Legends & Legacies: The Eureka House, once an affordable Aspen lodge

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies
clarendonfromabove.jpg The Clarendon with a bigger footprint than the Jerome was Aspen’s other large hotel.

Aspen’s iconic Hotel Jerome and the Clarendon highlight modern visual impressions of mining-era hotels and rooming houses. The second building was not as tall as the first but it held more customers and occupied much of what is now Wagner Park. Perhaps miners were most familiar with the more-advertised Spar Hotel and the Eureka owned by Mrs. Ada Thomas.

Thomas arrived in Aspen during the late 1880s, having come to Colorado the previous year when Aspen was founded. Her name appears on several mining claims from that decade. In 1889, she acquired The Spar Hotel, which she advertised as “the coziest most home-like place in the city.” As did most boarding house-hotels, she offered rooms at long-term or daily rates and sold meals to guests as well as the public. You could purchase a 21-meal ticket for $143 in today’s dollars.

Thomas added the Eureka House, advertised as “the miner’s home,” to her holdings in the early 1890s. Travelers could walk just a couple of blocks from the Midland Railroad Depot to get to the house on Cooper Avenue near where City Market is now. The 30-room hotel featured electric lights. The $1 nightly rate, about $24 in today’s dollars, fit expectations for an Aspen hotel of the time.

Thomas and her four assistants laid out a spread they called “the finest table in town.” It would be hard to argue against their claim judging from their annual Thanksgiving menu: boiled salmon, young turkey, prime rib of deer or sugar-cured ham with champagne sauce, plus shoestring potatoes, mulligatawny soup, candied yams and new peas in cream. For dessert they offered strawberry tartlets, tutti frutti ice cream and lemon meringue or mince pie, all for 50 cents.

In 1900, catastrophe struck the Eureka House. Thomas had been ill for a year and her sister-in-law managed the hotel in her absence. Cleaning a stovepipe from the kitchen range started a fire. A large turnout by the Fire Department saved the building from complete destruction, but the fire burned the roof, damaged all of the furnishings and erased several interior walls. Turner had stopped paying for fire insurance so she absorbed the cost of the fire with some help from her patrons.

The Aspen Times, although it followed many citizens, did not often report on Ada Thomas. Every once in a while the newspaper reported her departure or return from a trip. Her signature appeared on a number of lists and petitions, especially those that supported America’s return to bimetallism, Aspen’s perennial silver cause. Her obituary notes she had a grandchild, although no child or spouse was mentioned.

She auctioned off her bicycle one year and a gold watch a few years later. Rather than sell tickets, it appears she gave them away. Through that device she chose the lucky recipient.

In 1905, after years of charging $6 a week for long-term tenants and $1 a day for transients, Thomas raised her rates to $25 ($62.50 in today’s dollars) a month or $9 ($22.50) a week. Imagine such rates today — they might buy a week’s worth of orange juice somewhere, but not in Aspen. Perhaps those rates explain why she went out of business, and moved beyond memory, before the decade ended.

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching for Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at