Jewel Of The Rockies...
The City of Durango is nestled in the Animas River Valley surrounded by the San Juan Mountains. Flowing through the middle of the city is the Animas River, also known as El Río de las Animas (the “River of Souls”). The Animas is known for its’ gold medal fly fishing waters along with whitewater rafting, kayaking and canoeing. Popular outdoor activities include: hiking, mountain biking, road biking, backpacking, slacklining, rock climbing, hunting, off-roading, year-round fishing, and golfing.
The city is located near five major ski areas and only 35-miles east of Mesa Verde National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site best known for its Ancestral Puebloans cliff dwellings. Probably though, the City of Durango is best known for the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. This is a “heritage railway” and travels from Durango to the historic mining town of Silverton on steam-powered trains with rolling stock dating back to the 1920s and before.
Durango is also home to the Snowdown Festival and hosted the first-ever Mountain Bike World Championship. The Annual Durango Ragtime & Early Jazz Festival features noted musicians from around the country and is held at the historic Strater Hotel, a beautifully preserved Victorian hotel located right on Main Avenue. Cutting right through the middle of Downtown Durango, Main Avenue is home to numerous clothing boutiques, restaurants, newsstands, tourist and gift shops, a mall, bars, lounges and other businesses. Many of the downtown buildings are several stories high and can include apartments in the upper levels.
Strater Hotel is located at the South end of Main Avenue, only 2- blocks away from the Durango & Silverton train station. With thousands of visitors each week walking Main Avenue, it is easily one of the most popular shopping and relaxing travel destinations in Colorado. We know this to be a fact because we actually stayed at the Strater and participated in strolling along fabulous Main Avenue.
This is a short insight as to what Durango is today. But, how did all of this come to be? It all started with the “Iron Horse”. In the mid-1800’s, the United States population was around 32-million people. The country was growing with the Midwest being the focal point for many. When word got out that gold was discovered in California, the rush to the West began. Pioneers seeking their fortune and a new way of life, streamed across the country on their way to the gold fields.
In 1858 gold was discovered in Colorado in the Rocky Mountain Region. Three short years later the Colorado Territory was created and 100,000 gold seekers arrived to take part in the Colorado Gold Rush. Until then, few had seen the area that would come to be known as Durango. Occupied by the Ute Indians for generations they were none too pleased to see a prospecting party enter their “Land of the Sun”.
Mining proved difficult due to the rocky terrain and the veins ran deep requiring extensive tunneling and ore processing, and transportation was excruciatingly slow and perilous. What was needed was a railroad!
In 1870 the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad was founded. Year by year the railroad expanded southward. Competing with the Santa Fe railroad, it was a take all approach on both sides. Men were heavily armed and prepared to fight in their goal to lay track. The competition was fierce but General Palmer was determined. He had his sites on Silverton and he made it. The mineral riches of Silverton lay deep in the San Juan Mountains and the Durango Trust was created to protect this investment. General Palmer had Ex-Territorial Governor Alexander Hunt and British physician William Bell; purchase 160 acres of land for $105,000.
The proposed town of Durango was platted in the spring of 1880 by the Durango Trust and even before the railroad was completed and had arrived in Durango, the town had already been established and was growing. By 1880, a young (21) Henry Strater from Cleveland, Ohio, along with his two brothers, Frank (24) and Fred (22), decided to move to the new booming town of Durango to oversee the plumbing contract for the City which had been awarded to the Strater Plumbing Company, started by their father, Anton Strater.
By 1881, the Straters had purchased a number of lots in Durango, including many on Main Avenue. The first business they opened was a Paints and Oil Store which was wildly successful. Henry paid strict attention to the boom that was happening in Durango and convinced his father Anton, to invest the family fortune in the building of a new hotel out west. He borrowed the money from Anton and the Strater Hotel became a reality in 1888. It proved to be a success and was soon a popular winter retreat with people closing their homes and moving into the hotel. Each room had its own wood-burning stove with comfortable furniture, and some even boasted pianos and washstands.
