Friday, February 28, 2020

Stations: St. Charles Hotel

For four brief years, from 1875 until 1879, railroad traffic between Felton and Santa Cruz called a small area to the north of Mission Hill home. The city of Santa Cruz, appreciative of the new railroad line to Felton, was considerably less enthused about trains running down Pacific Avenue. As a result, a city ordinance was passed banning all steam locomotive activity along Pacific Avenue. This resulted in two significant changes. First, the railroad began construction of a tunnel through Mission Hill in order to bypass downtown entirely on its way to the Railroad Wharf. Second, the Pacific Avenue Street Railroad Company was created to run horsecars down Pacific Avenue, bringing revenue to the Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad while putting its mostly useless downtown tracks to good use. Interest in the railroad route to Felton also increased substantially, causing the company to reconsider its original plan to run as a freight-only line.

Mission Street heading up to Mission Hill, with the St. Charles Hotel at right, 1880s.
[Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History]
The St. Charles Hotel did not begin life as such. In 1867, William Anthony and Joseph Ruffner erected a two-story hardware store at the corner of River Street and Mission Street. Upstairs, there was a small tin shop run by Anthony, while a grocery store run by S. W. Field and J. W. Brown occupied the northern half of the building. Charles Brown bought the structure around 1872 and completely renovated it, adding a wrap-around porch and third story and converting the entire establishment into a deluxe hotel he named the St. Charles. It opened to the public as the second substantial hotel in the city on June 11, 1873 and was initially run by William N. Cummings, who was known locally for operating a popular livery stable. A description of the hotel in the February 7, 1874 Weekly Sentinel extols:
"This hotel is one of the finest in the place, and can easily accommodate 75 persons. It is elegantly furnished throughout, the rooms are comfortable, large and airy, and a feature is, that, with the exception of one room, they are well lighted by windows, direct from the outside. In addition to this, a stairway leads to the roof, upon which is an observatory, where a most enchanting view may be obtained of the beautiful bay of Monterey, and every point of interest in Santa Cruz. Here also is a space surrounded by a neat and safe railing, where children of the guests can sport and play to their heart's content, in the open air, without danger. The kitchen and dining room are well arranged, and conducted in the highest skill of the caterer's art. At present there are few transient guests, but the coming season it is expected there will be more than the usual rush of summer visitors, for which event Mr. Cummings is making ample preparations."
Downstairs in the hotel was a saloon run by C. H. Bury, called by the Weekly Sentinel "one of the neatest and most gorgeously furnished saloons ever fitted up in Santa Cruz." The hotel quickly became a central hub when a stage service adopted the hotel as its Santa Cruz station for journeys to Pescadero in January 1874. The next year in June, another stage line, this time to Watsonville, adopted the St. Charles as its northern terminus. Finally, in October 1875, the Pacific Avenue Horsecar Railroad began operating down Pacific Avenue to the beach, and it used the St. Charles Hotel as its northern terminus.
Earliest photograph of the St. Charles Hotel, before it was the hotel, c. 1870. A hardware store and grocery store sit downstairs while a tin shop is upstairs. Photograph by B. C. Gadsby. [Santa Cruz Sentinel, Aug. 4, 1910]
By the time the Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad opened in October 1875, the St. Charles Hotel had become an important hub for many local transportation lines. And since it sat at the southern limit of where a fully-rigged train could pass before the city ordinance kicked in, it made it a perfect location for the southern terminus of the railroad to Felton. After only a year of informal but profitable service, the railroad caved and purchased two new passenger cars in July 1876: a first-class car with glass windows and a second-class car without glass windows. Most of the trains that went up to Felton were mixed freight-passenger, but this did not stop passengers from travelling between the two towns, especially during the summer months.

Sanborn Fire Insurance survey map showing the location of the St. Charles Hotel at the corner of River Street
and Mission Street, 1883. [University of California, Santa Cruz, Digital Collections]
Like most hotels in the area, proprietorship of the St. Charles passed between owners frequently. In 1874, Cummings' tenure ended and he was replaced with James Montgomery. The next year in November, Walter Barr took over management, but he fled the town in February 1876 with unpaid debts. It was probably at this point that Charles Brown sold the property to Henry Cowell. Cummings returned briefly to oversee the sale of much of the hotel's movables. Joseph Bloch of Salinas then came in to renovate and reopen the hotel with a four-year license under Cowell. It was he who ran the hotel for the remainder of the time that it served as the railroad's passenger depot, until late 1879, at which time the South Pacific Coast Railroad opened its new passenger depot two blocks away, at the northern end of Chestnut Street outside the southern (eastern) portal of the Mission Hill Tunnel.

