Grand County often attracts adventurous spirits who prefer its splendid isolation to Wal-Mart and fast food. Others, who never make the leap of faith to live here, enjoy it as a familiar playground, returning regularly to enjoy its vast mountain ranges and unlimited outdoor opportunities.
It has to come many as a surprise to learn that Grand Lake, Colorado - nestled next the Continental Divide at over 8,300 feet elevation - has had a yacht club for over one hundred years! When this adventure began, back in 1902, there was only a stage road into the southeast corner of Grand County over Berthoud Pass. Grand Lake is situated next to the entrance of Rocky Mountain National Park, at the far northeast corner of the county, with the rugged backbone of the continent directly to the north and east. At the turn of the twentieth century, it was a summer vacation spot with few full-time residents. Summer visitors and full-time residents alike recognized the grandeur of the their surroundings, and Grand Lake very early became a summer home to many of Denver's elite, and the summer business they brought helped support the local economy.
It was a few enthusiastic Denverites with a keen interest in Grand Lake and sailing who organized the Grand Lake Yacht Club over 100 years ago. The founders included Richard Crawford Campbell, who married Senator Thomas Patterson's daughter and became the business manager of his father's newspaper, the Rocky Mountain News; William Henry Bryant, a Denver lawyer who was active in both sailing and Colorado politics; J. Fermor Spencer, a close friend of Mr. Bryant and long-time treasurer of the club; and William Bayard Craig, who enjoyed a broad education and had been the Chancellor of Duke University before he became interested in "acquiring land in Colorado." By the end of 1902, according to Denver papers, "the first bona fide yacht club between the Mississippi river and the Pacific ocean" was in operation.
An atmosphere of excitement and pageantry swept over Grand Lake during the early Regatta weeks, when the Yacht Club held its annual races. In Denver, The Friday Evening Times proclaimed during August of 1904, "Yachting season is here", and went on to describe the "enthusiastic cottagers gathered on shore" around Grand Lake to cheer for the yachts. In 1907, Regatta week included yacht racing as well as foot races, donkey races and bronco busting. When the yacht races ended, the boat captain who won the most races had earned the Colorado Cup.
The Grand Lake Yacht Club's small sailing fleet during Regatta week - three days of racing during mid-August - sometimes included only a handful of boats during its first decade or so. Still, according to one observer, "the organization has more spirit to the square foot than I ever saw exhibited before." Races on the first day of Regatta week, 1905, illustrate the enthusiasm well. In the hotly contested first race of Regatta week, Robert Campbell's Highball, built in Racine, Wisconsin, tossed her two-man crew into the icy waters of Grand Lake when she capsized while running in second place. Shortly after, the third place yacht, Duchess, went over too, leaving the Chicago-built Dorothy II captained by Commodore Bryant the first and only boat to cross the home buoy.
Today, Dorothy O'Donnell O'Ryan, Commodore Bryant's granddaughter, maintains her family's summer home in Grand Lake. In 2002, she published Sailing Above the Clouds: An Early History of the Grand Lake Yacht Club, which chronicles the club's first 50 years. Her Colorado roots go back to Colorado territory's last, and the state of Colorado's first Governor, John Long Routt, who was appointed by President Grant in 1875, the year before Colorado became a state. Knowing the early history as she does, and the difficulties inherit with mountain transportation, O'Ryan marvels at "the logistics" of bringing sailboats built in Racine, Wisconsin or Chicago, Illinois over the Continental Divide into Grand County, Colorado by rail and stage road.
Home-built crafts, both crude and highly crafted, competed as well. Many of the first home-built boats were modified rowboats, "with homemade sails and masts." Observing the annual Regatta week in August of 1904, though, Arthur Johnson called attention to "the Jessica, a 16-foot boat belonging to the vice-commodore and built at Grand Lake" that sported "a sail that would have done credit to a venturesome Lipton on the high seas."
If a sailboat in Grand Lake during 1904 "done credit to a venturesome Lipton," Sir Thomas Lipton himself returned the favor tenfold in 1912. It so happened in 1912 that Lipton was traveling by train across the United States and would pass through Denver on his journey. Probably, Sir Thomas had met the well-traveled and enthusiastic yachtsman, William H. Bryant (Grand Lake Yacht Club Commodore) at the New York Yacht Club. Continued correspondence between the two resulted in the Grand Lake Yacht Club inviting Sir Thomas to the Denver Club for dinner in December of 1912, sponsored, of course, by the Grand Lake Yacht Club. Before he left that evening, flattered by the warm welcome he received, Lipton had proffered a silver cup to the Grand Lake Yacht Club.
Lipton became a yachting icon during the early 20th century. His sportsmanship was nearly unparalleled in the sport and he spent most of 30 years and millions of dollars trying to win the America's Cup. Thoroughly devoted to yachting as a sport and highly capable in the art of advertising, Lipton spread his Lipton Cups "around the globe" to promote the sport and himself. His gift to the Grand Lake Yacht Club energized the young organization.
Today, the boathouse of the Grand Lake Yacht Club still reminds visitors and members of the organization's heritage. Built in 1912 by Grand County pioneer Preston Smith on land donated by fellow pioneer Jake Pettingell, the lakefront log structure sits in the midst of magnificent mountain scenery, with the dramatic peaks of the Continental Divide to the west and north and the Never Summer mountain range to the west.
As the club matured, it began to offer more races to more members and guests throughout the summer season. The original Regatta week still exists as the most important, and festive, event. Races were added, though, in 1912 with the Adams Cup; in 1914, the Lipton Cup was incorporated; in 1923, the inventor of the Sunshine Lamp (which Coleman Lanterns later bought out) presented the Hoffstot Cup; and in 1925, Dorothy Bryant O'Donnell offered the Bryant Cup in honor of the late first Commodore, W. H. Bryant. Well over 20 cups or trophies now highlight the Grand Lake Yacht Club's season. Throughout its evolution the Club has remained as unique as the dramatic physical environment that surrounds it and the people who envisioned and created it.