ROCK SPRINGS — Don Anselmi had a dream. But sometimes dreams were hard to come by in 1965 in the historic railroad town of Rock Springs, Wyoming.
He dreamed about a big hotel in a little town of 6,000 people. Reason for his dream was the audacious news that the largest highway project in United States history was poised to put a major east-west link through Sweetwater County. Anselmi thought his hotel project could be a success.
While others might ask why? He asked why not?
With his brother, attorney John Anselmi, bar owner Mike Vase, and petroleum distributor Vern Delgado, they borrowed $1.5 million, which was a fortune back in those days.
Soon they broke ground on a parcel of land at the intersection of Highway 191 and the new Interstate 80. A photo from the Rock Springs Daily Rocket-Miner at the time shows a smiling Don Anselmi digging a spadeful of dirt while others looked on during the groundbreaking ceremony. He was literally standing in the middle of nowhere.
Now a big hotel in a small town is usually pretty big news but what made this hotel special was its unique and almost one-of-a-kind style. It would be a huge complex with all the guest rooms, meeting rooms, restaurants, bar, and swimming pool under one big canopy.
Delgado happened to have friends in Pinedale who were from Lubbock, Texas, who had just built a new style of hotel. It was the Koko Inn and was considered unique in the entire country.
Its design included a huge canopy over everything, which brought the outdoors indoor. In Lubbock this was done because of the stifling heat. If used in Wyoming, it would be done because of the wind and the cold.
Hundreds of Holiday Inn Holidomes were built in the decades after this design made its debut, but the Koko in Lubbock and the Outlaw in Rock Springs were the pacesetters. It is thought the Outlaw had the first indoor swimming pool in any hotel or motel in Wyoming history.
The Outlaw also has been a long time member of the Best Western organization of motels and hotels – until recent years the biggest hotel group in the world. The Anselmi family were pioneers in this early method of branding hotels for travelers.
Now, flash forward 54 years to today. The hotel is still in the hands of the Anselmi family. Don’s son Mark with his wife Nancy have owned an interest in the hotel for 30 years and have owned it 100 percent for the past 17 years. And it has thrived.
Mark was age 10 the year the hotel was constructed so his entire life has been involved in this unique building.
Today, Mark rolls his eyes when recalling the unique design on the front of hotel when it was built. Much like the tip of a rocket ship protruding at a gradual incline outward, the design is called Porte Cochere.
But to Mark, as much as he appreciated its unique look, all he can remember are all the times when trucks collided with it. One time a UPS truck hit it with such velocity, two wheels came off the ground. It took a big tow truck to unravel the mess.
Businesses like individuals often have seasons in their lives. In the case of the Outlaw, it appears it has had three distinct seasons.
The first one involved the hard work of the original partners and with some good luck and excellent timing, the hotel prospered.
The second season was Don Anselmi’s time with his son Mark at his side.
The third season runs up to today and that has been the time when Mark and Nancy Anselmi have provided stable leadership at the helm of this noble hotel.
Mark recalls those early days as a time when his dad would be working more than full time at the hotel. Mike Vase would run the bar and kept very late hours. His uncle John would stop in every day and help in any way that he could. Vern Delgado was occupied with building and operating a big truck stop next door.
The hotel was doing OK and became a tourist site in its own right. It was a perfect location as the construction of the Interstate 80 prompted tourists from east and west to use the north-south Highway 191 at their main route to Jackson Hole and Yellowstone National Park. The summers were busy but the winters and springs, especially, could get slow.
Then 1971 came along and everything changed. Pacific Power and Light, the huge regional electrical power company, picked Rock Springs as the location for its gigantic Jim Bridger Power Plant.
Mark was 16 at the time and started working as much as he could at the hotel. “It was busy 24-7,” Mark said. “And year-around. We even knew the Bechtel brothers, whose company built the plant, as they would always stay at the Outlaw.”
Besides that boom, if there was another golden age for the hotel, it was when Don Anselmi was the state chairman of the Wyoming Democratic Party.
The hotel became the epicenter of Wyoming Democratic politics during this time. If something exciting was happening in the party, it often occurred right there at the Outlaw at the intersection of Interstate 80 and highway 191 in Rock Springs.
This was also a time when Rock Springs had a rough and tumble reputation with all the construction workers in the area. Through it all, the Outlaw survived and prospered as the center of the town’s tourism activities and local celebrations.
This would have been from the mid-1960s to the early 1980s.
Delgado left the partnership about this time.
