I did not arrive at The Irma Hotel under the best of circumstances. I had a migraine that would rate about nine on a scale of one to ten and the building was blurring before my eyes as I approached. To add additional trauma, I arrived on a Fri. night, the hotel was full, the saloon was packed and there was a Harley Davidson gathering outside. The Cody Gunfighters were setting up for their nightly skit next to the hotel. A high-energy, foot-stomping night in Cody, WY, was just getting starting.
My room was in the historic area of the hotel, something I always request. Both for research and authentic ambiance, I always prefer lodging in the original section. I was given a room in the front of the building, upstairs and looking out over the main drag. To add to the authentic old west environment, the room was in close proximity to The Silver Saddle Lounge and the Buffalo Bill Bar. And it was not far from the side lot, which borders both the saloon areas and a porch that runs the length of the building.
I popped some Tylenol to no avail. I finally filled my ice bucket and used a laundry bag to make an ice pack. I closed the windows tight, drew the drapes to block out the sun, turned out the lights and stretched out on the bed, forehead covered with the frozen, numbing bundle. With the dull clinking of beer bottles and rumble of motorcycle engines in the background, I essentially passed out.
Hours later I opened my eyes and assessed the situation. Noise filtered upstairs from below, so I knew it wasn’t terribly late. The earlier pounding in my head had subsided, for the most part. It no longer felt like there was a vice clamped across my forehead.
I sat up, crossed the room and peered through the curtain to the street below. It was dark now, which was easier on my eyes. The neon sign for the hotel glowed against the night and cast a red reflection against the window. I staged a test by turning on a room light and decided I was capable of some exploration.
The Irma Hotel whispers history at every interior turn. Built in 1902 by “Buffalo Bill” William F. Cody, it was one of several hotels that he built as lodging for incoming visitors on their way to Yellowstone National Park. Tourists could arrive by train in Cody, stay at “The Irma” and continue west by wagon to Wapiti Inn and Pahaska Teepee, arriving finally at the east entrance to America’s first national park.
To design and build his hotel, Buffalo Bill employed Nebraska architect Alfred Wilderman Woods. Without a doubt it was a deviation from his usual architectural projects: churches. The result of the work speaks for itself, now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Just driving into Cody, it’s clear that it’s Buffalo Bill territory. The founder of the western show known as Buffalo Bill’s Wild West was instrumental in founding the city bearing his name, which came into being in 1895. Seven years later, “The Irma,” named after his youngest daughter, took its place in the very center of town, where it still sits today.
Buffalo Bill is said to have called The Irma “just the sweetest hotel that ever was.” He maintained two suites – one available to overnight guests today – and an office at the hotel. He spent time there frequently, when his world famous show was between tours and also held show auditions in the side lot.
If the Silver Saddle Lounge and Buffalo Bill Bar are the place for the thirsty to head, then the hungry are destined for the main dining area, a cavernous room in the center of the hotel, well known for its all-you-can-eat prime rib buffets. A trip to this section of the hotel is worth it even if hunger is not involved, just to see the massive original cherry wood bar that has been a part of The Irma since it was first built. Per the hotel brochure, the impressive bar cost more than the hotel itself – 100,000 vs. 80,000 – no small change back in those days. It was manufactured in France and shipped to the east coast before being transferred by rail to Red Lodge, MT. A wagon brought it south to Cody where it remains as a majestic centerpiece for the hotel.
Sitting amidst the traditionally dark Victorian décor, with restored tin ceilings above and rich green and burgundy floral carpeting below, it wasn’t hard to imagine the room filled with the many dignitaries who frequented the hotel in the early and mid 1900’s. To add credence to those sentiments, historic photographs lined the walls. There was a reminder of history everywhere I turned.
It was a late night, a combination of my ice-pack nap and continued carousing by saloon customers. I slept well, though, and returned downstairs for the morning breakfast buffet, a spread as filling as the one The Irma offers in the evening.
I checked out of the hotel, but lingered in Cody for the day, in order to enjoy many of the sights and sounds I had missed the night before. A trip up the street to the Buffalo Bill Historical Center – an outstanding complex housing five museums – gave me a deeper insight into William F. Cody’s life and the history of the area in general.
As with any tourist area, there were plenty of souvenir stores and other assorted businesses lining the main street. Ice creameries, T-shirt shops and a multitude of western apparel boutiques offered visitors a chance to empty their pockets and contribute to the local economy.
I finished off my visit back at The Irma Hotel, this time watching the Cody Gunfighters entertain onlookers with a theatrical western tale, period costumes and more than a few sharp cracks of gunfire. Up close and without an ice pack, it was a perfect finale for an excursion into Buffalo Bill’s home territory and the escapades of the Old West.