Nevada City’s three story grande dame
Very few three-story brick buildings were erected along the Mother Lode during the great California Gold Rush and today only a few remain. In Nevada City, in a row on Broad Street, are four of these mid-19th century relics. Together they form the Bicknell Block dating from 1854.
In 1856, Dr. Bicknell leased his “commodious and strictly fireproof bricks,” to hotelmen Pearson and Haley who, on Aug. 26, 1856, opened their new hotel “handsomely fitted up to … accommodate permanent and transient boarders in style unsurpassed in the state.”
Today, the venerable National Hotel lays claim to be the oldest, continuously operated hotel in the state and, according to some historians, the oldest west of the Rocky Mountains. Beginning in August 1856, and continuing until today, the hotel’s years in operation total 148 and two months!
The Murphys Hotel in Calaveras County also opened in August 1856, but was shut down and completely rebuilt after a disastrous fire in 1859. The National has survived a number of fires but always had rooms available.
The National Exchange Hotel, as it was first called, was an immediate success. The editor of the weekly Nevada (City) Democrat waxed poetic: “This house … (is) by far the best establishment that has ever been opened in our city … (and) continues to do business commensurate with its superior accommodations … (which are) elegantly and newly furnished throughout.”
He continued, heaping superlatives upon both the staff and management; “Messrs. Pearson and Healy … are deservedly as popular as they are polite and obliging to all. The bar is under the charge of Tom Henry, as well known for his brilliant attainments in the line of his profession as for the excellence of his beverages … “
Most of Nevada City’s business district was destroyed in the fire of November 1863, which started in the colorfully named Bedrock Saloon. The National escaped with some $25,000 in damage but did not completely close. It was soon rebuilt and in full operation.
During the 1860s, ’70s and ’80s, the hotel was the town’s communication and transportation center. In the building, at street level, were housed the Wells Fargo Express office, Western Union telegraph and agencies for all stagecoach lines running from Nevada City to serve the up-country gold mining towns of a three county area. For many years, until 1942, the United States Post Office was housed here.
It was twice in the 1860s that a young newspaper reporter turned platform speaker (he spoke at the Nevada Theatre), Mark Twain, signed the register; first, as Mark Twain and the second time as Samuel Clemens.
In 1880, the Rector brothers, Baylis and John, acquired the property, thereby beginning 44 years of their family’s ownership. The brothers expanded the facilities adding buildings behind the original block. In 1897, the National Annex opened, making a total of 100 rooms available.
The two-story frame annex was directly next door from the main hotel building, east across National Alley. It, too, fronted on Broad Street. Downstairs in the annex were shops and upstairs “parlors, suites and individual rooms decorated in the latest fashion,” and all boasted “both hot and cold running water.” The second floor portion of the annex was connected to the main hotel by a glass enclosed passageway above the alley.
After 71 years the annex became obsolete and the creaking old structure was torn down after an electrical fire severely damaged the ground level shops. The site is now the hotel’s parking lot next to National Alley.
In the 1880s, Baylis Rector befriended a young mining engineer fresh out of the new Stanford University. The man was short on cash but long on ambition. Rector gave credit for room rent to Herbert Hoover, whose first job was working as a mucker on the night shift at the Reward Mine.
The balcony across the front of The National and annex was first added in the 1890s, to accommodate guests at Rector’s cousin Vivie Lindly’s wedding. The present balcony is completely new this summer and replaced a much repaired, decaying, older structure.
Second generation Rectors operated the property, mainly under leases to others until 1924, when F.C. Worth acquired the hotel. F.C. was followed by his son Richard (Dick) and wife Jeanne. The junior Worths reversed the modernization trend that had been taking place slowly through the years and in 1950, began to turn back the clock.
Rooms were remodeled and refurnished in late Victorian style. The hotel lobby and the dining room traded places; upstairs went the lobby and down came the dining room. The Victorian Dining Room was redecorated complete with gold-flocked wallpaper and kerosene lamps on each table. The Worths bowed to 20th century tastes and built a swimming pool behind the hotel.
In some 100 years, only four ownerships have guided the fortunes of The National Hotel – the Rector family, the Worth family, Dick and Nan Ness and presently Tom Coleman. Historic recognition abounds. The property is designated a California Historic Landmark, is listed on the federal National Register of Historic Places, on the Nevada County Landmarks Commission’s list.
However, the first group to recognize the historical significance of the property was the Wm. Bull Meek-Wm. Morris Stewart, Chapter #10, Ancient and Honorable Order of E Clampus Vitus, Nevada City, who in 1963, placed a bronze tablet on the building’s front.
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