Henry was also a successful pharmacist and planned to put his pharmacy in a prominent corner of the hotel. He was not planning on running the hotel himself, but leased it to a gentleman by the name of H. L. Rice. Under Rice’s management, the Strater Hotel quickly became the social hub of Durango; unfortunately for Henry, he failed to exclude his pharmacy in the hotel lease to Rice. A disagreement arose between the two men because Mr. Rice wanted to charge Henry a large amount of money in rent for the new pharmacy. Henry was furious by this and built yet another building on the corner of 8th Street and Main Avenue to house the Strater Drug Store.
Henry had always intended on developing the hotel by adding on to the building but instead he decided to build yet another hotel adjacent to the Strater. Converting the original Strater Bros, Paints and Oils by enlarging the structure, doubling the width and adding a third level, the new Columbian Hotel was billed as having the “best of modern conveniences” including forced air heating. The Columbian opened and competed directly with the Strater next door. Both hotels claimed to be the only first class hotel in Durango and ran neck and neck until 1894 when the silver panic put both Henry Strater and H. L. Rice out of business.
Both the Strater and the Columbian were repossessed by the bank and shut down. The furniture was removed and the new owner of both hotels, John McBeth, arrived in Durango to renovate and reopen the Strater. The hotel reopened for business 90-days later, once again under the charge of H.L. Rice. Having lost both of his hotels, Henry Strater also lost his pharmacy business in the financial disaster. To make matters even worse, his father, Anton, passed away just weeks after the reopening of the Strater Hotel.
Henry and his wife, Carrie, would eventually relocate to Cuba where Henry became heavily involved in tobacco and sugar with his nephew Frank. His timing couldn’t have been worse. The Spanish-Cuban-American War erupted in 1898 and Henry lost everything. At the age of 55, the man who played a major role in the development and success of Durango passed away due to complications brought on by cirrhosis. The year was 1914.
The years following the Silver Panic of 1895 brought hard times to Durango, as well as the rest of the country. The agreement between John McBeth and H.L. Rice did not last. One year later the hotel came under the management of Charles E. Stillwell. Learning the hotel and restaurant business in Seattle, Washington, he had made his way to Colorado in 1892. He found work at a saloon owned and operated by Bob Ford, the man who betrayed and assassinated Jesse James. Within a week Ford was shot and killed by the infamous Edward O’Kelly, leaving Stillwell unemployed. Dead broke, he literally walked across the mountains some 60 miles to Silverton and made his way to Durango.
History is unclear but Stillwell obviously prospered in Durango and by 1896 he took over the management of the Strater Hotel. Managing the Housekeeping Department, Hattie Mashburn and Charles Stillwell became partners and ran the hotel together. In 1902 Stillwell & Co., joined the Strater and Columbian Hotels into one – the Strater Hotel.
Stilwell ran the hotel through the turn of the century and developed a more refined appeal by offering opera and fine dining. He made many improvements over the years to the hotel and even installed the first sewer system in Durango. However, by 1926 the Strater Hotel was not prospering. Having changed hands more than once over the last few years, the hotel was in need of major updating. A group of Durango businessmen, led by banker Earl A. Barker, Sr., formed the New Strater Corporation to buy the old Strater Hotel. The group focused their efforts on updating and refurbishing the hotel which was now almost 40 years old.
Over the years, time and money was invested into the Strater and in 1938 a large addition was started on the west side of the original building. The 40-room addition and renovation was soon completed and offered comfort and style such as that found in new hotels in larger cities, such as twin beds, tiled bathrooms and comfortable furniture. In 1954, Earl Barker Sr. bought out his partners and for the first time in the history of the hotel it became a single family operation. Earl would own, manage and operate the Strater with the help of his son, Earl Jr. and later his son-in-law Robert Blomstrom.