Stereograph of the St. Charles Hotel, c. 1876, by Romanzo E. Wood. [California State Library]
Curiously, only months after the depot opened, Bloch left the St. Charles Hotel despite having another year on his contract. A sheriff's sale in September 1879 sold most of the hotel's furnishings. A notice in an October 4 Sentinel article noted: "The St. Charles is not a success. Its location is not the best." The sudden closure of the hotel and departure of Bloch left ownership of the hostelry in doubt. A lawsuit between Louis Schwartz and Henry Cowell over the property erupted in May 1880 and nothing more is heard of the facility until July 1883, when Mrs. M. P. Ray was brought on to reopen the hotel.

The St. Charles Hotel with guests on the balcony and porch, c. 1890s.
[Santa Cruz Sentinel, Jun. 17, 1956]
In May 1884, J. F. Woodward, former proprietor of the European Hotel of Leadville, Colorado, and the Hawaiian Hotel of Honolulu, took over from Ray. Ellen Neary Nolan then took over in November. During this time, the hotel continued to serve as a major station for several different transportation systems. Another horsecar line, the East Santa Cruz Railroad Company, passed directly in front of the hotel with a stop there, while the Hartman Bros's stagecoach line to Boulder Creek used the hotel as its Santa Cruz terminus. After surviving a major city fire on the evening of May 30, 1887, the St. Charles Hotel fell into a bit of a dark age.

The St. Charles Hotel from Pacific Avenue, with the Anthony Block in the foreground, c. 1890s. [Preston Sawyer]
While it remained an important stage and horsecar stop, only information on the saloon exists for the next few years. Apparently, Nolan continued to run the hotel until May 24, 1894, when Noah M. Knight took over as proprietor, but he closed the hotel a month later for unknown reasons. It reopened almost exactly a year later in 1895 under the management of Mrs. W. B. Drew of Felton, but it shut down again two months later due to lack of business. The relocation of the Santa Cruz railroad depot to the end of Center Street in 1893 was cited by the newspaper as a leading reason for this decline in patronage, as well as a general lack of upgrades to surrounding buildings since the 1887 fire. The hotel sat vacant with the exception of the saloon for the next seven years, although E. B. Pixley briefly rented out rooms to overflow from his own nearby hotel in September 1899 for California Admission Day.

In December 1902, Juanita B. Leoni finally received permission to reopen the hotel and immediately began renovating it. The aged hotel opened with a gala on April 4, 1903 to much praise and excitement, but it only lasted the summer. By October, Leoni had left and the Cowell estate was once again searching for a proprietor. It found its final managers in March 1904 in the persons of Mrs. Phebe F. Douglass and Mrs. N. C. Wiggs, who ran the hotel as the Waverly Rooming House. Douglass took sole control of the business in July but a mysterious death at the hotel in October quickly scared away customers. Douglass began posting a notice in the Santa Cruz Surf in December attempting to attract customers who had heard reports about the hotel and the note appears to have worked since she remained in business throughout the 1905 and 1906 seasons.

By 1907, Douglass had abandoned the hostelry, except for existing tenants, the last of whom left in early 1909. The structure was abandoned permanently thereafter except as a polling place during local elections. It became a home to squatters and vagrants until the morning of May 7, 1919, when the structure was severely damaged in a fire that gutted the top two stories. After sitting unoccupied for a year, the burned wreck was finally demolished in April 1920 by W. H. Booth. The next January, Cowell received permission to install a Standard Oil service station at the site, which remained at the location for several decades.

Geo-Coordinates & Access Rights:
36.9772N, 122.0273W

The site of the St. Charles Hotel is currently an open lot at the junction of Mission Street and Pacific Avenue. Recently it has been developed as an informal park, with several young redwood trees planted among a pathway line by rocks. An old concrete wall, now painted, marks the hill-side of the property. A building housing Crossroads and Serpent's Kiss sits behind the site along North Pacific Avenue. Nothing of the original hotel remains and the streetcar tracks have long since been removed.

Citations & Credits:

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