Nineteenth Century Hotels In The United States – Pt. 3


As might be expected, Virginia has numerous hotels which have some good claim to be held as historic, although usually their stories are short ones, for the majority of these houses that have a place in history obtain it through a very few incidents or events. A few of them date prior to the nineteenth century, but it seems that this is a fitting place to discuss them.

The southern cities and towns all have their locally historic hotels, as cities and towns everywhere have, but only a few of these can be included because only a few are historic in a broader sense of the term.

Of the nineteenth century hotels in Petersburg, Virginia, the Bollingbrook is interesting for several Civil War incidents. Orginally the house was called Niblo’s Hotel, and it is now known as the Stratford. During the early days of the Civil War a Secession flag, called the Bonnie Blue Flag, because it was a blue ensign with a single white star in it, was flung from a flagstaff erected on the hotel corner. As Petersburg was a strong Union city at the time, a crowd of a hundred or more collected around the flagstaff the night it was erected and tore it down. In the course of the small riot which followed one man was killed. This is said to have been the only Secession flagstaff erected in the town.

During the siege of Petersburg a banquet was given for General Longstreet at the Bollingbrook Hotel. Considerable interest was aroused at the feast by the appearance of a detail of soldiers sent to arrest a private who without leave had broken camp and come into Petersburg to attend the dinner. He was “Dick” May, a local man-about-town, who was very popular. However, he was a private soldier and was absent without leave. The provost marshal’s guard found the soldier seated at the right hand of General Long-street and opposite his own Corps commander, General A. P. Hill.

May thought he was caught red handed and saw no means of escape, but just as he thought he would be taken back by the guard, General Hill wrote something on a blank, handed it to May, and dismissed the guard. No one ever seemed to know exactly what the General wrote, but one theory was that it was no more than a pass; another theory, which is a little more theatrical, is that the private soldier was appointed a member of the General’s staff. However, he was saved and enjoyed the banquet.

Another Civil War hotel is the Spotswood Inn, at Spotsylvania, Virginia. This hostelry was in the midst of the battlefield of Spotsylvania, where a series of fierce engage-merits were fought from May 8 to May 19, 1864, and in the front walls of the house are still to be seen holes made by cannon and rifle shots at the time. The hotel, which was built in 1799, was the headquarters of General Robert E. Lee during the battles of Spotsylvania and Bloody Angle.

At Fredericksburg, Virginia, is the Hotel Maury, which during the Civil War was used as a soldiers’ hospital. The house was built in 1837 and after having been gutted by a fire in 1850, was rebuilt.

When we come to Richmond, Virginia, we find a number of hotels mentioned as historic ones. One of the oldest, and certainly one with some interesting memories, still stands at Fourteenth and Franklin streets, although the building is no longer a hotel, but is occupied by the Associated Charities. This house was early known as the Ex-change Hotel, and later as The Ballard.

In March, 1842, Charles Dickens, Mrs. Dickens and their party stopped at The Exchange. When the novelist re-turned to Baltimore, which he did very quickly, he wrote to his friend, Macready, the great English tragedian, that the weather was so unseasonably hot that he had abandoned all thought of proceeding to Charleston, “but having got to Richmond,” he added, “I think I should have turned back under any circumstances.”

Edgar Allan Poe gave a series of lectures on “Philosophy of Composition” and “The Poetic Principle,” in the parlor of the Exchange during his last visit to Richmond, in 1849, but he stopped at the Swan Tavern, which, until it was supplanted by the Bijou Theatre a few years ago, stood on Broad Street, between Eighth and Ninth. It was a plain, long, two-storied frame building without anything romantic about it. Poe also was known at the St. Claire Hotel, once the Washington Tavern, and now the Hotel Richmond, at Ninth and Grace Streets.

Jenny Lind stopped at the Exchange Hotel, Richmond, when she was in that city in 1850 on her historic concert tour under P. T. Barnum, and in January, 1856, Thackeray was a guest at the same hotel. He spent a little time touring Virginia, the fruits of which were later seen in his novel, “The Virginians.” While at the Exchange Hotel he wrote in a letter home, “Do you know why I am using my old handwriting? Because I have bought a new gold fountain pen price 4$ which is really very ingenious and not much more inconvenient than a common pen—I dare say I shall write half a page with it and then never use it no mo’.” Further in the same letter he wrote, “I am sitting at Richmond with my windows open, thank God, though a plenty of snow is still on the ground.”

In 1860 the hotel had as distinguished guests King Edward VII, then the Prince of Wales, and on January 17, 1862, John Tyler, former President of the United States, died in the hotel.

Among other Richmond hotels that belong in any list of historic hostels is Eagle Tavern, Main Street, near Twelfth, which was built in 1798 on the site of the City Tavern. In 1807 Burr was there after his trial for treason. Lafayette was entertained at a ball given at the Eagle in his honor, in January, 1825, on which occasion the yard of the hotel was floored and sheltered by a canvas canopy. Lafayette, during the same visit, was entertained at the Union Hotel as the guest of the Virginia Legislature, and in March, 1827, a public dinner was given at the hotel for John Tyler, after-wards President of the United States. The Spottswood Hotel, which stood at the corner of Main and Eighth Streets, was the Post Office of the Confederacy, and Jefferson Davis stopped there while he was in Richmond after his incarceration in Fort Monroe. General Sherman made it his head-quarters on his way to Washington. A fire in 1870 destroyed the ancient structure.

