Built by James Peck in 1863, the Peck House in Empire was for many years the oldest hotel still operating in Colorado. An important Empire institution, the house began hosting stagecoach travelers and miners in the 1860s and became a formal hotel in 1872. The hotel closed in the spring of 2014.
The Original Peck House
In 1861, James Peck, at age fifty-nine, was a Chicago businessman who operated his own shipping business. He had decided that the time was right for him to sell his interests and move his family west. Daily reports of the riches of the Colorado Gold Rush were too much for him to ignore.
On December 2, 1861, James Peck and his eldest son, Frank L. Peck, then nineteen, arrived in Denver on the Overland Stage from Chicago. The Pecks quickly set out westward for the busy mining camp of Nevadaville, where James took a job managing the Whitcomb Mill. Before long, however, James and Frank moved onward to the small mining camp of Trail Creek, Clear Creek County, where James took a job as foreman of the Van Dearn Mill.
Trail Creek, like Georgetown, had strong Confederate leanings, and the Pecks decided they would be more content in a pro-Union community like nearby Empire City. The Pecks arrived in Empire City in the latter part of 1862. Small frame houses and log cabins were scattered throughout the limited-size townsite. Several gold mines were already being worked and the Union Mining District, as it was known, was becoming one of the richest strikes in the state.
James Peck staked a claim on the northwest edge of town, at the foot of Silver Mountain. There he and Frank, with the help of local carpenter Lewis Herrington, built a small two-story, four-room frame house. The structure, completed in early 1863, was to become a modern showplace for its place and time. Peck, copying the water systems of Chicago, constructed a pipeline made of hollowed-out aspen logs laid end-to-end, with the water flowing from a natural spring on Silver Mountain 200 yards behind the house to a large tub in the Peck cellar. From there, the water was hand-pumped upward into the kitchen. It was the only waterworks in town.
Though the house was sizable for its place and time and easily suited the two Pecks, construction had no more than begun when James began planning for an addition. With a wife and two younger sons waiting in Chicago for word to come west, Peck knew a larger house would be necessary.
The two-story first addition, probably built in 1864, was perpendicular to and on the east side of the original structure. Just as with the main structure, it was built primarily of native pine on a rock foundation. The addition more than doubled the size of the original home.
Upon completion of the addition, James placed his symbol of approval above the entryway: a brass ship’s bell that had made the long and hazardous trip from Chicago with the Pecks. The bell was one of the few reminders of James Peck’s former life as a shipping magnate, and it would become a familiar sound to the Empire City townspeople, tolling the hours of the day. The new wing was completed just in time, as James’s wife and two younger sons arrived in early 1864.
The Peck place, by now one of the more modern houses in Clear Creek County, soon became the obvious choice for a stage stop accommodating travelers making the strenuous trip over the Continental Divide. At the same time, the Pecks began to take in both overnight guests traveling to Middle Park and beyond and potential mine investors visiting the area.
By late 1864 the Peck family was well established in Empire City. While his wife was overseeing their new home, James was busy mining for gold. He had staked several claims on Silver Mountain; these and subsequent strikes were named the Gold Dirt Mine. In addition, James built a stamp mill on Silver Mountain to process gold ore. These times were busy and profitable for the Peck family. By the late 1860s they were highly respected residents of their adopted town.
Unfortunately both the Pecks’ and the town’s prosperity were not to last. With the discovery of silver and the subsequent boom in nearby Georgetown, many of the Empire City miners abandoned the gold fields of the Union Mining District and made the trip over Union Pass for what they hoped would be better strikes. Even James Peck purchased silver property in the Georgetown area.
The Peck boarding house endured meager years. Although there were still boarders from the stage line, there was no longer a shortage of housing within the city nor were there many miners to put up. By March 1868 all the Peck holdings, including the house, were listed on the county delinquent tax list and were subject to being sold at a sheriff’s auction. In April 1869 James Peck sold his Georgetown silver holdings and used that money to keep the Peck House and the Peck Gold Mining Company solvent.
James Peck’s determination to stay with gold and with Empire City was eventually rewarded. Soon silver prices plummeted and gold values rose again. By 1872, those who had abandoned Empire City began to return. The town experienced a resurgence.
