The True Story of the Stanley Hotel, Inspiration for ‘The Shining’

Stanley Hotel

How F.O. Stanley and Stephen King made the Stanley Hotel the stuff of legend.

At the turn of the 20th century, Estes Park in Colorado was little more than a rustic outpost for hunters and naturalists who wanted to live in the wilderness of the Rocky Mountains. Much of the land had already been purchased by an Irish aristocrat by the name of Lord Dunraven, who wanted to make the valley a hunting playground for the wealthy. However, the area remained undeveloped. There was no electricity, and the valley itself was difficult to access due to insufficient transportation options and poorly made roads. There were few jobs in the area and even fewer visitors.

Over the last century, however, two men from Maine — both respected for their creative prowess — slowly transformed Estes Park into the famous location we know today. The first was an inventor and musician by the name of F.O. Stanley, and the second was writer Stephen King. Both men would play major roles in transforming the Stanley Hotel and the land on which it sits into the stuff of legend.

F.O. Stanley: The Quintessential New England Gentleman

Stanley Hotel

Freelan Oscar Stanley circa 1910

Freelan Oscar Stanley was born June 1, 1849, along with his twin brother, Francis Edgar Stanley, in Kingfield, Maine. While their parents didn’t have much money, they highly valued the arts and sciences, encouraging all eight of their children to study poetry, music and engineering.

From the start, both Freelan and Francis were enterprising young men. They started out by creating wooden tops to sell to friends and classmates. At age 10, they began selling maple sugar. Next they learned from an uncle how to make violins, and by age 11 Freelan had handcrafted three of these musical instruments. It was a hobby he would continue throughout his life.

Later, while working as the headmaster of a local high school, Freelan created a manufacturing company for the Stanley Practical Drawing Set Factory, which produced school supplies for his students. After one year, though, a fire destroyed the business.

Francis, who was now running a portrait studio, offered his brother an opportunity: they would work together to solve problems in modern photography. The result? The Stanley Dry Plate Company, which sold factory-made photo equipment across the country. It was such a success that the brothers sold the company to George Eastman of Kodak for $500,000 — no small sum in 1905.

By this time, the twin brothers had also entered the auto industry, driven by Francis’ obsession with bicycles and his desire to travel with his wife.

Stanley Hotel

F.O. and Flora Stanley drove a Stanley Locomobile to the top of Mt. Washington in New Hampshire in 1899. Via New England Historical Society

After studying the three engine types available — combustion, electricity and steam — the brothers ultimately found the steam-powered automobiles superior. This led to their development of the Stanley Motor Carriage Company, with Francis serving as engineer and Freelan managing the marketing and sales for the Stanley Steamer. In 1906 their Stanley “Rocket Racer” broke the land speed record by covering two miles in less than a minute, clocking in at 127.7 miles per hour, giving it the title of “Fastest Car in the World” until 1910. The brothers later sold the company to Prescott Warren in 1917, but the steamers went off production in 1927.

In the middle of these advances in photography and the auto industry, Freelan was also recovering from a diagnosis of tuberculosis. What could have been a death sentence turned into a great opportunity, and a new chapter, for both Stanley and Estes Park.

The Birth of the Stanley Hotel

It seems the only person at the time who could have created an iconic hotel in the middle of the wilderness was the innovative F.O. Stanley. Of course, that was not his intention when he first arrived in Estes Park in 1903 to recover from his illness in the fresh, dry mountain air at the age of 54. His wife, Flora, had made the journey to Colorado with him, along with one of his Stanley Steamers. By the end of that first summer, with both husband and wife completely enamored by the beauty of the area, Freelan purchased a bit of property and began construction on a Colorado home he called Rockside. The four-bedroom house would be completed in 1905, with the couple planning to be in Colorado every summer thereafter. However, primitive life in the Rockies was rather dull and lackluster for the East Coast socialites, so in 1907 Freelan decided to make Estes Park a resort town, the perfect destination for their big-city friends who wanted to enjoy the beautiful landscape and natural surroundings without sacrificing the many luxuries of home.

Stanley Hotel

Stanley Hotel via Facebook

On July 4, 1909, after two years of construction, the Georgian Colonial Revival hotel opened its doors to the American upper class, offering 48 rooms and modern amenities, including dual electric and gas lighting, running water, steam laundry, a telephone in each room, a fully electric kitchen and a hydraulic elevator. In addition, Freelan had a fleet of 12-seat Stanley Steamer automobiles custom made for the mountains, just to transport guests from the train depot to the hotel. At the time, the Stanley Hotel was a complex of 11 buildings and even included a modest nine-hole golf course along with a concert hall, bowling lanes and billiards (Freelan’s favorite). Guests also enjoyed fine dining, horseback riding and musical entertainment, occasionally with either Flora at her Steinway Grand Piano or Freelan with his violin.

