The Emery Hotel Was Built To Make Thermopolis Bigger Than Denver, Then It Was Torn Down

The luxurious three-story Emery Hotel opened in 1907 in Thermopolis as the most modern in the West with visions of making the town bigger than Denver. It was demolished in 1965, something that was bitterly opposed by most of the town's residents.

AR
Andrew Rossi

March 10, 20249 min read

Built to be the height of modern luxury at the time in 1907, the Emery Hotel in Thermopolis was to be the centerpiece of a tourism destination that would make the town bigger than Denver — at least that was the vision.
Built to be the height of modern luxury at the time in 1907, the Emery Hotel in Thermopolis was to be the centerpiece of a tourism destination that would make the town bigger than Denver — at least that was the vision. (Hot Springs County Museum and Cultural Center)

Just after the turn of the 20th century, anyone looking for the most luxurious hotel in Wyoming didn’t go to Cheyenne or Casper. They’d hop on a stagecoach for Cody and made sure to spend the night in Thermopolis.

Visitors traveling by stagecoach between Denver and Billings, Montana, would step out at the corner of 6th Street and Broadway in Thermopolis’s downtown, where they’d be greeted by the three-story stone facade of the Emery Hotel.

The Emery Hotel, opened in 1907, was built to be the most modern, luxurious spot not only in Wyoming, but was regarded as one of the best hotels in the American West.

“It was built to be a spectacular hotel,” said Jackie Dorothy, tourism director for Hot Springs Travel and Tourism. “It's where the legislators came, where people rubbed elbows with all walks of life. It was renowned as one of the best places in the Rocky Mountain region.”

Despite its lavish accommodations and stellar reputation, Thermopolis’s first and only three-story building would be gone less than 60 years after it opened.

The Next Big Thing

Thermopolis was embracing a thoroughly modern mindset in the first half of the 20th century. The abundant natural hot springs were already attracting tourists for the area’s high-quality water and rejuvenating qualities, and more infrastructure was being built to accommodate those tourists and many more to come.

During this time, local leaders and entrepreneurs were building their fortunes from the first big boom in oil and coal. They envisioned a prosperous future for Thermopolis and had the money to lay a foundation for that future.

“They had visions of grandeur,” Dorothy said about the vision for the town. “Thermopolis was going to be the next big tourist destination. They had dreams of being bigger than Denver. It's hard to imagine when you look at what we are today, but Denver wasn't anything when (Thermopolis) started building up.”

The visions of grandeur brought a flurry of new construction to Thermopolis. Six hotels were built in the area that is now Hot Springs State Park, including the large Washakie Hotel and Bathhouse and the Washakie Plunge, a large aquatics facility.

Local businessman H.O. Emery was one of those visionaries who decided to make a significant investment in Thermopolis’ future. He committed $15,000 (more than $467,000 in 2024) to build a massive, modern hotel for the flood of tourists that were sure to come.

The concept and design of The Emery were ahead of their time, especially for a remote Wyoming town like Thermopolis. However, according to Dorothy, it made sense then.

Emery and others “had a lot of money to invest, and they wanted to see this town be modern as well,” she said. “That was the reason behind building a beautiful hotel here.”

The Emery Hotel was the place to be for locals and Wyoming's high society. It was THE hot spot for state legislators to be seen.
The Emery Hotel was the place to be for locals and Wyoming's high society. It was THE hot spot for state legislators to be seen. (Hot Springs County Museum and Cultural Center)

Strictly Modern

Ground was broken for the three-story Emery Hotel at the corner of 6th Street and Broadway in 1906. When it opened in November 1907, it was unlike anything else in Thermopolis, then and now. It was built to rival any hotel anywhere in the West.

The Emery’s amenities immediately made it one of the most luxurious stays that made it a go-to spot for visitors, locals and celebrities. It was Jackson before Jackson was. The lobby was peppered with tropical plants, a large bar and dining room were prominent, and a soft artesian water well fed hot and cold water taps in each room.

