Romance of Omaha, Chapter XV
Closely linked with the life and development of Omaha from the very beginning, the hotels of the city have helped to spread the fame of this city throughout the nation.
In the early days the plainsmen spoke of Omaha hotels with awe at their comfort and gastronomic attractions. Today Omaha has more and finer hotels than any city of its population in the country, and another hotel to cost $1,500,000 is now being erected.
The first building to rise in Omaha was a hotel built of logs and given the high-sounding name of the "St. Nicholas." It was finished early in the summer of 1854.
Not much can be said for the service or comforts of the old hotel, but it was the best hotel in town and the early settlers were glad of any place to lay their heads. It was at what is now Twelfth and Jackson streets.
The second hotel was the Douglas house, at the southwest corner of Thirteenth and Harney streets, a two-story frame structure and quite a hotel for its time.
On July 4, 1855, Omaha's first ball was held in the Douglas House. It was preceded by a barbecue and everyone reported an enjoyable day and evening. There were several fights, but no fatalities.
Famous Herndon House
The City hotel, erected in 1856 at Eleventh and Harney streets, was the scene of the first executive ball given by Governor Mark Izard of Nebraska territory.
The Tremont hotel, on Douglas between Thirteenth and Fourteenth streets, also was built in 1856.
The first hotel of any size was the famous Herndon house. It was built of brick on the northeast corner of Ninth and Douglas streets, and for many years formed part of the old Union Pacific headquarters building.
The builders of the Herndon were given one and a half blocks of ground for erecting it and then borrowed $16,000 in scrip from the city in order to complete the building.
Many interesting stories are told of Omaha's early hotels. The Hamilton house, on Douglas between Fourteenth and Fifteenth streets, had one large bedroom upstairs. A chalk like line was drawn around each individual bed, designating the "rooms." There were neither partitions nor curtains.
Once a week the big room was cleared for a ball. The guests could not go to bed until the dance was over and their beds made up again.
Omaha's most unusual hotel was brought to the city in 1857. It was the steamboat "Washington City." Moored on the river levee it was used as a hotel for some time. Many bachelors of the day found the steamboat hotel a pleasant place to live.
The Herndon house was noted through the west for its fine meals and genial hospitality. On February 4, 1859, a banquet was given at the hotel at which, according to the Omaha Times, a paper of that day, the principal item on the menu was "two baskets of champagne."
Mine host of the Herndon, James T. Allen, was directly responsible for the building of the Cozzens house in 1867.
George Francis Train, erratic but famous citizen of Omaha at that time, invited a number of friends to dine at the Herndon on Nebraska prairie chicken and trout.
Wind and Flood
During the dinner a wind storm came up. Train ordered a waiter to stand in front of a large window near his table to keep the glass from blowing in.
Mr. Allen said his waiters were paid to wait on the guests not to hold up windows. Train arose and stood in front of the window while his guests finished their meal.
Then he walked out of the hotel, bought ground immediately across from the Herndon, employed a contractor and erected a rival hotel in 60 days.
Famous as were these earlier hostelries, Omaha's first big hotel was the noted Grand Central, opened in October, 1873, on the southwest corner of Fourteenth and Farnam streets, where the new Paxton is now rising.
It was four stories high and for years was the pride of Omaha and the west.
Fire Ends Building
In 1878, while it was being remodeled for the Kitchen Bros., the hotel burned down. The Kitchens moved to the old Withnell block at Fifteenth and Harney streets.
During October, 1882, the Kitchens opened the old Paxton hotel, then five stories high and equipped with its own electric plant and elevators. The Millard hotel also was finished in 1882 and is the oldest hotel building still used for hotel purposes in the city.
For many years Omaha hotels were the center of social life in Omaha. New Year receptions at the old Paxton were outstanding features of each year.
Buffalo Bill's Hang-out
One of the famous hotels for years was the Merchants on Farnam street between Fifteenth and Sixteenth streets. It was headquarters for Buffalo Bill and hundreds of cattlemen who came off the ranges.
Old-time menus of Omaha hotels were triumphs of gastronomic excellence. On one Christmas menu there appeared venison, bison, prairie chicken, quail, turkey, wild duck, wild geese, beef, veal, mutton, a dozen varieties of vegetables, plum pudding, fruit cake, pumpkin, mince, apple and other pies, wine of various vintages and a cocktail (real) for whoever desired it, to say nothing of several kinds of soup, nuts and oysters.
In those days the cattle barrons of the west would come to Omaha to spend their money and live in regal splendor at the hotels.
Some of the modern conveniences, such as finely equipped bath rooms and telephones, were lacking, but otherwise those old hotels measured up well with the splendid Omaha hotels of the present day.
More than 100 hotels, large and small, are now listed in the Omaha city directory. They represent a total investment of about $18,000,000 and among them are hotels that rank for service and comfort with the best hotels of the country.
The building of the Fontenelle hotel was one of the great events in Omaha.
It was built through the efforts of a group of public spirited men who saw the need of a great hotel in Omaha. The Conant, Blackstone, Hill, Loyal, Flatiron, Keene, Rome, Castle, Henshaw, Millard, Hamilton, Sanford, Wellington Inn are among the other hotels which have added much to Omaha's popularity throughout this section of the country.
When the new Paxton hotel is finished, which will be next year, Omaha will have hotel facilities to care for even the largest gatherings.
At the present time Omaha hotelmen say they house more than 1,200,000 guests every year. Most of these are transients from out of the city. They are merchants and others who come here from Omaha's vast wholesale and retail trade territory to do their buying in Omaha.
They enjoy visiting in Omaha because of the excellence of the hotels which draws people to the city. Omaha hotels are listed among its leading assets.
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