Bullets to Billetts

Article on Old West Frontier and Lodgings in Sidney Morning Herald Australia

Walk on the wild side…the Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo. Photo: Alamy

Julie Miller steps back in time to drink in the spirit of the old west at some legendary heritage hotels.

So much of our knowledge about the US’s frontier days has come to us via Hollywood that it is hard to fathom what is based on fact. Yet flamboyant, lasso-twirling characters such as Buffalo Bill Cody and Calamity Jane really existed; Butch and Sundance – not quite as good-looking in real life as actors Paul Newman and Robert Redford – did hide out in the Hole in the Wall, where outlaws congregated during harsh Wyoming winters.

Heck, I’ve sat on the bar stool where Butch is said to have plonked his chaps-clad butt, and clinked my spurs in the same creaky hallways. In a handful of beautifully restored hotels in the US’s western states, modern pioneers can step back in time to the days of posses, desperadoes, cattle barons and brothel madams. Here are a few places to kick off your cowboy boots and hang your stetson.

The Occidental Hotel, Buffalo, Wyoming

There are dead things on the wall at the Occidental; large furry, horned heads staring down with glassy eyes and sad, proud demeanours. There are also 23 bullet holes behind the bar, a legacy of raucous nights when desperadoes and renegades turned their guns on each other. Spared the fate of so many old hotels in the US – being torn down and turned into a parking lot – a sympathetic renovation in 1997 brought the Occidental’s former magnificence to the fore, when it was a haunt of Butch and Sundance, Buffalo Bill and Calamity Jane. Owen Wister, the author of the western classic The Virginian, spent many hours nursing a sarsaparilla in the saloon, basing his characters on drunken cowboys.

Other patrons over the decades have included presidents Teddy Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover, as well as ubiquitous barfly Ernest Hemingway.

The unsmiling visages of these famous guests feature in photographs and faded newspaper clippings lining the hotel’s hallways, while their ghosts make indentations on original brass beds in exquisitely decorated guest rooms.

The Bordello is a “red” room where cowboys found a little “tender companionship”, period clothing and antique quilts line the upstairs hallway, and artefacts from frontier days are on display in the hotel library.

But it’s downstairs in the lavish saloon, once known as “a regular gambling hell”, that the real spirit of the west lives on. Frequented by contemporary cowboys and ranchers, the Occidental Saloon is particularly popular during Thursday night bluegrass jam sessions. Pull up a stool at the 7.6-metre bar and ask for a Fireball. It will blow your hat off.

The Occidental Hotel, 10 North Main Street, Buffalo, Wyoming. Rooms from $165 a night (May 1-September 15); $100 a night (September 16-April 30). See occidentalwyoming.com.

Brown Palace Hotel and Spa, Denver, Colorado

When the elegant Brown Palace opened its doors on August 12, 1892, it was the grandest hotel in the west, an extravaganza built by real estate entrepreneur Henry Brown at the phenomenal cost of $1.6 million. The hotel has been open every day since, refurbished on the fly rather than closing for renovation. And it’s those original features that still impress: the soaring, eight-storey atrium with onyx inlay, wrought-iron grill work, a stained-glass ceiling. There’s even an artesian well below the lobby floor, which provides the hotel’s water.

In a further nod to sustainability, the hotel generates its own electricity, uses a rare carousel oven to bake bread, and has a beehive on the roof that provides fresh honey for afternoon tea served in the lobby.

Modern touches such as king-size beds, iPod docking stations, oversize bathtubs and amazing double-headed showers make for an extremely comfortable stay of a style fit for presidents, rock stars and celebrities, which the Brown Palace has hosted in spades. President Teddy Roosevelt, for whom a suite is named, first came to the hotel in 1905 on the way to a bear hunt. Other guests included showman Buffalo Bill, “Unsinkable” Molly Brown (of Titanic fame), the Beatles, John Wayne, Elizabeth Taylor and the Rolling Stones.

