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Harboring history

Hotel's demolition uncovers 'ghost signs' of another era

The Steamboat Springs Ski Band skis down Lincoln Avenue during Winter Carnival circa 1940. In the background is the one-story Harbor Hotel, which is covering the advertisements painted on the brick wall of the building next door at 729 Lincoln Ave. The building housed a Chevrolet garage.
Courtesy Photo

— Demolition crews may have torn down the Harbor Hotel, but they couldn’t harm a resilient wall advertisement hidden for nearly 70 years on an adjacent building in downtown Steamboat Springs.

The faded images on the side of the building at 729 Lincoln Ave. will soon be covered again as the new Howelsen Place multi-use development is erected, but the old, painted advertisements – commonly referred to as ghost images – have piqued the curiosity of many Steamboat residents.

“It’s just a fleeting bit of Steamboat’s past,” said 61-year-old local historian Bill Fetcher. “Most of us wouldn’t have known they were there unless the Harbor was torn down.”



“I think it was a surprise to everyone,” said Jim Cook, who is developing the Howelsen Place mixed-use building.

People think the advertisements are important because they have not been seen since 1939, when the Harbor Hotel was built on the empty lot, said Candice Lombardo, executive director of the Tread of Pioneers Museum.



“The interest I’ve really seen is people calling to make sure we get a photo,” Lombardo said.

A photo of the ghost signs is now a part of the museum’s collection.

Ghosts signs got their name because of the way the advertisements fade throughout the years, sometimes revealing ghost images of previous advertisements that had been painted over. They were popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries, especially with cigar companies. Artists would use lead-based paint, which helped the ads fight off wear and tear from the elements.

The advertisements in questions were preserved because of the Harbor Hotel, and they likely will continue to survive behind the security of Howelsen Place’s future structure.

“It’s going to be hidden in perpetuity,” Cook said.

The M&O logo

Laura Russell saw a picture of the ghost sign and immediately recognized the M&O cigar logo.

“It’s really fun when a ghost sign is uncovered,” said Russell, who authored “Colorado Wall Dogs: Ghost Signs Across the State.”

Russell, an artist, lived in Colorado for 17 years before moving to Portland, Ore. She said she got hooked on ghost signs while researching fonts for a graphic design project.

“At one point I said, ‘These are really cool signs, someone has to document these,'” Russell said. “They fade so quickly.”

From 2000 to 2003, she had a map of Colorado on her wall and highlighted cities and towns where she had photographed ghost signs or, as she calls them, wall dogs.

“I visited any town that was sizable enough and drove up and down alleys hunting for signs,” Russell. “I made it everywhere except your corner of the state. After three years photographing, I made them into this handmade book.”

The limited-edition book sold for $475, but Russell said she is coming out with a less expensive version.

Included in her book is an M&O cigar ghost sign from a building at 1408 Wazee St. in Denver. In the late ’80s, there were six M&O ghost signs still in existence in Denver, Russell said.

According to another book, “Ghost Signs: Brick Wall Signs in America,” the M&O signs are circa 1940, around the same time the Harbor Hotel was constructed. Routt County historian Roger Cusick said there were two cigar companies in Routt County in the first half of the 20th century, and M&O was not one of them.

“This sign you have in Steamboat is pretty interesting because it’s considered a true ghost sign because it has multiple layers,” Russell said.

The words “smoke” and “cigars” appear on either side of the logo, but there are other words that have nothing to do with selling cigars. The ghost sign is for something dealing with “new classes every day,” “for good office positions” and may be for some service located on Glenarm Street in Denver.

Russell and local Steamboat historians haven’t been able to piece the puzzle together. Tread of Pioneers Museum has more than 500 historic Lincoln Avenue photos on file, but none show the side of the building at 729 Lincoln Ave. before the Harbor Hotel was built.

Unanswered questions

While many brick-wall advertisements were used to promote the business inside the building, that was not the case with these old signs.

A historic building survey of the building at 729 Lincoln Ave. was done in 1996. According to the survey, the building was built in 1915 and is considered historically significant because of its contributions to the development of downtown.

At one time the building was called the Search Light and operated as a Chevrolet garage.

Fetcher remembers a Ford dealership being located in the building in the 1960s.

In the late 1960s, the building was known as the Lincoln Arcade and accommodated shops, including the Little Indian Pawn Shop. Shops in the 1980s included the Blackbird Bakery and Alpine Western Properties. RE/MAX and a BW3 restaurant occupied the building in the 1990s. Today’s tenants are Hofmeister Personal Jewelers, Great Outdoor Clothing and The Tap House.

While a lot of the building’s history is known, there remain unanswered questions – such as why the advertisements were placed near the rear of the building, farther away from Lincoln Avenue.

“They seem too far back in the road to serve a billboard purpose,” Fetcher said. “They may have served a purpose years ago. It’s strange as to why they’re there.”


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