Grand Imperial Hotel. Silverton’s Wild West Hotel.
In a sense the history of the Hotel followed railroad history in the San Juans. Originally opened by the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad (D&RGW) to transport silver and gold from local mines, with some interruptions this historic train operated between Durango and Silverton since 1882. The Grand Imperial miraculously managed to stay open through the Silver Crash of 1893, the Great Depression and both World Wars. With the help of State and Federal tax credits, in 2015 its new owners, the Harper family, launched a major renovation and restoration. The original hotel lobby was restored. Likewise the exterior’s brick, metal trim and wood windows.
Realtor Al Harper had purchased the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad (D&SNGR) in 1998. Through American Heritage Railways, Harper also operates North Carolina’s Great Smoky Mountains Railroad (established 1891). Harper’s vision for the Grand Imperial was that the hotel and the D&SNGR together would enable visitors to Silverton to enjoy an authentic 1882’s experience. Harper’s American Heritage Railway Hotels embarked on an extensive restoration project. Hotel president and eldest son, Jim Harper, was in charge of fulfilling the Harper family’s mission – “making the Grand grand again”. Infused with history from Silverton’s era as a mining boom town, the Hotel also provides memories of days when celebrities like Lillian Russell spent summers at The Grand. As a reminder, her portrait can be seen in the lobby of the Hotel. Fittingly, near the main lobby’s front desk is Grumpy’s Saloon & Restaurant, a local favorite with reminders of the area’s history
Al Harper’s view of running a successful historic railroad has been to use innovation to maintain and enhance its historical value. In other words, to preserve what’s old and blend it with what’s new. Harper wanted to attract families with children to share the unique experience of the D&SNGR and also the Grand Imperial Hotel. A fan of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood Westerns and everything that Louis L’Amour created, having grown up in Missouri Harper also has expressed an interest in Jesse James who also was raised there.
In sum, bringing history to life has been much more than a business venture for the Harper family. A lover of trains, history revived in railroad-themed hotels has been viewed by Harper as providing a road map to America’s future. Certainly after a nail-biting drive on beautiful Highway 50 to Silverton and its Victorian-style Grand Imperial Hotel, followed by a ride on the D&SNGR, it’s hard not to heartily agree. With son John Harper as General Manager of the D&SNGRR and son Jim at the helm of the Grand Imperial Hotel, the Harper’s vision of Silverton’s historic past, present and future has never been stronger.