Western Nevada County’s three historic hotels bastions of a golden era

Western Nevada County’s three historic hotels trace their illustrious lineage to a California yesteryear when pioneers coursed through western Nevada County, making the region more populous than San Francisco at the time.

All landmarks in their own right, The National Exchange Hotel, the Holbrooke Hotel and the Washington Hotel were all constructed just after the feverish California Gold Rush that represents one of the largest human migrations in history.

Contrary to the current planning method that calls for hotels and overnight accommodations to be relegated to the outskirts of cities and towns, during the advent of the three hotels in the 1850s and 1860s, the establishments were vital hubs, alive with the hum of human activity and serving as the epicenter of a vast transportation network.

“This was the stagecoach stop,” said Tom Coleman, proprietor of the three-story National Exchange Hotel that occupies a prominent 100-foot stretch at the bottom of Broad Street in downtown Nevada City.

“It’s where they had the telegraph office. It’s where people came every evening to find out what was going on in town. It was the communication and transportation hub at the time.”

For the Washington Hotel, which was built in 1857 as miners were swarming the banks of the South Yuba River, along with the tributaries and ravines, the establishment continues to serve as a teeming community center for the relatively isolated hamlet of Washington, east of Nevada City.

“One thing about Washington is that you don’t drive through it, you drive to it,” said hotel owner Henry DeCorte.

DeCorte bought the hotel in 1994 when it was derelict, in shambles and on the cusp of being condemned by the Nevada County Planning Department.

The former furniture maker poured money into renovations and revitalized the lifeblood of the hamlet.

“The whole town nearly died,” DeCorte said.

What the National Exchange Hotel and Washington Hotel are to Nevada City and Washington, the Holbrooke Hotel is to Grass Valley.

The Union newspaper actually got its start at the present site of the hotel and the Gold Exchange was housed there in 1851, said owner Ian Garfinkel.

“It was the centerpiece of the town,” Garfinkel said. “It’s the oldest continuously operating saloon west of the Mississippi.”

Legend has it that when a devastating fire ravaged the entirety of downtown Grass Valley in 1855, owners of the Golden Gate Saloon, Stephen and Clara Smith, set up a tent the next day and began serving beer and whiskey.

The National

The present incarnation of the hotel was built in 1856 by an architect with the last name of Todd for a dentist with a last name of Bicknell. After the final brick was laid and the paint dried on the new hotel, a fire ripped through downtown Nevada City, but miraculously spared the National Exchange.

Since August 1856, the hotel has operated at the bottom of Broad Street, making it one of the longest continually operating hotels in the West.

“As far as I know it’s the longest in California,” Coleman said.

The conspicuously placed establishment served as the center of communications and transportation, with wagons carrying both passengers and/or freight stopping at the National Exchange Hotel.

In 1882, the Rector brothers, John and Bayliss, assumed the ownership of the hotel, presiding over it until their deaths that occurred less than a year apart from each other in 1914 and 1915, respectively.

Coleman said many of the furnishings of the hotel remain from the latter half of the 19th century, a time when the building was without electricity or central heating.

“In the winter they would just use extra blankets, and the nice rooms had fireplaces,” Coleman said.

During the 20th century, Fred C Worth, who worked as a manager for descendants of the Rector Brothers, is largely credited with modernizing the hotel after he assumed the helm in 1925. In 1946, George Murphy, a native of the San Juan Ridge, bought the hotel and installed Dean McGrath as resident manager.

Coleman took over ownership of the hallowed institution in September 1979.

The National Exchange has served as an overnight stay for luminaries such as Mark Twain, Herbert Hoover and Andrew Johnson. Legend has it that Pacific Gas and Electric was formed by businessmen having a meeting in the downstairs parlor of the hotel.

The Holbrooke

Originally the Golden Gate Saloon, all of Grass Valley burnt in 1855, causing Stephen and Clara Smith to rebuild the saloon and another building that would become a hotel that would serve as a respite for a host of legends of the American West.

The Exchange Hotel, named for being the prior site of the Gold Exchange for Grass Valley, burned again in 1862 and the building was rebuilt by Charles Smith, a relative of the original owners.

Still called the Exchange Hotel, Smith ran the operation until 1877, when he defaulted on the mortgage. One M.P. O’Conner bought the illustrious building at a sheriff’s sale and sold it for $12,000 two years later to Daniel and Ellen Holbrooke, the couple after which the present hotel is named.

Daniel Holbrooke died in 1884, the same year as the Sawyer Decision that ended hydraulic mining and is widely considered to be the first piece of environmental legislation in the United States of America. Ellen Holbrooke ran the place until 1908, when she sold it to Oeter and Elizabeth Johnson.

After a series of negligent owners, the building fell into a state of disrepair, even though the libations still flowed from the bar downstairs.

In the late 1970s, Arletta Douglas became interested in the property after civil engineers told her the building was structurally sound.

She set about restoring the inside of the building, undertaking improvements while ensuring the windows, doors and frames of the exterior building replicated the historical elements of the building.

The back bar is the same mahogany slab that sailed around the Cape Horn to be delivered to the hotel in the late 19th century, and the mirror behind the bar is the same glass that Mark Twain must have glanced into while taking an evening quaff.

The wholesale renovation of the hotel was completed in 1982.

Throughout the years the hotel has hosted luminaries such as Twain, Bret Harte, Jack London, prizefighters “Gentleman Jim” Corbett and Bob Fitzsimmons and entertainers Emma Nevada, Lola Montez and Lotta Crabtree.

Five U.S. Presidents — Grover Cleveland, Ulysses S. Grant, Benjamin Harrison and Herbert Hoover — stayed at the hotel.

Black Bart, the infamous stagecoach robber and sometime poet, also stayed at the Holbrooke, according to the registry books.

Garfinkel believes that the hotel he owns continues to function as a habitation of ghosts as certain rooms and hallways are haunted by an apparition donning a top hat.

The Washington Hotel

When the hotel was constructed in 1857, the town of Washington, today a modestly sized and sequestered hamlet, was more populous than Nevada City.

Miners came to the flats of the South Yuba River in quest of striking it rich.

More than $10 million worth of gold was extracted from the environs of Washington, and the stagecoach dropped in twice a day in front of the Washington Hotel to convey the nouveau riche and their trappings to wherever they chose to go.

When the bar closed down during prohibition, it became the post office, never yielding its mantle as the hub of the community through the boom and through the bust.

It was the first building in town to have indoor plumbing and was a center of social activities, with parties lasting through the night on the third floor that functioned as a dance hall.

Gunslinger and arbiter of justice Wyatt Earp once stayed at the Washington Hotel in 1902, according to DeCorte. And President Grover Cleveland once stayed in the landmark building before the throngs of pioneers faded from river valley and the region’s prominent place in the Gold Rush was largely consigned to the fading parchment of memory and lore.

Contact Staff Writer Matthew Renda via email at mrenda@theunion.com or by phone at 530-477-4239.


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The Union Updated Mar 17, 2014 07:50PM Published May 27, 2014 11:08AM Copyright 2014 The Union. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.