Grass Valley’s history-rich Bret Harte Inn hits 100th anniversary
Special to The Union
At the height of his career, Bret Harte (1836-1902) was considered one of the best-known American writers of the 19th century.
The author, essayist, humorist, and critic wrote The Luck of Roaring Camp (1870), one of his first and most successful works.
Francis Brett Harte was born in Albany, New York, the son of a teacher, Henry Harte and his wife Elizabeth Ostrander. Young Frank was frail as a child due to ill health, and the family moved often on account of his father’s profession in seasonal teaching positions. Frank turned to books as his favourite indoor pursuit, studying the Bible and reading Byron, Charles Dickens, and Edgar Allan Poe among others. After his father’s death the family moved to Oakland, California in 1853. His mother remarried, to Colonial Andrew Williams. Harte taught for a while, and also worked in the mining industry.
Gracing the corner of West Main and South Church streets in downtown Grass Valley since 1917, the Bret Harte Inn celebrates its 100th anniversary this year.
From ghosts to hidden staircases, the old hotel’s unique past and quirky elements keep history alive in Nevada County.
Named after the famous poet and author, the Bret Harte Retirement Inn, as its now known, is home to retirees, but according to some residents and employees, they are not the only ones occupying the old building, particularly its basement.
“I believe it’s haunted,” said owner Patti Collins. “I have employees who will get in the elevator, and when the door opens, they will not get out. They feel this vibe.”
Collins said the basement is the oldest part of the Bret Harte. The site began as The City Hotel in the 1850s. While the building was destroyed twice by fire, areas of the basement remained unharmed. This space now houses the residents’ storage lockers. According to Collins, some residents and employees have spotted the ghosts and are afraid to enter the basement to access the lockers. Residents say the most common ghosts they’ve encountered are a group of children, who reportedly reside one side of the building, but have assured Collins the ghosts that haunt the Bret Harte are friendly.
Haunted or not, the Bret Harte Retirement Inn charms visitors with its cozy lobby, a buzzing social hub for residents, decorated with vintage furniture, paying homage to its hotel days. Following construction, the hotel provided many attractions for visitors: dances on the spacious dance floor (now the dining room), the flourishing rose garden (replaced by the parking lot), and tea on the verandah.
The hotel became the favored vacation spot for tourists from San Francisco visiting Grass Valley for the weekend. The Bret Harte was also a desirable location for social events, some of which were attended by esteemed guests like President Herbert Hoover.
The Bret Harte was also a meeting place for gold-mining tycoons from the 1920s into ’40s and for the Grass Valley Chamber of Commerce.
In 1984, the building was remodeled and a fifth floor added. In the same year, the building was transformed into a retirement home.
Despite many changes the building has undergone, one thing remains the same — the historic 1907 “Water Nymphs” painting still hangs in the Bret Harte. When examined closer, the painting displays two small mended bullet holes from the days it graced a wall in the hotel’s Nugget Bar.
Some remnants of the building’s past remain in clear sight, like the painting, but some are hidden.
Behind a large panel in the kitchen sits a mysterious stairwell that Collins believes may have been used by the hotel servants. The staircase curves, making it impossible to see where it leads. As of yet, Collins said, no brave soul from the current staff has climbed the staircase. But she said she is determined to solve the mystery.
“One of these days I want to send my son ahead of me — I want him going first — I want to see how far up I can go.”
See this story at TheUnion.com for more information on the Bret Harte and other historic buildings and walking tours.
Mia Belluomini is a Sierra Academy Expeditionary Learning student and intern at The Union. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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