The hotel has had its share of scandal: in 1911, a double murder took place in the bar and a tale of seduction, betrayal, revenge and drugs was aired. Needless to say, Brown Palace is said to be haunted, with ghost tours taking place every year around Halloween.

The Brown Palace Hotel and Spa, 321 17th Street, Denver, Colorado, has rooms from $US269 ($255) a night. See brownpalace.com.

Nagle Warren Mansion, Cheyenne, Wyoming

Built as a private residence in 1888 for the wonderfully monikered Erasmus Nagle before becoming the home of senator Francis E. Warren, this stunning Romanesque-style bed and breakfast in Wyoming’s capital has been lovingly restored, with parquetry floors, original embossed metal wallpaper, carved leather ceilings, and a grand cherrywood staircase leading to six guest rooms decorated with period antiques. Another six rooms are available in the adjoining Carriage House, including one named for its most famous guest, the ever-travelling president, Theodore Roosevelt.

Mansion owner Jim Osterfoss, who bought the property in 1997 and is a passionate historian, takes pride in showing guests around the property and sharing its history. Osterfoss and his period-costumed staff serve a high tea on Fridays and Saturday in the front parlour, a tradition embraced by Cheyenne locals.

This is the elegant Old West: more landed gentry, art and literature than bar brawls, brothels and broncos. For those who want a taste of the wilder West, however, coincide your visit with Cheyenne Frontier Days, the world’s largest outdoor rodeo held each July (see cfdrodeo.com).

Nagle Warren Mansion B&B, 222 East 17th Street, Cheyenne, Wyoming, has rooms from $US108 a night. See naglewarrenmansion.com.

Truckee Hotel, Truckee, California

My companion wants the adjoining door between our rooms at the Truckee Hotel left open – she’s heard about the hotel ghosts and is feeling a little nervous. And with good reason. If ever a hotel were haunted it’s the Truckee, with its sloping, creaking floorboards, swinging chandeliers, precarious staircase, and an inexplicable breeze that blows through hallways.

Far from flash – just eight rooms have en suite bathrooms with claw-foot tubs – the Truckee is a quaint vestige of the time when the town was a rough-and-tumble railway stop known for gambling and prostitution. In its 130-year history, the four-storey hotel has been destroyed by fire, was the site of several murders, and has hosted more than its fair share of brawls. It’s all good fodder for spooky stories. Renovated in 1992, but certainly not modernised, the Truckee captures the spirit of its glory days without airs and graces. It all combines to make the Truckee Hotel a fun place to stay in a party town and a good base from which to explore Lake Tahoe’s north shore.

Truckee Hotel, 10007 Bridge Street, Truckee, California, has rooms from $US79 a night. See truckeehotel.com.

Mizpah Hotel, Tonopah, Nevada

In the desert about halfway between Las Vegas and Reno, the old mining town of Tonopah hosts the Mizpah Hotel, where recently renovated rooms ooze historic charm. Built in 1907, when Tonopah was the one of the richest towns in the West, the Mizpah, named after a biblical watchtower, was once the tallest and most splendid hotel in Nevada. It was built overlooking a mining park where silver, gold, copper and turquoise were extracted by the bucketload.

But as the town’s fortunes diminished, so the Mizpah slipped into disrepair, and it was boarded up in 1999. Tonopah’s star is on the rise again, however, alongside energy and minerals companies investing in the region.The historic mining park has won awards for its unique presentation of local history, and the Mizpah has been lovingly brought to life after being bought for $US200,000 in February, 2011, by Californian vineyard owners Fred and Nancy Cline, whose great-uncle had been an original Tonopah miner. Although the crumbling floors were ripped up, its kitchen replaced and guest rooms refurbished, the Mizpah retains the ambience of its heyday, with iron-frame beds, chandeliers, claw-foot tubs and statues in the lobby. And, of course, the ghost of the Lady in Red. It’s said a prostitute murdered on the fifth floor wanders the corridors, occasionally leaving a single pearl on the pillow of a lucky guest.

Mizpah Hotel, 100 Main Street, Tonopah, Nevada. Rooms from $US79 a night. See mizpahhotel.net.