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Travel: Historic Colorado Mining Towns Are Experiencing a Design Hotel Boom

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  Historic Colorado Mining Towns Are Experiencing a Design Hotel Boom © Provided by AFAR

Elsa Tharp was out walking with her historic preservation architect parents in Leadville, Colorado, the continent’s highest incorporated city at 10,200 feet, when they stumbled upon the for-sale 1884 train depot. “In very typical fashion for my upbringing,” she remembers, “we tried to break in and look around.”

In 2018, the trio converted the depot into an events space called Freight, and two years later, they added 13 design-forward cabins out back called S.L.umber Yard, which are inspired by the town’s Victorian miners’ cabins. Located about an hour’s drive southeast of Breckenridge, the project—which won the excellence in design award from the state chapter of the American Institute of Architects—is one in an increasingly long list of stylish boutique hotels popping up unexpectedly in out-of-the-way mining towns across Colorado.

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S.L.umber Yard’s cabins include custom furniture made from 130-year-old wood salvaged onsite and historic photos from the local library and the Colorado Mountain College. In an especially thoughtful twist, each cabin is named for a sex worker from Leadville’s rough-and-tumble mining days, and their unsugarcoated biographies are available on the hotel website.

“I believe it’s crucial to acknowledge all aspects of an origin story for progress,” Tharp explains. “If we just lift up the happy stories or the success stories, we can’t see all of the room a community has for growth.” But there are surprising tales of triumph, too: “Red Stockings,” the daughter of a Boston merchant, earned over $100,000 during her time at the California Gulch mining camp, and she later supported her family with her fortune. Mollie May, meanwhile, had a penchant for getting into gun fights with other brothel workers, and a steel rib in her corset once saved her life when she was hit by a stray bullet; she owned Leadville’s only telephone for a bit and was known for donating to area churches and hospitals. “If you can use a place like Freight to keep their presence alive in the community,” Tharp says, “hopefully it allows some reflection to how we uplift our current sex workers and sex-trafficked people.”

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Similarly, Freight shines a light on architectural stories that would otherwise be forgotten, namely, sheds and other unglamorous support structures. Tharp says that, while “charismatic” buildings like the town’s under-renovation Tabor Opera House get all the attention and financial support, it’s these functional buildings that tell the stories of the working class. “We were lucky enough to have two great out-buildings that were salvageable and reimaginable,” Tharp says, “and so can also keep that story alive.” The old lime shed now houses all of the antiques they found during the demolition and restoration, while a lumber shed serves as a new bandstand.

Another such charismatic building has been reborn as a hotel in Silverton, a former boomtown tucked away in the San Juan Mountains, 25 miles from Telluride as the crow flies. In a town with dirt roads and a population hovering around 600, you might not expect to find a hotel as boldly stylish as the Wyman, which occupies a landmark 1902 building. In its previous lives, it has housed a mercantile, a gas station, a dentist, mining-company offices, and even storage space for the town’s now-defunct trolley.

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After 16 years in New York, Colorado-born lawyer Shane Fuhrman and his partner Haley Morgan relocated to Silverton with the goal of opening a business. “The prior owners of the Wyman heard that we were looking for something and invited us over for wine and discussed the idea of passing the property over to us as the new stewards of this amazing historic building,” says Fuhrman, who was later elected town mayor. “We were thrilled and honored and jumped in head first.”


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They purchased the building in 2016 and took a little over two years to transform it from a B&B into a design hotel, eschewing mountain kitsch for an almost Scandi-sleek style, pairing original elements (arched windows, tin ceilings, a safe in the lobby) with velvet and brass and a palette of soft pinks, teals, and forest greens. There’s even a chic 10-bed bunk room, if you want to channel the communal living style of those 19th-century miners.

“Last and certainly not least, we use burros in a lot of our branding and imagery,” Fuhrman says. “Louis Wyman ran a mule cart business in Silverton and added an image of a burro to the capstone above the front door, which is still there.”

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Ouray’s Imogene Hotel & Rooftop Bar is housed in a former saloon and brothel that dates to the 1890s. © Courtesy of the Imogene Hotel Ouray’s Imogene Hotel & Rooftop Bar is housed in a former saloon and brothel that dates to the 1890s.

Twenty miles north of Silverton along the treacherous Million Dollar Highway—don’t look down!—sits Ouray, a former silver and gold mining hub that has been nicknamed “the Switzerland of America” for the Alps-like mountains that encircle the town. In 2020, it welcomed the Imogene Hotel & Rooftop Bar, housed in a former saloon and brothel that dates to the 1890s. And this summer, Denver’s Zeppelin Development, which is responsible for that city’s uber-hip Source Hotel, is reopening the landmark Western Hotel & Spa, one of the few 19th-century wood-frame hotels in the area still standing. Expect original tin ceilings and stained glass, paired with an onsite saloon, a general store, and a spa that pays homage to the town’s famed hot springs.

And it’s not only historic buildings that are housing mining-themed properties. Just outside of Denver, Golden was founded during the Pikes Peak Gold Rush of 1859 as a supply center and territorial capital—named for miner Thomas L. Golden, not the precious metal. As of last June, the city is also home to the Eddy Taproom & Hotel, a new-build, 49-room boutique property on the site of the old Golden Fire Brick Company.

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“The Eddy was inspired by Golden’s mining history, the region’s industrial roots, and the sense of adventure found in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains,” says general manager John Drugan. Guest room decor nods to that history with steel-riveted panels and salvaged-lumber desks designed to evoke old mining carts, while hallways include black-and-white photographs of some of the original faculty at Golden’s Colorado School of Mines.

“We were able to put RFID [radio-frequency identification] technology in a key fob made of recycled wood that looks like an old miners’ tag,” says Drugan. Back in the day, miners would carry numbered tags, which they’d hang on hooks outside of the shaft; if all the tags were collected at the end of the day, the mine owners knew everyone was safely above ground. “We thought it was a creative application to meld both modern technology and the history the Eddy was founded on.” Plus, Drugan says, they make for great souvenirs.

Plan ahead and book your stay

Book now: S.L.umber Yard (Leadville, CO); the Wyman (Silverton, CO); the Imogene Hotel & Rooftop Bar (Ouray, CO); the Eddy Taproom & Hotel (Golden, CO)

Book soon: Western Hotel & Spa (Ouray, CO)

>> Next: Plan your trip with AFAR’s Travel Guide to Colorado

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