The hotel also featured a steam-powered central heating system, electric lighting and was one of the first buildings in Thermopolis with indoor plumbing. Guests could enjoy a bowling alley and pool hall in the hotel’s basement.

Once it opened, the Emery was heavily promoted as “strictly modern” and “the home of the tourists.” Despite its remote location, the Emery Hotel promptly developed a reputation as the best hotel between Denver and Billings, eclipsing even Buffalo Bill’s Irma Hotel in Cody.

Local Legend

The Emery may have been “the home of the tourists,” but it also quickly became a central location for Thermopolis nightlife. After long days working in the oil fields, the large bar and pool hall were favorite hangouts for locals.

The Emery’s dining room often featured live music. One account claims legendary American bandleader Lawrence Welk performed there while touring with his “little German band from Yankton, South Dakota,” in the early days of his career.

Large, lavish events were held at the luxurious Emery. One was an annual New Year’s Eve Ball, which became the event many Wyoming legislators wanted to attend and be seen attending.

Dorothy said one of the Emery's charming aspects was how it epitomized the cultural personality of turn-of-the-century Wyoming. Barriers like class and social status didn’t matter at the Emery’s bar or in its dining room, something unique to the Cowboy State at that time.

“One of the things you got to remember about early Wyoming is that there wasn't much of an upper class,” she said. “There were so few ‘upper-class’ people that they associated with everybody. There wasn't a separation at the beginning. Everyone who wanted to go to a bar or get a drink would come to the Emery Hotel.”

The Emery Hotel changed ownership several times over the next few decades, and several improvements ensured it stayed luxurious by the ever-evolving standard of “modern.”

Even so, The Emery would transition from modern luxury to distant memory in less than 60 years.

  • A pile of rubble is piled in front of the Emery Hotel in 1965 as workers above tear it down to make way for a motel.
    A pile of rubble is piled in front of the Emery Hotel in 1965 as workers above tear it down to make way for a motel. (Hot Springs County Museum and Cultural Center)
  • After a run of less than 60 years, the Emery Hotel was demolished in 1965 to make way for the Moonlighter Motel, which now is the Fountain of Youth Inn in Thermopolis.
    After a run of less than 60 years, the Emery Hotel was demolished in 1965 to make way for the Moonlighter Motel, which now is the Fountain of Youth Inn in Thermopolis. (Cowboy State Daily Staff)
  • After a run of less than 60 years, the Emery Hotel was demolished in 1965 to make way for the Moonlighter Motel, which now is the Fountain of Youth Inn in Thermopolis.
    After a run of less than 60 years, the Emery Hotel was demolished in 1965 to make way for the Moonlighter Motel, which now is the Fountain of Youth Inn in Thermopolis. (Cowboy State Daily Staff)

Casualty Of Modernity

Priorities changed as Wyoming moved into the latter half of the 20th century. In Thermopolis, the Emery Hotel and other monuments of modernity were seen as relics of the past and subsequently destroyed for an even more modern, technological future.

In 1964, Fred and Geneva Hansen became the newest and last owners of the Emery Hotel and decided that the lot at the corner of 6th and Broadway was more valuable than the 50-year-old hotel standing on it.

In 1965, the Emery Hotel, once one of the West’s most modern and luxurious, was completely demolished.

Dorothy spoke to Jim Daniels, the man who operated the wrecking ball used to tear down The Emery. He told her it “wasn’t an easy teardown” because of its resilient brick construction, and watching its demise was “sad to see.”

Ironically, the philosophy that built the Emery was also what destroyed it: strictly modern.

“The new owners wanted to modernize,” Dorothy said. “That’s what happened to Thermopolis in the late ’60s and early ’70s. They were tearing down all the old buildings because they wanted modern. They wanted to be a modern town.”

