One of the highlights of my recent cross-country road trip was Estes Park, gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park. And how could it not be a highlight? Here is scenery that both inspires and excites in a corner of Colorado once called the ‘Switzerland of America.’ One of several wide valleys at around 8,000 feet, which include North Park, Middle Park, South Park, and Winter Park, Estes Park itself was renowned for its beauty. But for the long line of British aristocrats that visited the area from the early 1800s, it held a hint of their own landscaped reserves surrounding country estates, yet was a formidable hunting ground, brimming with wildlife they would not encounter back home. No wonder then, given the immense wealth of these visitors, they would want to have it for their own. And one man set out to do just that.
Windham Thomas Wyndham-Quin, 4th Earl of Dunraven and Mount-Earl, an Anglo-Irish peer, first viewed the Rockies in 1869, aged twenty-eight and on his honeymoon. He had gone to Oxford and served in the Queen’s Life Guards. Best known for being a journalist, writing articles on travel and hunting, he was generally considered an enlightened and rather progressive man for his background, and mixed socially with writers, actors and musicians. His boyhood had been spent reading the western novels of Mayne Reid and Fennimore Cooper so that, despite having a young bride in tow, he now aimed to travel west and hunt. Circumstances conspired against him that year, however, and his party reached only as far as Denver. The dramatic backdrop to this burgeoning town was enough to enthrall him. In the next sixteen years, Dunraven was to travel annually to the west, sometimes more than once a year. After all, Denver was ‘only’ seventeen days from Liverpool.
Estes Park had been home to Arapaho and Ute and occasional Apaches. Trappers had passed through, and Missourian Joel Estes came in 1859 to try his hand at ranching there. Griff Evans arrived in 1867 and built cabins to accommodate tourists and lead hunting trips. In 1872, Dunraven finally set eyes on the area for the first time. He had inherited title just a year earlier, and now commanded his family’s extensive fortune, including banks, railroads, shipping and coal, as well as four mansions scattered throughout the British Isles. Having hunted throughout the west on visits over the last three years—including one hunt led by William Cody and his pal, Texas Jack— Dunraven now stayed at one of Evans’ cabins for three weeks and subsequently set his heart on having the park for his private hunting ground. The earl had caught ‘prairie fever’ as Mayne Reid had called it.
Why Dunraven favored Estes Park came down to several details, as varied as the beautiful sunsets, the dry air, and the fact nearby Denver was a station for no less than five railroad lines. He loved the area so much that he paid Albert Bierstadt $15,000 for a painting of Estes Park, the first of many he would take home to remind him of his place in the west. The way Dunraven set about obtaining ownership to six thousand acres was a modus operandi that would be employed by numerous ranchers throughout the west in the coming years. Exercising his vast resources, he had his agents bribe various American citizens to make use of both the Pre-emption Act and Homestead Act to either buy or prove up 160 acres each. By choosing the sites wisely, Dunraven enclosed more acreage without access to water. Thirty-one claims were filed for his use.
But such a land grab could not go unnoticed. Squatters moved in, and a grand jury was set to investigate his claims. While none of this came to anything, and Dunraven kept his land titles, the harassment showed him the writing on the wall. He had the roads improved and built a hotel as well as a sawmill. Back home in Britain, he was increasingly involved in politics, and would later serve in Her Majesty’s government under Lord Salisbury, as well as in the Senate of the Irish Free State. The Earl made his last visit to Estes Park in 1882, but it was not until 1908 that he sold his land to F.O. Stanley and B. D. Sanborn. Stanley, of course, built the now-historic Stanley Hotel. Rocky Mountain National Park was signed into being in 1915.
It is a strange anomaly that a man who wrote approvingly about the preservation of Yellowstone as a national park for the enjoyment of the general public, and later would be instrumental in passing the Irish Land Purchase Act of 1903 (permitting tenants to purchase land with favorable terms from their landlords), should want to illegally secure such a large swathe of American countryside. But Dunraven was very much a product of his background, if an enlightened one, and only the first of many Brits who would seek to use the west for their own profit and enjoyment.
My first book, Loveland, deals with this in part. It is to be re-released by Amazon Encore on Sept. 15th.
Photograph of Lord Dunraven in public domain. All other photos Cristal Downing and myself.