The Big Thompson River

The Big Thompson flows out of the mountains onto the plains through a deep gorge cut through solid rock, carving vertical cliffs several hundred feet high. This spectacular gorge is about two miles in length and in early days formed a natural barrier against easy access to the mountainous portion of the river. Just west of the gorge, or narrows, the landscape opens up into a protected area called Cedar Cove. It was called a cove because it is surrounded by high mountains and, except for the cut through the narrows, it forms a “box canyon.” It is a warm valley in winter. Historically, Cedar Cove was a place where the Indians wintered because it was warm and protected with lots of fishing and hunting of all kinds of game. Signs of ancient Indian camps can still be found in Cedar Cove today, and it is still the home to much wildlife such as elk, deer, bear, coyotes, foxes, raccoons, etc.

Mariano Medina, established an outpost along the river west of the current town of Loveland in 1858. His dwelling became known as Namaqua and in 1862 the Holladay's Overland coaches stopped there on their way from Denver to Cheyenne. Mariano's stepson, Louis Papa was very interested in the mountainous portion of the Big Thompson river and enjoyed pack trips over the mountain to Cedar Cove.

The area now known as Estes Park was difficult to get to and few people knew of its beauty. In 1876 a road was built through the hills south of the Big Thompson river, past Pole mountain, to the Estes Park valley. This road was established as a toll road with the hope that it would encourage more travel from Loveland to the Estes area. However, about 10 years later the road was destroyed by a flood. Other routes came into use, one into the Waltonia area and the other into Cedar Cove. Louis Papa homesteaded a large part of Cedar Cove, built a cabin and spent his summers there.

A few miles up river from Cedar Cove, the Big Thompson forks and the north fork heads to the Mummy range, a part of Rocky Mountain National Park. The section of the Big Thompson from Cedar Cove to the fork was originally a cattle ranch owned by Frank Bartholf. In the area of the fork, Frank's daughter homesteaded eighty acres she called Rosedale. Louis Papa and Frank Bartholf became lifelong friends, as Louis managed the ranch in the mountains.

Frank Bartholf was a business man who established quite a number of businesses in Loveland and other places. He helped establish the first fire department in Lovelend. He was elected as a Larimer county commissioner (1899- 1903). Since he owned land at the Big Thompson fork, he was instrumental in pushing for a road through the narrows; however, it was the county sheriff, C.H. Bond, who organized a petition drive encouraging construction of a road through the Big Thompson narrows.

Building the New Road

Although most of the settlers in the canyon at the turn of the century thought it would be impossible to blast a road through the narrows, the county commissioners put out bids for the job in 1903. The county had only $24,000 budgeted for the project, yet the low bid, by William A. Riley, was $27,000. It was a controversial project, and the commissioners gave only one year for the contractor to complete the project. Riley's crew worked at a frantic pace, and had a one-lane road blasted out along the river through the canyon within the year. When it came time to pay up, the commissioners being short a few thousand dollars, claimed the work had not been done as agreed. Riley disagreed, and he was not a man to be taken advantage of. He insisted on his money before anyone was to use the road. No compromise was made by commissioners or Riley, and for months a standoff occurred between Riley's hired guards and the commissioner's “labor force” sent into the canyon to “finish the job.”

Of course, the whole thing ended up in court with the commissioners as defendants. Riley won the case and the commissioners were forced to pay the full amount that had been agreed upon.

In Thompson Valley Tales, author Kenneth Jessen writes, “Although historically important, Riley's pioneer road up the Big Thompson Canyon would qualify today as nothing more than a jeep trail. It was a single lane dirt road except for widely spaced turnouts. It lacked shoulders and was built only a few feet above the river. During the spring certain sections of the road would be inundated, making safe travel impossible.

“The Riley road was so narrow that it led to some strange events. For example, the stagecoach from Loveland to Estes Park had the right-of-way both directions. If the coach met a wagon at a point far from a turn-out, the men on the coach would unhitch the on-coming wagon and walk the horses around the coach. Next, the men would remove the wheels from the wagon and roll them by the coach. Finally, the bed of the wagon would be placed on the hillside allowing the stage to pass. The wagon would then be reassembled, and the two vehicles would continue their journey.”


