Shirleen Davies

Hotels in the Frontier West

The American frontier started with buffalo trails that became Indian trails. These trails led to trading posts set beside waterways. These sites grew into cities like Chicago. Likewise, the original Indian trails widened into roads, the roads changed into turnpikes, and at last these became railways.

Hotels along the railroad, such as those in Chicago, were different than those on the untamed frontier. In fact, during the mid-nineteenth century, Chicago became a center for the hotel industry, three of the major hotel trade journals were published there.

Great Chicago Fire 1871

After the Chicago fire of 1871 burned many luxury hotels, the Grand Pacific and the Palmer House became the finest hotels in Chicago. They boasted of being fireproof, having lush lobbies, grand staircases, elegant parlors, cafes, barber shops, bridal suites, dining rooms, ballrooms, promenades, hundreds of private bedrooms and baths, as well as the latest luxuries. The rooms cost between $3.50 and $7 a day and included three to four meals. Private parlors, room service, and fires in private fireplaces cost extra.

Palmer Hotel

Sleeping Arrangements

In the 19th century, hotels sprang up in frontier boomtowns, with rooms well under $10.00 a night. They offered few amenities compared to those available in big city hotels.

For the most part, guests had to share beds. During the silver boom in Nevada, the Dublin newspaper reported hotels there had 300 men “sleeping in a tinderbox not bigger than a first-class chicken coop.”

And, there’s the story of an Englishman who telegraphed a Durango Colorado hotel, requesting a private room and received confirmation for the bridal suite. It turned out there were 18 beds in that suite for as many guests as those beds could hold. Many hotels in San Francisco weren’t much better, sleeping spaces were chalked out on the floor.

Palace Hotel 1887 San Francisco

In contrast, San Francisco boasted some of the most swanky hotels were built in the west. The original Palace Hotel opened in 1875. John P. Gaynor, a hotshot architect in New York City, designed it. It had 755 large rooms, 804 fireplace mantels, private toilets, and its own brick factory and oak forest to produce materials.

Details of the Bella Union Hotel in Los Angeles were described by from Horace Bell, a wealthy trader, influential in politics, and a founding member of the Los Angeles Rangers, in two books about his life in California. He described the Bella Union, the first hotel in Los Angeles as a “flat-roofed” abode with “dog kennel” rooms.  He wrote of the hotel further, “In rainy weather the primitive earthen floor was sometimes, and generally, rendered quite muddy by the percolations from the roof above, which in height from floor to ceiling, was about six or seven feet. The rooms were not over 6 x 9 in size. Such were the ordinary dormitories of the hotel that advertised as being the “best hotel south of San Francisco.”

Bella Union Hotel

Harris Newmark, patron of one of the founding families of Los Angeles, who got off the stagecoach right in front of the Bella Union when he arrived in Los Angeles in 1853, wrote this in his memoirs. “The only real hotel in town…where stages stopped and every city function took place.”

The Bella Union doubled as Los Angeles County’s first courthouse; the Court of Sessions, a three-judge panel that had legislative as well as judicial authority for the newly organized county government, met inside rented rooms at the Bella Union from August 1850 to January 1852.

Pico House 1887

However, the Bella Union’s days as Los Angeles’ only real hotel came to an end on June 9, 1870, when the luxurious Pico House was opened. The Pico House was a three-story hotel with nearly 80 rooms, large windows, a small interior court, a grand staircase, a fountain in the courtyard and an aviary of exotic birds. It also featured indoor plumbing and gas lighting.

Air and Heat

Central air and heat didn’t exist in these early hotels. Some hotel rooms had fireplaces and some had fans. As you’d expect, hotels in the frontier west got hot—very hot! At least adobe hotels were cooler inside than outside. Some guests hung wet cloths in their windows so the wind would blow them, quickly evaporating the water and cooling the room by a few degrees.

Thomas C. Robinson, “Pidge Robinson” a Texas Ranger, who also wrote for the Austin Democratic Statesman and the State Gazette under the penname Pidge, had a saying, “As empty as a hotel in Austin in August.” 

Some large towns located at cool altitudes, 6000 feet or higher, had icehouses. The first ice-making machine in Tucson was built in 1880, but it was mainly used at upscale bars. They also used it in public urinals to keep the smell down.


Speaking of public urinals, most hotels didn’t have private bathrooms. In classy hotels, guests might have chamber pots at night. In upscale hotels some guests had a commode, a wooden seat with the chamber pot underneath. The maid emptied it in the morning. If there was no chamber pot, the guests had to walk all the way to the outhouse and take their chances with snakes, scorpions, bats, black widow spiders and so on. 

19th Century “Toilet”

At most hotels, water came in a jug or a wooden bucket. Some wealthy mining towns like Tombstone had running water, but only for the well to do. The O.K. Corral part of Tombstone with the mining riffraff was set a good distance apart from the wealthy end of town.

Most hotel rooms included a dresser or dry sink with a ceramic bowl for the guest to use for washing. In cheap hotels, the guests had to share a common lavatory. And, sometimes they had to use a bathhouse.

Poor Conditions

Many of these hotels had bad food, bed bugs, rats, and smelly outhouses. Some hotels like Grand Windsor and Mansion Hotel hid their poor conditions behind ritzy names. But other Hotels had names that reflected a more accurate description of the conditions, such as Buzzard’s Roost.  

The St. James Hotel is a prominent landmark in Splendor, Montana Territory, the frontier town in my Redemption Mountain series and in my newest release, Rogue Rapids.



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