as one of America's most haunted hotels. Numerous stories from visitors and staff have reported seeing Stanley's ghost, or his wife's ghost. Visitors today can take the Ghosts & History Tour, and possibly encounter the mysterious apparitions for themselves.
In the lobby the Stanley Hotel proudly displays this 1906 Model EX, 10 HP Runabout. This model came equipped with both a 26-gallon water tank and a 13-gallon gas tank. The gas was used to heat the water in the boiler, and could take up to a half-hour before it generated enough steam to power the car. This model weighed 1000 pounds, could achieve speeds of 45 MPH, and would have set you back a cool $850 back in the day! (my guess is that to purchase this same car now you would likely have to add at least 2 zeroes to that figure)