At the turn of century, the Colorado & Southern Company conducted a stagecoach business with horses and coaches as shown in the picture opposite. They made a deal with the Johnson brothers to offer stagecoach rides from Loveland to Estes Park and back again, starting May 15, 1905. Frank Bartholf had anticipated the need of facilities for travelers up the Big Thompson canyon once the new road was finished. He had begun building an Inn, at the junction of the north and south branches of the river, when the road construction was first started.

1905 was a year of brisk business for the Inn at the forks, as daily stage travelers had a meal while the horses were changed. Some travelers stayed overnight. That year, Frank Bartholf, with the help of State Senator William A. Drake convinced the Postal Service to establish a post office in his establishment. Because of this, the area became known as Drake. In the book Fort Collins & Larimer County: An Illustrated History, authors Thomas J. Noel and Ron D. Slader write, “The Forks Hotel offered good meals and respectable accommodations for travelers along the Big Thompson between Loveland and Estes Park. As Loveland was the nearest railhead to Estes Park, this route was heavily used. Originally tourists came in horse-drawn stagecoaches, but by 1909 many came in Stanley Steamers. Frank Alderdyce bought The Forks in 1906 and also became postmaster. The post office remained in the hotel until 1973 when it was moved into a modular building.”

In those days, Estes Park was like a frontier town. Accomodations were sparce. The journey up the Big Thompson was a major part of the travel adventure, especially if a stop-over at the Forks Hotel was included. Not all travel to Estes Park was done commercially. Many people made the trip in their own horse drawn carriages.

Stanley Steamers

Bartholf's Forks Hotel was originally intended to be a stagecoach stop, and stagecoachs used it for that purpose for the first few years. By 1907, a very profitable auto business was established in Loveland by D.O. Osborn and Sons, featuring transportation with Stanley Steamers. Using five-passenger touring Stanley Steamers, the Osborns made the trip from Loveland to Estes Park easy and enjoyable. The Forks Hotel provided a pleasant stop-over. By 1908, the Osborns were also using the new nine-passenger Stanley Steamers to accomodate the increasing numbers of tourists wanting to enjoy the Colorado mountains. Often the passengers rode in one steamer auto and their trunks were transported in another steamer used as a truck.

Stanley Steamers were ideal for the road along the river because frequent stops for water were necessary. Of course there were no gas stations in the canyon in those early days, so use of the new gas-operated cars was not too practical.

An adventurous woman, Vena Apgar, had been watching all the activity with Stanley Steamers in 1912. That year she presented her husband with his first son. In return, the proud father rewarded Vena a choice of a baby buggy or a Stanley Steamer. She chose a one-seated 1912 Stanley runabout. She had to learn how to operate it; light the pilot; pump water into the boiler; keep the steam pressure up; and read all the gauges and dials. She loved Stanley steamers so much that she became a driver on the regular runs to Estes Park.

Zethyl Gates wrote in Historic Images, “Vena drove back and forth to Estes Park for 12 years. Frequent passengers, in addition to tourists, were F. O. Stanley of Estes Park fame and Loveland’s Louis Papa.”

It wasn't until 1916, that White gas-operated buses were used for public transportation to Estes Park. This was after the Osborns sold out to the Rocky Moutain Transportation Company.

When driving up the canyon, certain rules had to be observed: the speed limit was 12 miles an hour, except on rare straight stretches of the road where a speed of 20 miles an hour was allowed; horns were to be sounded when approaching curves, vehicles, pedestrians or saddle animals; muffler cutouts had to be closed when passing horses. Teams had the right-of-way at all times and if the horses appeared nervous, automobiles had to take the outer edge of the road with the engine stopped until the horses passed. By 1910, the Big Thompson road had been improved somewhat and that increased the traffic.

The “Father of Rocky Mountain National Park,” Enos Mills is well known in Colorado, but few people know about his younger brother, Enoch Joe Smith. Joe came to Estes Park as a teenager and trained as a naturalist and guide under brother Enos at Longs Peak Inn, near Estes Park. Then in 1912, he leased and managed the Forks Hotel for Mr. Alderdyce for two years. A succession of owners and lessees have come and gone since then.

Motor Cars Arrive

Eventually gas motor cars began to make the trip to Estes Park by way of Big Thompson canyon. Faster travel made it possible for more tourists to enjoy the canyon and as a result a number of businesses sprouted up along the new road. The Mont Rose Inn was very popular. It was located in Cedar Cove at the junction of the Dickson gulch road. It was built by Monte and Rose Tucker.