Of course, Freelan had needed to move heaven and earth to make the Stanley Hotel even possible. First he’d built the Fall River Hydroplant in order to provide electricity to the hotel and Estes Park. He also organized and partially funded the paving of what’s now US 34 and US 36, just so guests could reach their destination. In 1906 he became president of the Protective and Improvement Association, which began lobbying for the protection of the Rocky Mountains. In 1907 he became the first president of the Estes Park Bank and also established the Fall River Fish Hatchery. The next year he purchased most of the land owned by the aforementioned Irish aristocrat Lord Dunraven and began gifting the property to the town of Estes Park through grants. In 1913 he introduced to the valley a herd of elk from Yellowstone National Park to replace the wild game killed by hunters over the years. But by far the most important achievement was compelling President Woodrow Wilson to sign the order establishing the Rocky Mountain National Park to prevent its destruction by developers and tourists. Thanks to these efforts and more, Estes Park was incorporated as a city in 1917.

Stanley Hotel

The Stanley Hotel via Facebook

Still, for all its popularity with the American elite, the Stanley Hotel never made much money. Instead, Freelan saw the project as more of a hobby than a profitable scheme, and he often spent far more than he made. While he did summer in Colorado for over 30 years, it became increasingly difficult for Freelan to manage the property as he aged. In 1926 he sold the hotel to a private company. However, the company was soon forced to file for bankruptcy. Freelan bought the hotel back and resold it to another man in the automotive and hotel industries: Roe Emery. Ten years after selling his prized hotel to Emery, F.O. Stanley suffered a heart attack and died in Newton, Massachusetts.

As for the Stanley Hotel? Even under Emery’s care, it proved too difficult and expensive to maintain. Over the next five decades it would slowly descend into disrepair, and it would take another child of Maine to save it.

Stephen King and Room 217

As the story goes, during the summer of 1911 there was an explosion in room 217. A maid by the name of Mary Wilson went to light a lamp, unaware that a gas pipe was leaking, and when she came to, that entire section of the hotel had been demolished, with her broken body having landed in the dining hall downstairs. Ms. Wilson survived the ordeal and continued to work at the Stanley Hotel until her death in 1950.

It’s uncertain whether author Stephen King and his wife, Tabitha, knew of Ms. Wilson’s existence when they checked in to the Stanley Hotel in 1974. The establishment was preparing to close for the winter season, so the couple were the lone guests in the 140-room hotel with over 14,000 square feet of event space. They ate the only meal available in the restaurant while a taped recording of orchestral music played. “Except for our table, all the chairs were up on the tables. So the music is echoing down the hall, and, I mean, it was like God had put me there to hear that and see those things,” King later said. He ended up having a drink at the bar and, coincidentally, met a Mr. Grady who worked there.

Afterward King headed up to his room to sleep, only to have an awful nightmare. “I dreamed of my three-year-old son running through the corridors, looking back over his shoulder, eyes wide, screaming. He was being chased by a fire hose. I woke up with a tremendous jerk, sweating all over, within an inch of falling out of bed. I got up, lit a cigarette, sat in a chair looking out the window at the Rockies, and by the time the cigarette was done, I had the bones of The Shining firmly set in my mind.”

Stanley Hotel

Doubleday

The book was published in 1977 to rave reviews and commercial success, which helped both King and the Stanley Hotel, which had inspired the evil Overlook Hotel. Suddenly guests began to claim they’d witnessed paranormal activity. Ghost stories also began to circulate about Mary Wilson and room 217. Some even claimed the indigenous tribes who’d originally populated Estes Park made the area more sensitive to spiritual activity, while others believed those who’d vacationed at the Stanley Hotel in the early 1900s came back in the afterlife to party. Whatever the case, these stories — and the fame of The Shining, including Stanley Kubrick’s famous 1980 interpretation and the 1997 miniseries — all led to a resurgence for the Stanley Hotel, which has helped keep its doors open ever since.

Today guests of the Stanley Hotel can take their Historic Tour, which leads curious visitors deep into the hotel and even room 217. Those more interested in paranormal activity can join the Night Spirit Tour, which doesn’t guarantee interactions with ghosts or spirits but does prepare guests for meeting with “active” phenomena, just in case. There are also plenty of events, from the Shining Ball to the Halloween Masquerade Party, with various musical guests visiting throughout the busy summer season. And while there has never been a caretaker’s apartment at the Stanley Hotel, you can reserve room 217 for an evening or two to see for yourself: Is something more lurking behind the history of this iconic hotel?

The Power of Creativity

Stanley Hotel

Via Denver Post / Getty Images

F.O. Stanley was a visionary who could visualize something and then create it. So is Stephen King. (And so are those who witness paranormal activity, no doubt.) The active thread in all these experiences is the ability to conjure up something that never existed before, something that entertains, delights and brings joy to others. The most inspiring aspect of the Stanley Hotel, more than its old-world charm and great backstory, is the reminder of human ingenuity and the ability to create something new and exciting, simply by following a hunch or a passion. In many ways, both Stanley and King saw the future, and it’s up to us to keep that legacy alive.

Ready to plan your stay at the Stanley Hotel? end

 

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