The first order of business was the need to attract tourists and entertainment was first on the list. Although his father Earl Sr. frowned on the idea, Earl Jr. took advantage of his parents’ absence during the winter months and the Diamond Belle Saloon was completed and operating upon their return. When Earl Sr. entered the hotel and saw all of his friends enjoying themselves, he decided “his” idea for the new bar had been a good one.
Earl Barker Jr. and wife, Jentra, began the huge renovation project with special attention to details such as bathrooms, air conditioning, heating, closets, television, and telephones. Creating the Victorian charm in the décor started on a trip to a hotel convention in Atlanta, Georgia, where they found an authentic Victorian bed in an antique store. Earl and Jentra thought it would be interesting to furnish several of the larger rooms with authentic period furniture so they cashed in their airline tickets and drove back in a U-Haul truck, stopping at antique stores along the way. This was the beginning of the Strater Hotel collection of American Victorian-era walnut furniture, which has grown into the largest of its kind in the world.
At the time the Barker Family became the sole owners of the hotel, it was 67 years old and they realized a major overhaul was needed from top to bottom. Timing is everything and the renovation of the Strater coincided with the development of ski resorts in and around Durango. Buses of skiers would stop over in Durango and they would all stay at the Strater! Enjoying ongoing customers during the winter months was a huge plus. Another big bonus for the hotel was one of the largest tour companies in the world started coming to Durango. Unloading bus load after busload right in front of the Strater, 5-times per week, guests would stay 2-nights, touring the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde 1-day and taking the trail ride to Silverton on the second day. The hotel was booming like never before!
From the beginning, hospitality has always been paramount at the Strater Hotel and the tradition continues. There have been many celebrities who made the Strater Hotel their home-away-from-home. Famous novelist Louis L’Amour always asked for the room directly above the Diamond Belle Saloon because he said the music helped set the mood for his novels and most of his Sackett’s novels were written at the Strater. Today, room 222 is known as the “Louis L’Amour room.”
The hotel’s renovation and antique collection has continued since 1983 under the direction and design of current President, Roderick E. Barker, son of Earl and Jentra. Rod has overseen the installation of fine woodwork and the beautiful hand-printed Bradbury and Bradbury wallpapers which is suited to the Victorian Period. Windowed showcases brimming with antique collectibles are located throughout the public areas and invite guests to further explore the history of Durango and the Strater Hotel. Each of the 93 guestrooms is now individually and uniquely designed, plus the beds have been converted to standard sizes, including a majority in Queen Size with some Kings as well.
Together with master woodworker, Charles Schumacher, Rod designed and remodeled the hotel lobby, the new and stunning Office Spiritorium, the beautiful Mahogany Grille Restaurant, the Pullman Room, and the granite and marble-lined public restrooms. Wallpapers and carpets are specially selected for each area. A single window treatment of drapes and valance can have up to 30 yards of plush velvet. Room 220 was renovated in this manner, and was a finalist for Lodging Magazine’s prestigious Gold Key Award in 1989.
Today, the Strater Hotel still stands as the Jewel of the Rockies; a virtual living museum with luxurious accommodations, fabulous dining and lots of things to do and see. Our stay was made even better by the wonderful service and attention to every detail. Located in the heart of historic downtown Durango, everything is a short stroll away or you can look down from your very own private suite and people watch; Main Avenue is an active and integral part of what makes Durango and the Strater so special.
We enjoyed a wonderful breakfast at the Mahogany Grille every morning and set out discovering all the fabulous boutiques and art galleries Durango is famous for. The high quality of art available, along with the wide spectrum of mediums and subject matter was surprising in a city this size. It’s quite cosmopolitan in a very relaxed atmosphere. No wonder Main Avenue is always bustling with visitors. Our last evening at the Strater, we enjoyed a 1st Class dinner and a great show put on at the Henry Strater Theater. It was an incredible evening in an incredible hotel. Just about anything you can think you’d enjoy doing you’ll find it in Durango and the Strater Hotel.
For more information on the Strater Hotel and Durango go to: http://strater.com/