The large touring cars brought out-of-staters to the area for the summer. For example, the Brunner family enjoyed stopping at Forks Inn each summer. They made the trip in their 1915 Buick touring car. Julian M. Brunner described her experience, “ We stayed first in South Platt Canyon at Park Siding, but after a week there we moved north and took rooms at the Forks Hotel in the Big Thompson canyon. We stayed there a month or so. Meredith and I had a wonderful time exploring the nearby mountain streams, especially the North Thompson. I went with drivers of Stanley Steamers (who stopped at Forks Hotel for lunch) to Estes Park. They were delivering trunks.”

In 1915, Frank Alderdyce returned to the position of postmaster at Drake and he ran the hotel until 1918, when Almon D. Galloway took it over. He ran the post office and hotel until 1919. At that time, Mrs. Lena Salisbury became postmistress in the hotel. Then again in 1920, Frank Alderdyce returned to run the hotel and post office until 1927. A succession of postmasters held the post at Drake from 1927 to 1930. These were Ellis S. Buck, Ed J. Docker, A. C. McMillin. Then Mr. and Mrs. Ralph Hayden purchased the Forks Inn and were to live and work there, off and on, for over 40 years.

Mrs. C.R. Sherred remembers Idlewild, or “the half-way place,” as it was called because of it being halfway between Loveland and Estes Park: “Mrs. Van Bramor, daughter of Frank Bartholf, homesteaded this land and operated a summer resort— Idle Wild— that was located at the west end of of an old toll road (the lower entrance being at Mont Rose Inn.” In 1916, the property was sold to Mark Ellison who built cabins and a dance hall (later burned down). Today, the River Bend store stands on this spot. Eventually, Bert Davis and Nathaniel Daley subdivided the area on both sides of the road, creating small lots for cabins. This is known as the Rostu Subdivision. These lots today make up what is known as “Drake.”

The land on which the Forks Inn is built lies between two rivers and has several springs. In the past, some of these springs formed permanent ponds. One such pond was located where the highway now passes in front of the Inn, as shown in the 1920 photo opposite. The widening of the road in 1920 was responsible to a large degree for the rapid settlement of the canyon after that date. It was probably at that time that the pond in front of the Forks Hotel was covered over for the improved road.

“Until 1928 the road was one lane with turnouts for passing cars,” writes Sharlynn Wamsley, in Reflections on the River. “The county continued making improvements, widening the road where they could and raising the low places. In the 1930s, during the depression, work crews were kept busy. Earning 50 cents an hour, the men worked in crews numbering from 20 to 45 men. Each man was allowed to work only two to four days a week depending on the size of his family. They removed dangerous ledges and widened sharp turns, making the road safer and easier to travel. In the spring of 1933, there were 300 names on the waiting list for work on this project.”

Paving the Highway

Joyce Miller, who spent time at the Forks Hotel during the paving of the road remembers the improvements made to the road by the Highway Department: “Jack and I lived at the Forks Hotel for three months in the summer of 1934. He was with the Highway Department, making a paved road up the canyon. Several others in the group lived across the river in cabins but all ate three meals a day at the hotel. There were bedrooms up stairs at the hotel. I remember a big dining room, a small living room where the women in our group played cards and did some mending.”

Wamsley describes the good years in the Big Thompson canyon as 1938 to 1976: “Opening the ‘Gateway to the Rockies' did exactly what the Loveland Businessmen hoped. The highway from Loveland through the canyon to Estes Park was now well paved and continued on to Fall River Pass over trail Ridge, making it the ‘highest paved through highway in the world.’ It drew tourists from all over the United States and created the new businesses to support them.

“The road never exceeded a six-percent grade, far different from the narrow, dangerous roadway of the past. What often took the traveler two days to travel could now be done in under two hours. It's varied scenery ranged from the hot dusty fields and pastures of the foothills, to breath-taking canyon walls and beautiful mountain scenery. It passed the Marianna Butte, near Loveland, passes the Devil's Backbone, a rocky ridge of Dakota oil bearing sand with its famous ‘Keyhole,’ then went on through the Narrows’ steep slopes with only room for the road and the river. The road then entered the mountain meadows with their rock-bedded river, the vast forests clinging to the precipices, and on up until dropping into the breath-taking valley that surrounded the Estes Park village. The Big Thompson Canyon is an area of enormous beauty. From the North Fork through Glen Haven it was 37 miles of vacation wonderland enjoyed by people from all over the world.

