By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 1999 Gourmet Magazine
Wyoming joined the Union in 1890, as the West was becoming America’s favorite fantasy. More than any other destination, the “Cowboy State” continues to embody the salubrious frontier culture originally defined by such diverse proponents as Teddy Roosevelt, artist Frederic Remington, and restaurant magnate Fred Harvey. Though there were always dude-ranch guests, hunters, and other outdoors types who thrilled to spend their Wyoming nights in tents or sleeping bags under a mantle of stars, the increased popular appeal of a High Plains adventure vacation encouraged the construction of fine hotels with a vivid regional theme. As the romance of the West peaked, around the turn of the century, three blockbusters went up in northern Wyoming. All are magnificent to see, and two still rent rooms to the public.
The biggest and best treehouse ever erected, Yellowstone Park’s OLD FAITHFUL INN has the look of something out of an epic fairy tale and the bustle of a college town on homecoming weekend. Above the log-cabin hotel’s spacious lobby, hanging stairways with knobbled pine supports climb eighty-five feet toward a ceiling of skylights that filter sunlight through timber balustrades and balconies. In the center of this great hall stands a chimney made from five hundred tons of volcanic rock. Thronging the four-sided fireplace, are a babel of visitors from America and the world, their eyes turned up in awe.
“Most people associate Yellowstone with nature,” begins a tour guide named Ruth, from Kansas. (All the staff wear name tags that tell their home state.) “They think about the geysers and sulfur springs, the bears and bison, the rocks and trees. None of that has much to do with the Old Faithful Inn. This hotel is not about nature; it is about people—as in, ‘We, the people.”‘
Ruth’s seemingly curious reference to the first words of the Constitution is actually apt, because this hardwood aerie radiates national conviction. The audacity of setting so huge a habitation in the midst of utter wilderness hearkens back to the certainty that “We, the people” derived our national mission from God, as He expressed Himself in the contours of the continent. Informed citizens who understood natural law to be the source of our freedom saw nature itself as physical proof of manifest destiny. The forests and the animals, the lakes and the rivers, the endless stretches of land—and even the native peoples of that land—were ours to use for sustenance and spiritual inspiration. In this respect, no place was more exalted than Yellowstone, established in 1872 as America’s (and the world’s) first national park. Here was nature at its most sublime, bequeathed to the young republic for the welfare of all humanity.
To appreciate the cultural power Yellowstone Park had over the imagination of nineteenth-century travelers, it is also helpful to recall a mindset that saw the untamed western frontier as not merely beautiful but as downright scary…in the best possible way. Untouched by the centuries of culture that had refined Europe, the elemental scenery put visitors in a primitive paradise far away from the unhealthy constrictions of corrupt civilization.
Communion with nature’s grandeur is what tourists sought when they first started coming to Yellowstone Park in the 1870s. The multimillion-acre preserve boasted overwhelming beauty in its forests and lakes; it had the fearsomeness of wild animals; and, most amazing of all, it included a primeval panorama of bubbling thermal springs and smoldering plateaus that gave the impression God had only just yesterday smelted the landscape. Foremost among its attractions for visitors seeking proof of nature’s majesty was Old Faithful, the geyser that has erupted 150 feet into the air at sixty-five-minute intervals since Yellowstone’s history was first recorded.
Located in the Upper Geyser Basin, the world’s most famous hot-water fountain was originally accessible only to the most persevering travelers, who arrived on the Northern Pacific rail line at the entrance to the park, then came by horse or stagecoach over paths where trees were cut just low enough for axles to clear. They slept in tents and washed their clothes in the hot puddles that bubbled up from the earth. Old Faithful Inn, which had steam heat (NOT from the geysers!) as well as electric lights, suddenly made it possible to visit this remote wonder of the world in considerable comfort. At four dollars per night—at least twice the average daily wage—it wasn’t cheap, but neither was it in any way restricted. The inn was a fine symbol of the inclusive democratic spirit that motivated the creation of national parks. In his 1922 Yellowstone chronicle, A’ Top O’ the World, Joe Chapple described “jolly tourists who hail from every corner of the globe [including] a Chinese doctor, an African missionary, a Spanish opera star, several titled Englishmen, merry school teachers bound for a joyous holiday away from the crowded schoolrooms, lawyers who seek diversion from the humdrums of the courts.”
