A Closer Look at the Free State Hotel

The rules for guests at the Free State Hotel, May 10, 1856

We left the Free State Hotel a burned ruin, after attempts to level it with cannon fire and blow it sky-high with gunpowder failed. Before Samuel Jones and his proslavery army destroyed the place, it featured occasionally in the Kansas story. To Jones and men like him, the Emigrant Aid Company had built a fortress that might withstand any assault. To their free state enemies, it appears just as a large building. A stone building of considerable size could easily serve both roles. Before leaving the building behind, we should take a closer look. For that, I rely upon Martha B. Caldwell’s The Eldridge House, published in volume nine of the Kansas Historical Quarterly (PDF page 363).

The New England Emigrant Aid Company might have had trouble with its finances, but its board knew that people they sent to Kansas would need somewhere to stay while they looked for claims and built their own houses. The plan envisioned several hotels, each capable of housing three hundred people. The board entrusted Samuel Pomeroy, the same Pomeroy who Jones spoke to on the day the hotel burned, with buying sawmills and building those hotels on August 26, 1854. The first Company party arrived in Lawrence on Septemeber 15 of that year and they built the first hotel

by setting up two rows of poles a distance apart and bringing them together at the top, then thatching the sides with prairie hay. The gable ends were built up with sod and contained the doors and windows. The floor was hard sod.

Luxury had yet to arrive in Kansas, but sod floors and walls didn’t set the hotel far apart from the general run of frontier building. Community functions, including church services, took place there until it burned. Its replacement went on the same lines, but with higher walls and cotton cloth lining the interior. Nobody intended for the sod-walled tent to remain indefinitely and the Aid Company’s trustees asked Pomeroy and Charles Robinson to get moving with a proper building. By November 2, they had managed to dig the cellar out.

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Construction faced many obstacles, taking nineteen months and never quite reaching a full opening. The Company often ran out of money, with Robinson informing the board that construction stopped in part for that reason at the end of November. The mill that Pomeroy had set up couldn’t keep up with the demand of private customers, so lumber had to come up the river from St. Louis. Kansas’ turmoil can’t have sped things along either. One can forgive the difficult logistics of the Kansas frontier, but Caldwell believes the men in charge also distracted themselves with land speculation and points to the Company later refusing agents the freedom to conduct private business and revoking permission from Pomeroy.

All of that meant that the first emigrant parties to come in the spring of 1855 did not find a hotel waiting for them as planned. In January, the Herald of Freedom advised them not to expect the finest lodgings but promised that Lawrence could handle people ready to rough it. Come February, Pomeroy advertised for someone to furnish and run the hotel. Soon enough, Shalor W. Eldridge took up the lease. He already ran the company’s hotel in Kansas City, the same one where Andrew Reeder would hide the next year.

By spring, the basement had walls and waited on lumber but the shortage of that material had grown so acute that it prompted a revision of plans. The Aid Company intended a timber frame building but a perpetual lack of timber made that impossible. Instead they would build in “stone and concrete.” This argues strongly that no one envisioned the Free State Hotel as a fortification, at least until the spring of 1855, but the change of plan in the context of the deteriorating Kansas situation might well have looked like one aimed at military necessity from the outside. By this point the delays had already made the hotel infamous, with Josiah Miller of the Kansas Free State editorializing against it. People passed Lawrence by or left in disgust for lack of proper accommodations and yet the Company refused to either finish the work or sell to someone who would. Flooring, pre-fabricated in St. Louis, and doors arrived in town only on August 19.

At the beginning of October, two floors stood more or less complete, internal walls going up and windows in place. That served well enough to make the building host to social events, starting with a party thrown by the Kansas Rifles boasting elaborate invitations and a hunting contest to feed the guests. Five hundred people attended despite cold, rain, and deep much. They dined on “squirrel, rabbit, prairie chicken, wild turkey, and one roast pig, together with cakes and pastries.” Not much more than a week after, Franklin Coleman killed Charles Dow and the Wakarusa War began. The hotel became a barracks and headquarters, then housed Thomas Barber’s body and the peace talks. The subsequent festivities further put it to good use.

After the Wakarusa War, construction resumed. Putting up plaster and supplying furniture took place in December. By January, rumors circulated that the Free State government might quit Topeka for a more fortified spot. Surely they could get the hotel done by February 15, but that date came and went. In March, “between twenty and thirty men were constantly employed.” Their work concluded by April 12, when the papers reported the end of construction. Caldwell quotes the Herald of Freedom on the hotel’s final form:

50 feet front, 70 feet back; three stories above the basement; contains 50 separate apartments, besides a hall in each story. The basement is divided into three rooms, each 18 feet square -two to be used as pastry and meat kitchens, the other as storehouse or cellar. The first story is 11 feet from floor the ceiling, is divided into 9 rooms; the dining hall 18 feet wide and 47 feet long; hall 9 1/2 feet wide, entire length of building; Gentlemen’s parlor, 18 feet square; Ladies’ parlor, 18 x 20; Reading Room, 18 feet square; Sitting room, 16 x 18; two bed-rooms, 9 feet square; office, 6 x 14 […] stairs leading to the roof, which is flat, and affords a fine promenade and a splendid view of the surrounding scenery. There are thirty or forty port-holes in the walls, which rise above the roof, plugged up now with stones, which can be knocked out with the blow of the butt of a Sharp’s rifle.

The Howard Committee

The military use of the building must have come to mind more and more, even if the original plan involved none of it, but the main focus of the description remains on the hotel amenities. It had outhouses “of the neatest kind” and a partially-built stable which would hold fifty horses and keep your buggy out of the rain. Brown’s paper, which ought to know considering it drew funds from the Emigrant Aid Company too, estimated the cost of the building at over $20,000. The grand opening would take place on the first of May.

Samuel Jones

Eldridge set into furnishing the hotel to meet that date, ordering pieces from St. Louis and Boston. He spent over five thousand dollars, but most of the furniture had yet to arrive when the Howard Committee did. The people of Lawrence loaned him some of their own to spare him embarrassment. I.B. Donaldson and Samuel Jones then intervened. Jones convalesced briefly under the hotel’s roof after his shooting. With all trouble then in the offing, the grand opening did not take place as planned. The Eldridges held out hope all the same, with a set of rules for guests coming off the Herald of Freedom press on May 10. Instead Lecompton’s grand jury declared the Free State Hotel a military edifice and recommended someone do something about it. A recovered Jones lied to the proslavery mob about having an order for the building’s destruction and saw it done.

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