“With at least eight filling stations to service the cars and distribute maps and brochures vacationers found it easy to learn the special landmarks in the canyon. They enjoyed trout fishing, hiking, picnicking and horseback riding. Lookout spots and picnic areas offer pleasant places to stop and enjoy the majestic scenery and a place to splash in the cool rushing water.”

Ray and Helen Hayden had developed a very successful campground in conjunction with the “Stage Stop,” as the Forks Hotel has generally been known since its early days. They had done some extensive remodeling on the building, enlarging the cafe to include a grocery store, and they built a new house across the road. Then in 1945, they leased the Stagestop to Sam and Jaunita Gilleland, but continued to run the campground. Sam became the Postmaster and he and Juanita continued to run the store/cafe for many years. In 1962, they built a new house nearby and eventually retired.

Times were changing, the population of the Drake area had increased dramatically and in 1973 the Postal Service thought the Drake Post Office should have a separate building. The Haydens leased ground next to the Stage Stop to the Postal Service for a new modular post office. James Venrick was appointed postmaster.

The 1976 Flood

On the last weekend of July 1976, a 500-year flood occurred in the canyon that destroyed all of the filling stations, including the one at the Inn, and damaged nearly every lodging structure. All the bridges were destroyed or badly damaged.

Two hundred and fifty two homes were damaged or destroyed and 144 people were killed. The estimated damage from the one Saturday night flood was over 20 million dollars. The road was totally destroyed in most areas of the canyon. People were stranded, cars were washed away, debris was littered everywhere along the river.

One of the few commercial structures left standing with little damage was the Forks Stage Stop, although the Hayden house, located across the highway, was totally destroyed. The day after the flood, rescue helicopters were used to pluck the lucky survivors from the steep hillsides and transport them to Drake in front of Gilleland's house, where the Red Cross had set up an aid station handing out sandwiches and drinks.

An article printed later in the Johnstown Newspaper stated: "Many Drake citizens tell of the heroic efforts of Ray and Helen Hayden, the 68-year-old couple who heroically ran from house to house Saturday night, racing the onrushing waters of the Big Thompson to warn friends. ‘They must have saved a hundred lives,’ one man said.”

In Reflection on the River, The Big Thompson Canyon Flood, Joseph Applebaum, from St. Louis, related a story typical of many tourists who had crowded the Big Thompson canyon that weekend. His father and stepmother, with their travel trailer had made a trip to Colorado and were camped in the Hayden campground at the Stage Stop. He tried to call about them, but couldn’t get through. Joseph wrote, “Later I talked to Ray Hayden, the operator of the campground where my father had been camped… He told me that my father had gassed up his car and left the campground about five minutes before the wall of water hit at Drake. It seems he was trying to drive out of the canyon, but of course we know now the road was jammed with other cars trying to drive out. Most all of those drivers and passengers were lost. We were told that neither my father's car nor his travel trailer were ever recovered.”

Helen Hayden later wrote, “Everything was so dark without electricity. But when it would lightning, which was often, we would see the debris and campers and small cabins going down the river. I remember one small camper riding the waves. A woman was in the window screaming for us. When propane tanks and bottles would hit a rock and break the gauge, we would get a terrible odor. We were all anxious for morning to come but were dreading what we would see. As we walked to the hotel, the hummingbirds were thick, flying around our heads, and all their feeders were gone. Fish were all over the ground, and what a sight to see— no houses, no nothing, not even a piece of a stone or icebox.”

Rebuilding after the Flood

The Forks Hotel sustained water damage and some remodeling was necessary on the ground floor. The gas pumps and storage tank were removed, as it would no longer be legal to have a gas station there. Before long, the Haydens sold the property to Lee Shirk who began a more extensive remodel of the west end of the building. Mr. Shirk died of a heart attack before the remodel was finished. His son Mike took over, but was tragically killed two years later. The west end of the building was constructed with a new two-story high log interior with a beautiful wooden bar and professional rock-work. A fireplace was built on the main level and also in a new lounge on the second floor level. The mason contractor was Dennis H. Gribble. His carved stone plaque can be seen today in the new part of the building.