Opened in the summer of 1904 and financed mostly by the railroad (which of course wanted more passengers headed for Yellowstone), Old Faithful Inn was among the first of the grand hotels built in a national park. It was conceived as a populist palace—big enough to hold masses of visitors, as important looking as a civic monument, and yet respectful of the natural elements of which it was created. The enchanted log-and-rock construction—now known as the Rustic Style—set the fashion for all the great lodges of the West’s national parks.
Architect Robert Reamer, a Californian whose previous work included exotic theater design, situated the building so that arriving guests came nearly face-to-face with Old Faithful just as they disembarked from their coaches. The effervescent water flume is still the front-and-center sight at the moment of arrival; from that point on, a stay at the inn is a theatrical reflection of the world just outside its door. Made of lodgepole pine and rhyolite taken from the park itself and outfitted with Mission-style tables, hickory rocking chairs, and oak writing desks, Old Faithful Inn is not sui generis: It expresses the back-to-nature aesthetic of the Arts and Crafts Movement of the late nineteenth century, and its sinewy gnarled pine support beams are rustic Art Nouveau.
The muscular decor provides a virtual-reality indoor timberland for guests who, in the early days, wore evening gowns and tuxedos to dinner in the split-log dining room, then danced to music played by an orchestra that performed from a crow’s nest high above the lobby floor. Formal wear is now ancient history (over a two-day stay we saw not a single man in a necktie), as is the orchestra. And the inn has been modernized over the years: Sinks with running water were put in eighty-three original rooms, additional wings with more rooms were built in 1913 and 1927, and an adjacent winterized snow lodge with modern facilities opened last year.
Rooms are still austere. Guests in the “Old House” (the original inn) use communal baths, and there are some quarters on the second floor that have no plumbing whatsoever, requiring occupants to stroll through the upper lobby to fetch water for washbasins. Despite the lack of amenities—no TV or radio, naturally—there is a snug charm about the dormlike accommodations with their log-cabin walls, iron-frame beds, and primitive lighting fixtures hanging from the ceiling. Each room has a little green-painted dresser but no desk; those who wish to put their thoughts down on paper avail themselves of writing tables in the public areas of the inn. Here, in the glow of handsome glass light shades, travelers can jot notes to friends of the wonders they have seen. Needless to say, the desks offer no electrical sockets for portable computers and no place to connect a modem. In late 1998 we actually observed a young man, apparently ensconced for the afternoon, leisurely composing letters in longhand, on paper, in ink, with a blotter at the ready!
Our favorite moment at the Old Faithful Inn was a frosty early-autumn dawn when, through the open windows of our room, we watched the sky turn gold behind curtains of steam rising from the earth and listened to an elk bugle in some distant valley. Of course, the main attraction is Old Faithful itself, which is visible from a second-story veranda above the inn’s porte-cochere and from a plank walkway encircling the spout. A prediction board in the lobby lists the times of eruption, so when it’s about to blow, crowds gather outside and on the porch. It is a dramatic moment. The geyser sputters and puffs and seems to have a few false starts, then sends a great flume of hissing steam high into the air as people gasp. Maybe we’ve seen too much of the regularly erupting mechanical volcano outside Steve Wynn’s Mirage hotel in Las Vegas, but what impressed us about Old Faithful was not so much its might as its serenity. Without recorded tom-toms and razzle-dazzle spotlights, there was a solid dignity about this eruption. The water falling back to earth sounded like a good rain, and its heat generated soft vapor clouds that floated gently in the breeze.
When showman. William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody opened the IRMA HOTEL (named for his youngest daughter) in his namesake town in 1902, it boasted steam heat, gaslight, and telephones in the lobby—the height of civilization in a place still so primitive that building materials had to be brought in by wagon train. Private baths and television sets have since been added, but the Irma’s charm today has nothing to do with modern luxury; it is
all about antiquity. Turn-of-the-century fittings provide sincere if somewhat ascetic ambiance to the restored rooms, each of which is named after a famous former resident. Nostalgia seekers will enjoy the dark wainscot in the Caroline Lockhart Suite and the vintage rocking chair in the high-ceilinged Irma Suite; and it is princely to bide a while in the roomy Buffalo Bill Suite, with its commanding second-story corner view over Sheridan Avenue. Don’t bother with the newer annex to the hotel, which is motel basic, but the public rooms in the old sandstone edifice are a marvel to behold, crowded everywhere with mounted game-animal heads, quieted by dark floral carpeting, and outfitted with fine woodwork including a spectacular bar of cherry that was given to Cody by Queen Victoria as thanks for the Wild West Show he brought to London.
