Emily Elizabeth “Emmy” Wilson (1902–63) was a well-known Colorado business owner, entrepreneur, and socialite who ran the Glory Hole Tavern, a popular establishment in Central City. Wilson and her tavern played an integral role in reviving the ex-mining town’s social and cultural scene, and for that she is remembered as one of the state’s most notable businesspeople of the twentieth century.
Emily Elizabeth Carnahan was born in Denver on March 31, 1902, the daughter of Charles and Cora Carnahan. Cora was the youngest daughter of Eben Smith, who had partnered with Jerome Chaffee, and later with David Moffat, in mining ventures around Colorado. Emmy studied at Mount Vernon Seminary in Washington, DC, before going to Bishop’s Finishing School in La Jolla, California. In 1921, at the age of nineteen, she married real estate and investment broker Charles Shipley Wilson. Wilson grew up on the East Coast and arrived in Colorado in 1916. In Denver he found a job with the Garrett-Bromfield Investment Company and the International Trust Company. The couple had two daughters, Patty and Shipley.
The Wilsons had been living in the Denver Country Club mansion that Emmy’s mother had built at First and Race in the 1920s. After Charles died on January 1, 1946, at the age of forty-six, Emmy did the unthinkable by Denver society’s standards: she packed up and moved out of the country club to a house on Pine Street in Central City, then a defunct ghost town. She had been involved in Central City affairs long before she moved there, as she was active with the fledgling Central City Opera House Association and also helped found the Gilpin County Historical Society. In 1941 she opened a photography shop across the street from the Teller House, a decision her longtime friend Bill Axton later described as something that simply made her feel as if she were a part of the town.
In her free time, Emmy spent many hours exploring old mining towns in her green Cadillac convertible, “liberating” objects from the old buildings she encountered. It was on one of these trips in fall 1946 that she discovered the town of Baltimore, an old lumber camp that had supplied the first railroad over Rollins Pass. One particular broken-down building in Baltimore caught her attention, and inside she found a solid oak and walnut bar, back bar, glass door–fronted cabinet, and walk-in cooler. There was also a mirror with a “beautiful bullet hole, with serrations emitting from it.” The entire scene gave her the idea to open a bar in Central City.
The Glory Hole Tavern
Emmy contacted the owner of the Baltimore building, Denver attorney Henry W. Toll, who told her he planned to move the bar into another building that he owned in Central City. Toll had known the Carnahans for years and remembered Emmy from her “waist-high days” in her grandfather’s old mansion on Logan Street. She moved the bar, back bar, and cabinet to Central City but shattered the shot-through mirror during transit. The pieces were installed in what had once been the Ignatz Myer Saloon, which operated from 1901 until the passage of the Volstead Act and the beginning of Prohibition in 1920. On March 1, 1947, she leased the Ignatz Myer Building from Toll for five years, giving Toll 6 percent of her tavern’s profits as rent.
As part of the lease, Emmy assumed responsibility for any redecorating. In place of the destroyed mirror, she commissioned Margaret Kerfoot to paint a nude woman on a panel from the Opera House, a gift from Pancho Gates, another local artist. Emmy painted the building’s interior green with gold accents, colors that highlighted a piano she had installed in a corner of the room. Following the bar’s opening, patrons sometimes arrived to find her seated on the piano, belting out bawdy songs. Beside a stage at the end of the bar stood an opera-style box that held her private table. Toll wrote to her in March 1947 that he was sure the building would emerge from her administrations with “the grandeur, magnificence, brillance [sic], splendor, radiance, beauty, renown, and Glory” that its new life implied.
With the building’s redecoration nearly complete and opening day fast approaching, Emmy still had no name for her new establishment. She had two names under consideration: Emmy’s or The Widow Wilson’s. Then, two visiting bartenders from California suggested the name “The Glory Hole,” after the nearby mine. Wilson was delighted with this suggestion, and the Glory Hole Tavern was listed in Central City directories in the year 1947. After two unofficial grand openings, she held the official grand opening on the Fourth of July that year. Emmy Wilson, Denver socialite and granddaughter of mining millionaire Eben Smith, had officially gone into the bartending business.
After successfully running the Glory Hole Tavern for seven years—and following a very well-publicized row with Central City authorities concerning the legality of slot machines—Emmy considered quitting the bar business at the end of 1954. She was so serious that she and Toll even discussed who would get ownership of the objects inside the bar, including numerous replica paintings. Toll felt that the nude behind the bar could sell for up to $300, but that issue remained unsettled when the Glory Hole opened for the season with a bang: about two hours before the bar’s 7 pm opening, a group of friends stopped in to wish Emmy luck, just in time to witness the old stove blow its stack and shower all present in soot.
After thinking it over, Emmy decided to sign a new lease on the two buildings encompassing the tavern on September 17, 1954. Shortly after the bar had opened in 1947, she had expanded it into the neighboring building—also owned by Toll—known as the Back Room. There, she put on puppet shows and other presentations and began the tradition of asking Central City Opera performers to autograph a section of the wall when they visited.
Emmy Wilson remained active in Central City and the surrounding area throughout her years there. In 1956, when her daughter Shipley became engaged, Emmy bought the Gilpin Hotel in Black Hawk as a wedding present for her. The wedding never took place, but Shipley did keep the hotel for several years. Even after Emmy sold the Glory Hole Tavern in 1958, she kept her house on Pine Street for the rest of her life. Her mother, Cora, the last surviving child of Eben Smith, died in January 1956 at the age of eighty-five. The following year, Emmy’s sister, Doris, died at age sixty-two. With her sister’s death, Emmy was one of the few surviving descendants of Eben Smith.
The next year, Emmy’s own health began to fail, and doctors told her it was time to get out of the bar business. Much to the displeasure of Shipley, Emmy sold the bar to longtime friend Bill Axton, in part because she knew he would not make any major changes to it. With the sale complete, she split her time between Central City and Denver, where she had a basement apartment on South Downing Street. Emmy Wilson died on August 14, 1963, at Saint Joseph Hospital in Denver, at the age of sixty-one. Just as she requested, her ashes were eventually scattered in the mountains near Central City.
Adapted from David Forsyth, “The Legs on the Barroom Ceiling: Emmy Wilson and the Glory Hole Tavern,” Colorado Heritage Magazine 25, no. 1 (2005).