While Captain John Smith discovered and named Point Comfort, Virginia, in 1608, it did not become famous for more than two centuries afterward, and probably not until it added the word Old to its name. Old Point Comfort and Fort Monroe, which dominates it, may be said to be one and the same thing. The fort was erected in 1819, or rather started in that year, and in 1821 the beach at the Point began to be a popular summer resort. In that year the Hygeia Hotel was erected-not the mammoth structure which so many visitors to the Point thirty years ago may recall—but a more modest hostelry.

Year by year Old Point Comfort increased in popularity, at first being frequented in the summer, by Southerners.

By degrees the Hygeia Hotel was increased in size until it was described, in 1841, as being “large and commodious,” but about twenty-five years ago it was removed to make room for the extensions to the fort. The hotel was visited by almost every noted or prominent Southerner and by many of the foremost Northern figures in finance or industry, for it was open all the year, being a favorite with its Southern trade in the summer and with its Northern guests in the winter.

Beside it, in 1887, was erected the Chamberlain Hotel, which has been a worthy successor to its fame and, indeed, has become itself historic from the curious technicalities which surrounded its building. It was built by John F. Chamberlain, who had become the most popular restaurant keeper in Washington. It was once said of Chamberlain that he was the greatest American restaurateur, meaning one whose nativity and tradition were American. In order to build his hotel Chamberlain had first to get an enabling resolution of Congress to authorize him to put it up on a government reservation. More than that, he had to have the consent of the State of Virginia because that common-wealth had ceded the land to the Federal Government with conditions, and these had to be removed for the purpose. Both Congress and the Virginia Legislature passed the needed resolutions and the hotel was erected by the financial aid of Havemeyer, the then so-called sugar king, and the elder J. Pierrepont Morgan. One of the advantages the Chamberlain Hotel is said to have enjoyed was freedom from rent, as it appears the Federal Government, under the deed of cession, could not collect rent for the land upon which it stood.

The Chamberlain Hotel is 754 feet long and is said to have been the first resort hotel to have been entirely illuminated by electric lights. While the Hygeia Hotel made history before and during the Civil War, the Chamberlain has made it since that time.

On the site of the new Robert E. Lee Hotel, in Athens, Tennessee, there stood, until removed for that structure, the Bridges House, variously known as Bridges Tavern. This house was erected in 1830, and it is said the builders took Negro slaves as part payment. In the early days this was a central point in the town. The Tavern stood on the main highway, and mail from North or South was relayed there. The stage, known as the “Washington Express,” was due there about sundown, and there always was a crowd to see its six Kentucky thoroughbreds draw it into Athens.

David Crockett stopped at Bridges on his way to Texas; President Andrew Jackson, “Old Hickory,” on his way from Nashville to Washington, delayed his journey to dine there. Henry Clay lent his personality to the hotel’s fame by drinking at its bar, while campaigning for the Presidency, in 1844, and General Sherman spent a night there after he left Chattanooga to relieve General Burnside at Knoxville. In February, 1865, the hotel became a temporary fortress, being held by a band of Confederates bent on pillaging Athens.

The Battle House, Mobile, Alabama, and its site has quite a long history. In 1814 the site, the southeast corner of Royal and St. Francis Streets, was occupied by the head-quarters of General Andrew Jackson. Later two hotels were built upon it. At the corner was erected in 1829 the Waverley Hotel, and next to it was built a year later the Franklin House. The former was a brick structure and the latter was built of frame.

In 1852 both of these hotels were removed and the Battle House, named for one of the group of promoters of the enterprise, a cotton merchant, James Battle, erected on the site. This building was reconstructed in 1896, but it was destroyed by fire in 1905, when the present modern hotel which bears the same name was erected.

Among the many noted guests who registered at the Battle House or its predecessors on the site were Louis Kossuth, the Hungarian exile, who toured the United States in 1851—52; Sir Charles Lyell, British geologist, who wrote two volumes on his travels in the United States and Canada was there in 1845; Jefferson Davis, who stopped there on his way to be inaugurated President of the Con-federate States, at Montgomery, in February, 1861; Generals Bragg and Beauregard, of the Confederate Army; Admiral Semmes, who commanded the “Alabama” the Confederate privateer, stopped there; President Millard Fillmore, after his term had expired, was a guest; General U. S. Grant, before he became President, and President Woodrow Wilson, while he was in office, registered at the hotel. Great actors and singers of the latter half of the nineteenth century who visited Mobile stayed at the Battle House, among them being Forrest, Booth, and Sarah Bernhardt.

The Planters Hotel, Charleston, South Carolina, has long been spoken of as one of that city’s earliest hostelries, but the present picturesque ruin on Church Street is not the original, although its attractive architecture makes one regret this. However, there is to be found a historic hotel on the ground where the first Planters stood. This is at present known as the St. John Hotel.