Late one afternoon, in the shadow of that majestic bar, we spot a gentleman who is a virtual twin of Buffalo Bill, sitting alone, sipping coffee. He sports the familiar gray goatee and well-tonsured moustache; he wears a broad-brimmed Stetson with a horsehair band, a frock coat, and knee-high stovepipe boots; and on his belt he packs a pair of ivory-handled “smoke wagons” in cross-draw holsters. As we cautiously approach we notice he is reading a contemporary magazine devoted to drag racing and hot rod cars. “Are you Buffalo Bill?” we ask.
“No,” he says. “I am the sheriff, Able Hooks. I’m going to shoot some people in a while. Stick around and watch.”
Throughout the summer, every night at 6, “Mr. Hooks” (a nom de guerre, like the ones all devoted cowboy reenactors assume) and a gang known as the Cody Gunslingers stage a melodrama on the street just outside the Irma, during which they shoot each other with black-powder blanks, to the delight of hotel guests gathered on the broad porch.
For a memorable after–shoot-out meal, we highly recommend dinner at FRANCA’S ITALIAN DINING, in Franca Facchetti’s private home just a few blocks from the hotel. The menu, which differs each night, offers such fine fare as vitello tonnato and handmade ravioli in brown-butter sauce, served with the kind of care and attention that makes us think more of home than of a restaurant. The establishment’s friendly feeling is also owed to the fact that Franca is herself omnipresent in the dining room, making sure her customers are satisfied. When, one evening, we used her delicious fresh baked rolls to mop every drop of Cognac prune sauce from our plate of pork chops with braised fennel, she graciously offered second helpings. Heaven forbid we leave this home hungry!
Sheridan, Wyoming, blends rugged ranch charm with the sophistication of the easterners and Britons who originally came West to be with their cattle holdings when Wyoming was still open range. A century ago, that cultural mix helped make Sheridan America’s first dude-ranch capital, a destination for adventurous travelers in search of Western splendor. When they detrained in this small town at the eastern edge of the Bighorn Mountains, they found themselves facing the finest hotel between Chicago and San Francisco. HISTORIC SHERIDAN INN, christened in 1893, is a stately structure with sixty-nine gables lined up like rows of neatly baled hay along its sloping roof and a porch that is a full block long. Buffalo Bill Cody used to sit on this porch and audition trick riders on the lawn for his Wild West Show, and the inn’s early history is rich with tales of unruly hooligans who rode through the front door and into the saloon.
You cannot stay at the Sheridan Inn today. It closed in 1965 but was saved from the wrecking ball and declared a National Historic Landmark. There are hopes to reopen it to overnight guests some time in the future, but in the meantime there is much to see: dainty artifacts belonging to “The Owls,” a ladies literary society that used to meet here; a box of the Sheridan perfectos that gents used to smoke after dinner; and an Ernest Hemingway exhibit that says he stayed at the inn for four days in 1928 while writing A Farewell to Arms. You can also view the massive carved-wood bar, shipped from England, behind which, legend has it, local rancher George Beck created the Wyoming Slug: a shot of whiskey with a Champagne mixer.
What a joy it is to browse around the spacious first floor, where photographs of the inn’s colorful history are displayed along with the mounted head of a bull elk. Here is Herbert Hoover when he came to stay in 1939, Will Rogers after having lunch on premises, William Jennings Bryan marching in a parade through town in 1897, and a 1947 snapshot of a beaming woman walking through the front door wearing a stylish suit and a feathered Indian headdress. This is Jeanette Peabody, of Culver City, California, a winning contestant from radio’s Queen for a Day—the show that offered its most beleaguered guest a royal respite from life’s troubles. There is no record of the predicament Mrs. Peabody boasted to earn the prize of a stay at the Sheridan Inn, but life has few sorrows that can’t be eased by a trip to a grand hotel in the wide-open spaces of Wyoming.
Franca’s Italian Dining (permanently closed)
1421 Rumsey Avenue
Historic Sheridan Inn
Old Faithful Inn