In the spring of 1977, with college completed, Mark returned to Rock Springs and joined the full-time staff of the hotel along with Mike Vase’s son Johnny. Several years later, both became minority stockholders. Johnny left the company in the mid-1980s, and soon after Don retired and moved to Jackson with Mark’s mother Dora – setting the stage for Mark to replace his father as general manager. With the passing of Mike Vase in 2001 followed by Don in 2002 and John in 2005, Mark purchased the remaining shares of his late partners and became the sole owner.
Mark and Nancy have owned and operated the Outlaw since then and have been busy caring for the property with a series of massive renovations which included retaining the original large canopy vision while adding architectural statements with the huge new series of exterior canopies, all of which are high enough that so far no trucks have collided with any of them.
In recent years, Mark and Nancy have invested millions of dollars to upgrade the entire look of the hotel with the help of the well-known Colorado design firm of JKattman Associates. Today the exterior of the Outlaw is surrounded by new bold detached canopies that stand high enough to avoid any collisions by distracted truck drivers while the interior has seen complete renovation over the past seven years. Beyond the original entry porte cocherte, the original building has been left intact during those renovations as evidenced by the numerous rock walls and many miles of beams throughout both the interior and exterior of the mid-century designed building.
Mark noted, “Russett Meyer and John Kattman have led the design projects for the Outlaw beginning 30 years ago and have honored our wish to leave the bones of the building intact.” He also mentioned the Rock Springs’ firm of Plan One Architects providing both architectural and project oversight services during a number of renovations over the past 10 years with Andy Pleasant Construction Company of Green River completing the extensive renovation of The Open Range Bar in the Spring of 2018, which opened the old saloon area up to the Main Lobby of the hotel.
“The overall design of the interior remains the same with the original 101 rooms still under one canopy along with convention facilities, swimming pool, restaurant and bar.” One room was converted to an exercise facility, now leaving the hotel with an even 100 rooms.
Most recently, several suites in the hotel have been furnished with unique furniture created by Centennial Woods of Laramie and designed by Russett Meyer using reclaimed wood used on early snow fences that protected Interstate 80 from driving snowstorms. Chad Frame of High Country in Rock Springs completed the renovation of the suites along with a number of other significant projects at the Outlaw since 1995.
The first time this writer visited the Outlaw was in the early 1970s as my partners and I were in the process of buying the newspaper in neighboring Green River.
I had heard about the Outlaw and so was anxious to spend my first night there. It was a fantastic experience.
This building makes a powerful first impression. I had never seen anything like it. It was like walking into a giant spaceship. The entire building sort of hovered in a vast space.
Once inside, a person is awed by the actual distance from one end to the other. It is immense. The place has the capacity to host very big events, as people could be enjoying themselves from one end to the other.
Here, in little Rock Springs in little Wyoming, was this amazing structure. It was memorable. Especially to me some 45 years ago. I had never seen anything like it.
The Outlaw is a historical marvel and has recently been listed as a National Historic Place by the National Park Service.
But there is even more history to its story, which stretches back to an event that occurred exactly 100 years ago this year.
Is it possible that former President Dwight D. Eisenhower might have been ultimately responsible for the Outlaw? Here is a story that might prove it.
An article by Lori Van Pelt in WyoHistory.org detailed this amazing event.
The future president’s first visit to Rock Springs occurred on Aug. 15 in 1919. Eisenhower, as a young officer, was part of a 3-mile long convoy of military vehicles seeking to prove that the American military could cross the continental United States with ease.
It was not easy.
No military planner had ever attempted such a feat. And they were in a series of events totally unanticipated.
The detachment included 258 men, 24 officers and 72 vehicles ranging from motorcycles to big trucks. Really big trucks.
The Goodyear Tire Co. even sent a 15-piece band along with them.
The trip was so risky, Lt. Col. Eisenhower never forgot it. Between getting buried in quicksand and nearly falling off narrow ledges through mountain passes, the Army group barely made the trip from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco.
The perilous trip took 62 long days. The horrible conditions of America’s transcontinental roads were never out of Eisenhower’s mind again.
Some 20 years later, as the supreme commander of the Allied Forces in World War II, Eisenhower was both appalled and impressed with the speed that German forces could cross Europe using their modern “autobahn” highways.
When he was president in 1958, Eisenhower proposed the Interstate Highway System as a key element of our country’s national defense.
The main artery crossing the USA from East to West was going to be Interstate 80. This new road just happened to also run through Rock Springs, Wyoming.
It was this road which captured Don Anselmi’s imagination back in 1965, completing the circle, which started with a future president being mired in the mud in 1919.