A hotel was built on this spot on Meeting Street, at the close of the eighteenth century, known as the Mary Francis. In 1803, either this house or another in its place, was opened and called the Planters Hotel, and in 1808 this business was removed to Church Street, where as the Planters Hotel the place became famed, especially by the planters who came to Charleston during the racing season. It is asserted that a theatre stood on this site as early as 1731, being the first erected in America.

After this removal the former site was occupied by the United States Court House, but in 1845 this property was bought by Otis Mills, who built a hotel there and gave it his name. Mills is said to have announced that he erected the Mills House for the purpose of accommodating persons who could not pay the high prices of the then leading hotel in Charleston. At the beginning of the Civil War, Mills, who was an ardent supporter of “The Lost Cause,” sold all of his property, including his hotel, and invested all the proceeds in the bonds of the Confederate States. The War consequently left him almost penniless. The house was reopened in 1870 and as the Mills House it continued until 1897, when it was bought by Mrs. W. W. Lawton who changed its name to the St. John Hotel. During the Charleston Exposition in 1900 it was the host for many celebrities. President Theodore Roosevelt, before he was Chief Executive, was entertained there.

The Charleston Hotel, which is also on Meeting Street, is an older house than the St. John, and like the latter, is not the first hostelry to occupy the site. The first Charles-ton Hotel erected in 1814 was destroyed by fire in 1838, and the present house, with its colonnaded façade, was built in 1839.

Sir Charles Lyell, who toured the United States twice, stopped at the Charleston, in 1845, on his second visit to this country, and in his interesting book, “A Second Visit to the United States,” he described a thrilling incident which occurred at that hotel.

“A few years ago a ship from Massachusetts touched at Charleston having some free blacks on board,” he wrote, “the steward and cook being of the number. On their landing they were immediately put into jail by virtue of a law of South Carolina, not of very old standing. The Government of Massachusetts, in a state of great indignation, sent a lawyer to investigate the case and remonstrate. This agent took up his abode at the Charleston Hotel, where we are now comfortably established. A few days after his arrival the hotel was surrounded, to the terror of all the inmates, by a mob of `gentlemen,’ who were resolved to seize the New England envoy. There is no saying to what extremities they would have proceeded, had not the lawyer’s daughter, a spirited girl, refused to leave the hotel. The excitement lasted five days, and almost every northern man in Charleston was made to feel himself in personal danger. At length, by the courage and energy of some of the leading citizens, Mr. H was enabled to escape, and then the most marked attentions were paid and civilities offered to the young lady, his daughter, by the families of the very men who had thought it right `on principle’ to get up this riot.”

The ball-room of the hotel has been the scene of many brilliant social functions, and in its dining room was held the spectacular reception to the Confederate officers after the surrender of Fort Sumter. Of course many historic banquets have been given in the same apartment, Ex-President and present Chief Justice, William H. Taft, was twice entertained there.

When Captain Thomas Hamilton was in Charleston, in 1832, he stopped at a more or less unfrequented hotel. But, according to his book of “Travels,” published the following year, he had been disappointed with American hotels, so it is worth noting that he found one in Charleston to commend.

“Every Englishman who visits Charleston,” he wrote, “will, if he be wise, direct his baggage to be conveyed to Jones’s Hotel. It is a small house, but everything is well managed, and the apartments are good. Our party at dinner did not exceed ten, but there was no bolting or scrambling. Jones is a black man, and must have prospered in the world, for, I learned, he was laid up with gout—the disease of a gentleman.

“The pleasure of getting into such a house, of revisiting the glimpses of clean tablecloths and silver forks, of ex-changing salt pork and greasy corn cakes, for a table furnished with luxuries of all sorts, was very great.”

New Orleans’s historic hotels, the St. Louis and the St. Charles, were particularly nineteenth century products, and have been mentioned in the books of those foreign travellers who toured the United States before the Civil War. The former was the older of the two, but both are mentioned by Buckingham, an Englishman who visited New Orleans in 1839.

He found the ballroom of the St. Louis Hotel unequalled for size and beauty in this country, and he pronounced the St. Charles Hotel not only the handsomest in the United States but even surpassing those of London and Paris. He found a descendant of the navigator, Amerigo Vespucci, whose name was given to the New World, in residence there. This was Mlle. America Vespucci, wham he de-scribed as an advanced woman and one whose presence was explained as being in search of a grant of land on the strength of her descent.

George Augustus Sala, who saw the old hotel in 1880, wrote that it was an historic edifice, because there, in 1842, Henry Clay was entertained by the people of New Orleans; in 1843 in the ballroom there met that Convention which framed a new Constitution for the state of Louisiana. For years it was the resort of the wealthiest planters of the South, and its great rotunda was long the headquarters of the Chamber of Commerce, the Stock Exchange, and the meeting place for political gatherings. It was, indeed, called the Bourse for years, but when Mr. Sala visited it it was being used as a temporary State House.

The St. Charles has for many years been the centre of interest during the Mardi Gras Carnival, and it was the hostelry at which the distinguished English correspondent stopped. It has taken the place early held by the St. Louis, and scarcely any celebrity who has visited New Orleans since the Civil War has failed to register at the St. Charles.