The Peck House also was doing well. It became a “hotel” when, in late 1872, it was transformed from a spacious and comfortable home that just happened to accept boarders into a fully operating hotel ready to receive all paying guests. The Peck House now kept a register and several notable guests eventually would check in: P. T. Barnum, the circus entrepreneur, was among them, and the signatures of Civil War generals John A. Logan and William Tecumseh Sherman are found beside the scrawled signature of President Ulysses S. Grant, even though it has been determined that the signature must have been forged because Grant never slept at the Peck House nor was he ever in Empire.
Much of the Peck House business during these years, however, did not come from renting rooms. Many visitors arrived not to spend the evening but to enjoy an elegant meal. Mary Grace Peck’s fine cooking was renowned throughout the district, and her dinners continued to delight visitors for years to come. A notable Peck specialty was the wild berry tortes, said to be the best in the country.
Business continued to grow and prosper in the 1870s, and the Union Mining District—along with the little town of Empire City—made a fast recovery after the lean years of the late 1860s. On January 13, 1880, however, James was thrown from his wagon while traveling over Union Pass from Empire City to Georgetown. He died at the Peck House a few days after the accident.
Frank Peck Assumes Ownership
Frank Peck, James’s eldest son, took over the daily operations of the Peck House. During the previous few years, the Peck House had been doing a brisk business. Frank Peck fully expected this trend to continue and even to accelerate. He knew that additional rooms would be needed. Almost immediately he started on plans to enlarge the hotel. Lewis Herrington, who had assisted the Pecks with the building of the original structure, agreed to help. George Russell, another carpenter living in the area, was hired as his assistant.
Consisting of two floors and measuring thirty-five by forty feet, the new addition was built onto the east side of the dwelling. The lower floor contained a men’s billiard room, bar, reading room, and an office area. The upper floor added several new guest rooms. A veranda and porch also were added, which encircled the eastern portion of the house. The $2,000 addition was finally completed in the second half of 1881.
The Peck House now entered its most glorious years. Whereas James Peck had looked upon the boarding house / hotel venture as a mere sideline, Frank viewed it as his prime concern. His greatest asset in this new endeavor would prove to be his wife, Malvina. Malvina Peck thoroughly enjoyed socializing and was a great lover of parties. The Peck House became famous throughout the district for the grand social events hosted under her guidance.
With the addition and the energetic contributions of Frank and Malvina, the Peck House immediately began to show renewed life. The Rocky Mountain News reported that the table fare was still excellent, serving “fresh mountain trout and wild berries.”
Like his father, Frank was always looking for ways to improve the Peck House and ensure that it continued to be the most modern abode in the district. In November 1881, he installed in the Peck House the first telephone in Empire City. The Pecks celebrated this event with a concert featuring the town band. A call was placed to Georgetown, where the festivities could be clearly heard over the new lines.
In 1886 Frank Peck fashioned an electrical system using an old water wheel situated behind the establishment. Hence the Peck House was the first in Empire to have electric lights. A gasoline generator would follow a few years later, and soon everyone in town was getting electricity from Frank Peck.
During the next decade, the Peck House and the Peck family continued to prosper. The hotel had become well established and was considered a landmark throughout the district, the county, and the state. In 1896 the Peck House received a much-needed facelift, including paint, wallpaper, and general renovation.
Frank was elected as Empire mayor in 1897, and two years later the last of the Peck Gold Mining Company’s mines was sold to a large corporation. The Peck House now was the only holding left to the Peck family in Empire. Over the next few years business at the Peck House continued at a brisk pace, as travelers entered the district in ever-increasing numbers.
In 1903, however, Malvina Peck became ill, causing Frank to close the hotel and move his wife to Georgetown for better care. For the first time in almost thirty years, the Peck home and hotel was forced to turn guests away.
Although Frank received several offers to purchase the hotel, he could not bear the thought of allowing the building to leave the Peck family. Since none of Frank and Malvina’s children expressed an interest in running the hotel, Frank finally decided to retain ownership but to lease out the property. In March 1904 the business was leased to D. W. Croff, who was a “hotel man” from the Fort Collins area, and the Peck House reopened on March 26.
