Local author Suzanne Silverthorn pairs a sprawling postcard collection with Western history
July 13, 2014
Find the series
Over the past six years, Suzanne Silverthorn has published four books on national parks in the American West, including Yellowstone, Glacier, Yosemite and Rocky Mountain. Each book is available to borrow at the Vail Public Library or to buy online through Amazon.
Her next release covers the Grand Canyon as part of the relatively new “Past and Present” series. It isn’t available yet, but the final product is worth the wait — her trademark vintage postcards now compliment full-color images by landscape photographer I-Ting Chiang.
For more information on Silverthorn’s series or publishing house Schiffer Publishing, see schifferbooks.com.
For an author who lives in one of Colorado's most picturesque valleys, Suzanne Silverthorn is surprisingly smitten with faded postcards.
And yet, Silverthorn isn't quite drawn to airbrushed snapshots — say, far-off locales like the Himalayas and Serengeti, or even the broad ski trails of her adopted hometown of Vail. Her most prized postcards are a bit more humble, at least on first glance.
Take the collection she found in her late grandmother's home. There were dozens of dog-eared postcards from Silverthorn's youthful playground of Grand Lake, where the Missouri native would spend long, cool summers in the '60s. Those cards displayed a slew of Colorado landmarks just as she remembered them, from the lodges surrounding Grand Lake to the forests of Rocky Mountain National Park, home to Longs Peak and 265,000 acres of pristine wilderness. The lush illustrations and sepia-toned photos showed a park far removed from the blistering heat of the plains, a sort of alpine mecca filled with secluded lakes and meandering trails.
But the postcards also told a quieter, more personal story: Silverthorn's parents had etched hand-written notes across the back of each one. The scrawl read like an informal family history, ranging from the "wish you were here" essentials to tales about scaling boulders near the old pioneer-style cabin their family owned by the lake.
"To say it was primitive is an understatement," says Silverthorn, who at 54 years old still remembers those adventurous summers in vivid detail: trekking along the Colorado River, showering with water from a wood-fired stove, driving over Trail Ridge Road to reach Estes Park. "My fondest childhood memories have come from this experience. The smell of pine needles in the forest brings it all back, even today."
For a self-professed history buff like Silverthorn, pouring over her grandmother's postcard collection was nothing short of time travel. She was swept up by memories of the old cabin and its neighboring lake, not to mention word-of-mouth gossip about secluded lodges and local celebrities like Enos Mills, a turn-of-the-century naturalist who championed the nearby national park.
With the rustic cabin and surrounding wilderness fresh in mind, Silverthorn had the near-perfect setting for a nonfiction book. As a journalist by trade and avid historian by hobby, she began collecting hundreds of postcards, maps and vintage photos from Rocky Mountain National Park. At the same time, she dug into the history of Grand Lake and Estes Park — the national park's now-bustling eastern gateway — to see exactly how a small, laid-back, almost untouched slice of Colorado turned into a tourist hub.
In 2008, Silverthorn published "Rocky Mountain Tour: Estes Park, Rocky Mountain National Park and Grand Lake," a massive undertaking filled with local history and more than 300 postcards from her ever-growing collection.
Even at 128 pages, "Rocky Mountain Tour" finds a comfortable middle ground between memory and history — a tough balancing act for any author but not the news-trained Silverthorn. Unlike a cut-and-paste scrapbook, it she didn't fill pages with shaky vacation photos or rambling homage to her grandmother's postcard collection. It became a very conscious, very confident undertaking for Schiffer Publishing, the same small company her mother had worked with since 1991 to write books on dollhouses and Western collectibles.
And "Rocky Mountain Tour" sparked a new love affair. Shortly after it was published, Silverthorn began compiling postcard-driven odes to four other national parks in the American West, gathering thousands of photos and maps from the past 150 years.
"When I think about the extraordinary efforts people made in those early days to visit these parks by traveling in bumpy stagecoaches over several days, I'm in awe," Silverthorn says. "Reading the messages that were written on the back of the early postcards is also very interesting to me. It really puts things in perspective when I hear complaints about today's snarls on I-70."
Cabin to publishing house
While Silverthorn's passion was spurred by carefree memories of the Grand Lake cabin, her books still enjoy a thoroughly professional treatment. She's the longtime community information officer for the town of Vail — a "just the facts" sort of gig, as the wordsmith says — but her ever-growing "Past and Present" national park series shares little with the no-nonsense work she does for the town.
Take Silverthorn's description of the Circle Tour, a jaw-dropping drive from Denver to Grand Lake and back. Roe Emery, an entrepreneur who led similar trips at Glacier National Park, founded the 240-mile excursion shortly after the road was completed in 1920. It brought thousands of first-time visitors to the area and, fittingly, Silverthorn leaves no historic morsel unturned.
"While in Grand Lake, the overnight stop for the Circle Tour was at Grand Lake Lodge, which Emery purchased in 1923," Silverthorn writes next to a hand-colored postcard from the 1920s. "The lodge opened in the summer of 1920, just a few months before Fall River Road, which would link Estes Park and Grand Lake from June to September every year."
After taking the Circle Tour, many of those early tourists returned year after year to Rocky Mountain National Park, sending off postcard after postcard to mark their newfound love. Along with images of lodges and canyons, Silverthorn's collection of Circle Tour postcards document nearly 100 years of travel along the tight, winding turns of Fall River Road, including hand-drawn portraits of aging motors struggling to the summit at 11,797 feet.
The author recently put the final touches on her fifth book, a lush look at Grand Canyon National Park some 1,000 hours in the making. It's the fifth title in the "Past and Present" series, and like the last installment on Yosemite, it features stunning original images from landscape photographer I-Ting Chiang.
"We were able to incorporate some of his amazing wildlife shots into the book as well as a few others," Silverthorn says of working with a photographer. "Schiffer liked the pairing, which has enabled us to continue our collaboration."
Although her national park series continues to expand, Silverthorn hardly fears writer's block. When she needs inspiration, she just lets her mind drift to the wood-heated cabin on Grand Lake.
"As the sunlight faded, we would build a campfire and enjoy gazing at the stars before retiring to bed," Silverthorn says. "Then, we'd get up and do it all over again. It was the simplicity of it all that was so appealing."