Part 1: Why Old Hotels?
As I was remembering some past trips around the country it occurred to me that I seem to have an enduring fondness for old hotels. I’ve purposefully sought them out over the years while on the road and I almost always enjoyed the experience. Some were more of a bed and breakfast operation wrapped in the ambiance of an old historic hotel, but that’s fine and it adds to the variety of the experience. So I decided to post some of those experiences in a series of intermittent blog posts covering one or two hotels at a time.
I once worked as a travelling auditor (sort of) and stayed in Holiday Inns and other similar motels while on assignment. That may be why I enjoyed the novelty of staying in older places that were not as new and shiny. So here is the first installment with several more to follow. The images are sometimes mine but most often are from the hotel web pages.
HOTEL WASHAKIE, WORLAND, WY
Way back in 1975, Joanne and I went on a two week backpacking trip to the Big Horn Mountains in Wyoming. We were on a tight budget and camped almost every night, which was common back in those days. Our actual trek through the mountains was only about four of five days but we had spent a lot of time sleeping on the ground and had not used a real shower for many days. Joanne agreed to the backpacking and the camping if we could stay in a real hotel once we came out of the mountains, which was fine with me…sounded like a great idea.
Coming out of the mountains after our trek we headed west to the town of Worland, Wyoming. We had heard several good recommendations for the Hotel Washakie in Worland. The steak dinner in the restaurant was also recommended and that sounded great after eating beans and freeze-dried Turkey Tetrazzini cooked over a tiny white gas stove that was trying to blow up.
As I recall, the room was adequate but not fancy. This was sort of a cowboy hotel. The real bed was welcome after so many nights on the ground. The bathroom and shower were much appreciated. The steak dinner was wonderful. Breakfast was great. We really needed that hotel stay and it could have been much worse but we still would have enjoyed it. As I recall we had a good night’s rest and headed west toward Thermopolis and the Wind River the next day.
As I was preparing to write up this short blog entry I began to wonder what happened to the Hotel Washakie. I tried searching the Internet…nothing showed up. I searched on Google Earth and Google maps….nothing. I looked at a map of Worland thinking that I might recognize the hotel location but there was nothing. Finally, I sent a short email to the “lifestyle” editor of the local newspaper in Worland. He wrote me back that the hotel had been demolished many years ago and replaced by a Mexican restaurant. Ugh. Wow…that made me feel really old. It wasn’t especially a cherished landmark of my youth but still it pained me a little to realize that “my places” were being torn down to make room for Mexican restaurants….progress, I guess.
So this was my first encounter with an older hotel. The Hotel Washakie was probably the premier stopping point for travelers on the railroad and cowboys coming in to town on weekends. Now they have Comfort Inns and Motel 6 and the train doesn’t stop here anymore…again, progress, I guess.
THE EL REY INN, SANTA FE, NM
Sometime back in the late 1970s…I don’t recall the year…Joanne and I went on a cross country trip to California. Our route took us through New Mexico — Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Abiquiu, Chama and on into Colorado. We camped at a few places but stayed in motels about half the time.
In Santa Fe we decided to camp one night in the mountains and stay another night in a motel. Driving into town we picked out the El Rey Motel, a 1940-ish “tourist court” style motel with adobe-looking cabins. This was before Santa Fe was “discovered” and became upscale. I don’t think we paid much more than $35.00 for the room. The motel was conveniently located and we went out and visited the town and the plaza. The neighborhood was (then) still a little outside of the congested old part of town. Santa Fe’s early streets are narrow and seem to follow old cow paths.
The motel was distinctive because the rooms were very southwestern in style with tile floors and adobe walls. Our room had a kiva fireplace and wood beams and carved corbels.
Today this place is operated as the El Rey Inn and has moved upscale. A room like ours would be considered deluxe and would run $155.00 a night. There are other similar places from the same era along that stretch of the highway (Cerillos Road) including the Thunderbird and Kings Rest. The neighborhood and the road are very congested. Car dealerships and the Teriyaki Bowl restaurant are now across the street.
We returned to Santa Fe several times after that but enjoyed Santa Fe more on that first trip than our other visits. We camped up in the national forest among the Aspen trees.
There is, or (rather) was, a class of hotels that catered to folks travelling by train. These railroad hotels were located near train stations or close to the railroad tracks and in some cases were part of the train station. St. Louis’s Union Station is a prime example of the co-located hotel and station. Since I’m a train fan, I’ve stayed at a few old railroad hotels.