Even with a steady flow of business, life at the Peck House was not the same without the Pecks in residence. No longer did the old ship’s bell toll the important hours of the day. Business started to decline, and Croff decided to depart. This began a long succession of tenants who leased the hotel from Frank Peck and attempted to make a go of it. During the next several years the Peck House would list no fewer than five “proprietors.”
Malvina Peck died in Denver in 1906. For the next few years Frank continued to live in Georgetown. On several occasions during which the Peck House was open, his name could be found in the hotel registry as an “honored” guest. In 1913, Frank moved to Denver, where he lived with his eldest son. Frank died of a heart attack on September 10, 1917, while sitting in a railway car at Denver’s Union Station, preparing for a trip to Empire.
After almost fourteen years of neglect and tenant proprietorship, the Peck House had fallen on hard times. It would continue to decline under the ownership of Frank’s third-born, Howard.
Howard Peck was forty when he took over the Peck House. Somewhat shy and withdrawn, he did not easily make friends nor did he have any desire to become a part of the community. He was, however, well known throughout the county because of his occasional fondness for alcohol.
During World War I, Empire was once again facing a serious recession. Howard attempted to turn the hotel into an apartment house. He installed baths in several of the upstairs rooms, but the apartment venture ultimately failed.
Living in solitude in the hotel, Howard became somewhat reclusive. As the months passed, the place began to fall apart. When a window broke, he simply boarded it up and moved to another section. To supplement his inadequate income, he began to sell the antiques that his grandparents had brought to Empire. Among them was the old ship’s bell that James Peck had placed over the doorway back in 1863.
Howard died in April 1941. For the next five years the establishment remained vacant. Then, early in 1946, the old hotel was purchased by E. Belle Smith, wife of Colorado state senator Joseph Emerson Smith, but things did not improve and the place continued to disintegrate. Mrs. Smith became ill, and the project was soon abandoned. During these years the local kids of Empire used the hotel as their private playground and clubhouse.
Revival as “Hotel Splendide”
Louise Harrison and Margaret Collbran purchased the building from the Belle Smith family in 1956. The sisters were the granddaughters of prominent Colorado brewer Adolph Coors and of Midland Railroad builder Henry Collbran.
During the next few years the Peck House received its first major rehabilitation since 1880. Modern plumbing was added, and the old coal and wood stoves—now throughout the house—were removed in favor of a central heating system. The interior was repainted, wallpapered, and rehabilitated, and the first floor was thoroughly rehabilitated. The west wall was removed and a large addition was built, almost doubling the original size of the first floor. The sisters turned this area into a formal dining room that included a fireplace.
In 1958 the sisters opened the facility under the name “Hotel Splendide.” Traditionalists bemoaned the new name, but the old hotel had received new life. The sisters located and repurchased much of the original Peck furniture. Most notable was Mary Peck’s original bedroom set, which had made the long journey with her from Chicago in the early 1860s.
Because of Collbran’s failing health, the hotel was sold in 1970 to local landowner Kevin Croke, who lived in Empire but was an officer of Denver Brick and Pipe Company. He was the first of the owners who operated the hotel while not actually living on the premises. Following Croke, a succession of owners attempted to operate the establishment over the next eleven years, some lasting only a year or two.
In 1981 the old Peck House (which had reverted to its original name in 1972) was purchased by its present owners, Gary and Sally St. Clair. The St. Clairs had honeymooned there the previous year. Importantly, Gary St. Clair had been in the hotel and restaurant business for much of his life.
The St. Clairs made a few structural changes, principally to the interior. The plumbing was modernized, and private baths were installed in guest rooms. The area encompassing the old billiard room and office on the east end of the establishment was converted into guest rooms. The most dramatic change was the addition in 1983 of an enclosed hot tub off the rear of the hotel. The exterior, however, still much resembles the Peck House of earlier years.
After operating the Peck House Hotel and Restaurant for thirty-three years, the St. Clairs decided to retire and closed the hotel in spring 2014. The St. Clairs continue to live in the Peck House and do not plan to sell any of the house’s furniture or antiques, hoping that a future owner might decide to reopen the building as a hotel.
Adapted from John M. O’Dell, “James Peck: The Emperor of Empire,” Colorado Heritage (Summer 1990).