The 30,000 keys to Baldpate

Beginning this morning, a new now-and-again series we're calling A SUNDAY DRIVE. Here's Conor Knighton: 

If you have a habit of losing your keys, you might want to stay out of this room. Set them down here, and you may never find them again.

These keys -- an estimated 30,000 of them -- aren't misplaced. Each one has been brought to this place, a hotel high in the Rocky Mountains, on purpose … small metal donations to the largest public key collection in the world.

Visitors from around the world have left their keys at the Baldpate Inn. CBS News

"We tell people your first visit to the key room is free, but after that, you need to bring us a key," said Lois Smith, the owner of the Baldpate Inn, a rustic mountain lodge that sits perched above Estes Park, Colorado.

Tourists come to this region to enjoy the breathtaking scenery. But those who stay a night at the Baldpate frequently leave a souvenir behind: a key.

The hotel has keys of every shape, from every state, weighing down the rafters. "We've always sagged since I've been here," said Smith. "And you know, by the time I'm 100, I'll probably sag, too!"

Tens of thousands of keys adorn the Baldpate Inn, as owner Lois Smith shows Conor Knighton. CBS News

The Baldpate just celebrated its 100th anniversary. It's named after a fictional hotel that's even older.

George M. Cohan starred in a 1917 film version of his hit Broadway adaptation of "Seven Keys to Baldpate." Famous Players

"Seven Keys to Baldpate" was a story about a writer who attempts to produce a novel in 24 hours. He holes up alone at the Baldpate, a mountain lodge closed for the winter. 

But all night long, the door keeps getting opened … and opened … and opened … by visitors with their own keys. (Seven, in all.)

Earl Derr Biggers' 1913 comedic mystery novel inspired seven film adaptations, a smash Broadway show by George M. Cohan -- and inspired the original owners of THIS mountain hotel that closes in the winter to borrow the catchy name, and the theme.

"Legend has it that they gave a key to each guest that came, so each guest had the only key to Baldpate," said Smith.

The Baldpate Inn in Estes Park - named after the fictional inn - opened in 1917. Baldpate Inn

Of course, handing out souvenir keys got pretty expensive pretty quickly, so instead, guests were encouraged to leave keys behind. And did they EVER.

There's the key to Mozart's wine cellar, to Jack Benny's dressing room, to the U.S. Capitol. There are strange, old keys, like a "scorpion" contraption, and more modern computer encryption keys.

There's a key to Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, even a submarine key.

"A submarine has a key!" mused Smith. "Can you imagine losing the key?"

The key to the U.S. Capitol. CBS News

There is also the employee bathroom key to the American Museum of Natural History. "This could come in handy -- those public bathrooms are terrible!" laughed Knighton. "I'm taking this."

"No! No stealing the keys," warned Smith.

There's of course every version of key pun you can think of -- mon-key, don-key, Por-key Pig. But most of the keys in the collection aren't particularly rare. They're regular old keys (one labeled "Herbie's totaled Subaru"), significant only to the people who left them behind.

A baby's first set of keys from Oklahoma. A family's first house key from Minnesota.

In the original story, the writer was told there was only ONE key to Baldpate. Today, this hotel has tens of thousands of them.

And every single one has a story that unlocks a memory.

The Baldpate Inn, Estes Park. CBS News

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