IZAAK WALTON INN, ESSEX, MONTANA (GLACIER N.P.)
Okay, I lied. Not all of these hotels were designed for travelers. The Izzak Walton Inn started as sort of a bunk house or dormitory for rail workers on the Great Northern Railway and that stretch of tracks around Glacier National Park needed a lot of work. They also have a small switching yard there and some resident locomotives that help move the trains over the mountain pass. As far as I can tell, there really isn’t anything else at Essex besides the Izzak Walton Inn. The place is located just outside of Glacier National Park and is serviced by the park’s touring car concession so they come and pick you up for the tour and bring you back when you are done.
The Izzak Walton Inn is a “flag stop” on Amtrak’s Empire Builder route which means they will stop for you with advance notice but won’t usually stop as a regular daily thing. I assume that during summer there are pretty frequent stops. They stopped at least once while we were staying at the inn.
The Izzak Walton Inn is rustic and was never intended to be anything else, but it has sort of a casual elegance to it. Part of it’s charm is that it is isolated. Don’t expect your cell phone to work and they didn’t have Internet when we were there. While this is relaxing to some, it is frustrating to others…especially thirteen year old girls. There is a pay phone in the lobby but it is usually in the control of pre-teen and teenage kids complaining to their friends that they are practically being held hostage in this horrible place in the mountains. Do your kids a favor and leave them at home. We placated our daughter by getting her a single room all by herself across the hall and away from the sound of the frequent freight trains that go by. That is an added feature…being close to the main railroad line there will be lots of trains going by and lots of train noise…day and night. Sleep can be a challenge so bring ear plugs. If you are a train buff you will love it and some people, I understand, can identify locomotives by the sound.
Rooms are spare but adequate. They have added private bath accommodations to the rooms and in some cases the set up is a little ingenious. The walls are pine and the decor is Burlington-Northern. We figured that the room would accommodate three of us with our daughter on the spare convertible bed. Nope…the spare bed was almost useless. We opted to move her across the hall and, surprisingly, they had a vacant room. An expensive solution but worth it in the long run….the level of complaints decreased.
As I said, the Izzak Walton Inn is somewhat isolated so you will eat most of your meals at the hotel restaurant. Again, think rustic but also ‘home made’ and inventive. We were happy with the food but you are sort of a captive and the prices were a little high. Before you complain, bear in mind the isolation and cost to drive to the next town for meals. The Izzak Walton Inn is not one of the grand national park lodges but it is a unique experience and it is close enough to Glacier National Park to see wildlife and enjoy the area. We saw mountain goats a short distance from the inn and were able to explore the park on our own as well as on the tour.
THE IRON HORSE HOTEL, BLACKWATER, MISSOURI
Blackwater, Missouri, you ask? Yes…Blackwater is a tiny town located west of Boonville, Missouri…um…west of Columbia, Missouri…um…sort of like between St. Louis and Kansas City. You have to want to be there….and I suggest you consider it. Blackwater is an old town filled with those antique stores that you hear about in legends on Antiques Roadshow. The town has a small artists’ colony and is sometimes a venue for ragtime piano performances (Scott Joplin lived in Sedalia…down the road a ways). Arrow Rock (and the Arrow Rock Lyceum Theater) is a few minutes away as is Boonville and the local casino crowd. You can get to Columbia and a couple wineries in about twenty minutes. So, Blackwater is a good place to stay if you are interested in that kind of stuff.
The Iron Horse Hotel is a real old-time railroad hotel located about twenty-five feet from the tracks. They supply the ear plugs. Go out the front door and turn right and walk across the tracks and you are in a farmer’s field….keep walking and you’ll fall in the river. If you turn left and you hit the antique stores. There is a small diner across the street but the Iron Horse has a great restaurant (think lamb and lobster) and you get breakfast with your room. It was not busy when we were there. In fact, they told us to lock up when we went to bed because we were the only ones there…a big responsibility.
All the rooms in the hotel are furnished in antiques. Some rooms are themed and all have names. All the rooms seemed to be over-sized for an old hotel so I wonder if there were alterations made sometime in the past. I believe all rooms had adjoining baths so those were added at some point. We did not eat at the restaurant but it has a very good reputation. As I said, breakfast is served with your room but they have a cheery breakfast room set aside for that purpose. I understand that there are new owners but the place used to have a distinct New Orleans flavor. Our breakfast was biegnets and New Orleans coffee. With the change in ownership there might be some changes from this description. I know they are now doing mystery dinner theater nights occasionally.