Susan DeJesus purchased the property and tried to make a go of the business for a while. She had the property divided into two parts with the Campground on one part and the Forks Stage Stop and post office on the other. Despite her efforts, she couldn't make the payments and the property went back to the Haydens. Eventually they sold both parts to the Joe Shaffer family: Joe and Doris Shaffer and their four sons, Joey, John, Jeff and Jerry. The boys worked hard improving the old building. Jerry Shaffer had a country band that played regularly for patrons of the restaurant and bar. Over the years, Jerry Shaffer developed a large following of fans. Because of his music the old Stage Stop became a lively entertainment spot in the early 1980s. Eventually, the Shaffers sold the part of the property with the Stage Stop and post office. The Shaffer family still lives on the beautiful park-like meadow just west of The River Forks Inn. It continues to be a popular camping site.

Jim and Annette Crill purchased the Stage Stop property, enlarging the kitchen to make it into a full service restaurant. The resaurant had never had the facilities to become a full-service restaurant. The new log structure offered the atmosphere that a successful restaurant demanded. The Crills hired an excellent chef and developed a menu that attracted people from as far away as Denver for an unforgettable evening out.

In order to develop the RV camping area along the North Fork of the Big Thompson that runs through the property, the Crills had an additional 200 amp power source put in the camping area— a separate campground from the one the Shaffers had kept. They also built a stage back of the restaurant for dancing on special occasions. The Crills lived on the property and also rented apartments in the old part of the building.

After a few years, the Crills retired and sold out to the partnership of Brad Lucero and Mehzud Haghighi (Max). Max was an excellent chef and wanted to make the business into something like a three-star restaurant. Brad was the money man, but he was not inclined to invest the additional money that was needed to make the business successful. The partnership eventually went sour, the restaurant was closed and the business was put up for sale.

The River Forks Inn Today

In 2004, the present owners William E. Jones (Bill) and his wife Ann, purchased the property. From the beginning, they knew it would be a terrific challenge to turn this losing business into a profitable one. The restaurant business would have to be re-established, and that meant operating in the red for at least a couple of years. Most of the equipment was old and in need of replacement. At the time of purchase the Joneses were unaware that the rules and regulations for public water systems were being changed, making it necessary for a new, deep well to be drilled. The old part of the building, upstairs and down, had been badly neglected over the years and it all needed complete renovation before it would be useful.

Bill and Ann identified the major projects that would be necessary to bring the property up to its full potential. They started by creating the “Stage Stop Event Center.” This meant converting the delapidated coin-op Coke machine area into an outdoor barbeque and beer sales stand, and building a deck on the east end of the building as well as constructing a stage large enough for bands to perform on. The large area of grass in front of the stage was perfectly situated to seat several hundred people.

The most costly and time-consuming project was the restoration of the original part of the building to nightly rental rooms. The Joneses knew the days of small hotels were gone but bed and breakfast businesses were now very popular. They spent two years remodeling the rooms upstairs with the aim of restoring the Inn to what it might have been in the early days.

They also constructed a charming beer garden on the west side of the restaurant. The new well had been drilled in this area and a new cistern was buried under the new well house. A beautiful deck was built around the well house and with the addition of a large cement slab there was room for eight outdoor tables with umbrellas. Lunch and dinner are served there now as well as drinks when the weather permits.

Another project was improvement of the RV camping spaces. The wiring that had been done by the Crills was not sufficient to support 30 amps to each site. The wiring was upgraded. In addition, the project included making a level parking pad for each site and positioning each site near the river's edge. Most sites are shaded by Aspen or Pine trees.

The River Forks Inn is now a bed and breakfast facility with a mountain lodge atmosphere. Two Jones sons, Roy and Troy are bringing back the tradition that Jerry Shaffer started, by singing and hosting karaoke. The River Forks Inn features other musicians every weekend. The Inn operates the only restaurant in The Big Thompson canyon between Estes Park and Loveland. The newly decorated rooms offer tourists a delightful place to stay while sight-seeing in the Big Thompson canyon and the Estes Park area.
Since the “Stage Stop Event Center” was built, weddings and concerts are being held outdoors. There is parking space for up to 40 cars. The new hot dog and beer stand in the Event Center offers refreshments to those attending various functions. For instance, the 30-year memorial of the 1976 flood was held at the “Stage Stop Event Center.”

Bill and Ann have crafted ten beautiful rooms for nightly rentals, making a very unique bed and breakfast establishment. A variety of wildlife can be seen from time to time on the property. The Inn is located a short drive from Estes Park and the Rocky Mountain National Park.