The Emery wasn’t the only casualty of mid-20th century modernity. The Washakie Hotel and Bathhouse was torn down in 1966, along with most of the historic infrastructure around the hot springs. Only the Plaza Hotel, now a Best Western Plus, remains.

Losing The Emery was unpopular in 1965 and remained a sore spot for some in the Thermopolis community decades later. Dorothy said many people who remembered its destruction were bitter, saying the Hansens tore it down simply “because they could.”

“We'll talk to people who went to the owners before they tore it down,” she said. “They told the owners, ‘We don't want to lose our hotel. This is iconic. We love this place.’ But it was their property, and they chose to tear it down and put a modern building in its place.”

The three-story Emery Hotel was replaced by the Moonlighter Motel, a two-story motor lodge that stands today as the Fountain of Youth Inn.

All That Remains

Today at the intersection of 6th and Broadway, there are no signs of the three-story luxury hotel that once occupied the northwest corner that was once “the place to be” for Wyoming’s high society and locals. But further down the block, a vestige of the former grandeur remains.

While The Emery was utterly destroyed, its “parking garage” is still standing. The adjoining carriage house, built at the same time and from the same material, held the carriages and horses of the hotel’s guests and has survived as a storage building since the 1960s.

The carriage house has become a priority project for the Hot Springs County Museum and Cultural Center. The museum is working toward a fundraising goal to restore some of the structure's former grandeur.

Dorothy said that preserving the Emery Hotel’s carriage house ensures at least one part of Thermopolis’s three-storied past will be permanently preserved for the future.

“We have the opportunity to bring that back to life,” Dorothy said.

  • The lobby of the Emery Hotel circa 1910, complete with tropical plants.
    The lobby of the Emery Hotel circa 1910, complete with tropical plants. (Hot Springs County Museum and Cultural Center)
  • The lobby of the Emery Hotel in 1926.
    The lobby of the Emery Hotel in 1926. (Hot Springs County Museum and Cultural Center)
  • The modern lobby of The Emery in 1945.
    The modern lobby of The Emery in 1945. (Hot Springs County Museum and Cultural Center)
  • The cocktail room at the Emery Hotel in 1940.
    The cocktail room at the Emery Hotel in 1940. (Hot Springs County Museum and Cultural Center)
  • Overloaded wagons pulled by horses take the furnishings of the new Emery Hotel from the train to the hotel in Thermopolis in 1907.
    Overloaded wagons pulled by horses take the furnishings of the new Emery Hotel from the train to the hotel in Thermopolis in 1907. (Hot Springs County Museum and Cultural Center)

Remember The Emery

There are no three-story buildings or bowling alleys in modern-day Thermopolis, and the newest hotel built in the tourist community opened in 1995. The dreams of becoming “bigger than Denver” are a distant fantasy, given that Thermopolis’s 2020 population of 2,725 residents is 0.000092% of Denver’s population of nearly 3 million.

Dorothy hopes Thermopolis residents don’t dwell on the disappointment and frustration over the loss of the Emery Hotel. In her view, recognizing its ongoing legacy is what matters.

“The legacy (of the Emery Hotel) is that we had it,” she said. “We have the pictures and the memories. We always had that segment of people that loved our history, and we're proud of who we were.”

Dorothy sees the story of the Emery as a reflection of Thermopolis history. The hotel was built to realize a bold vision, and she believes it can inspire local leaders and residents in the 21st century and beyond.

There are ongoing efforts to revitalize Thermopolis and increase its allure. Dorothy said that over the last 10 years, Thermopolis has returned to its founders' vision of becoming a world-class tourist destination.

“We can still be a tourist town,” she said. “And we can still move forward in that direction and bring people in. That's what they dreamt of for Thermopolis. The story of the Emery Hotel is for the next generation to know what we have and can still have.”

Andrew Rossi can be reached at: ARossi@CowboyStateDaily.com

Watch on YouTube
Share this article

Authors

AR

Andrew Rossi

Features Reporter