The Historic Colonial Hotel:
A Century of Elegance
Beginning with permanent settlement in the late eighteenth century, the area that would become the Borough of Meyersdale established itself as a funnel through which the raw materials of a vast hinterland reached the markets of a new nation. Nature provided immense, untapped timberlands, and the glades at the valley bottoms proved to be fertile and easily tilled farmland. The original German Anabaptist settlers became adept at processing the goods of the forest and field in preparation for easier shipment via trails and rudimentary roads west to Pittsburgh and east to Cumberland, Maryland. By the time the Baltimore & Ohio (B&O) Railroad, in the guise of the Pittsburgh & Connellsville Railroad, passed through the settlement in 1871, Meyers Mills and its adjacent communities had become wealthy settlements.(1)
The railroad only accelerated existing economic processes. Soon, a network of B&O-operated and privately owned branch lines and short-line railroads crisscrossed the mountain valleys and climbed the sides of Negro Mountain, which was covered in virgin forest and underlain with coal. Soon, the massive Shaw Mines complex, just south of Meyersdale, illuminated the night sky as its ovens transformed coal to coke for the hungry blast furnaces at Johnstown and Pittsburgh. Serving Shaw Mines was the B&O's Salisbury Branch, which, in 1881, extended south from Meyersdale, following the Casselman River, and connected to private short lines reaching into northern Garrett County, Maryland. Around 1890, traffic on the 12-mile-long Salisbury Branch became so voluminous that the B&O managed it as its own division. Indeed, while the depot at Elk Lick (later West Salisbury) was small, it governed a company siding capable of holding 572 railroad cars, with a private siding providing space for an additional 40 cars. Even after coal and timber resources in the area gave out, the Salisbury Branch remained busy, serving the valley's prosperous farmers and a variety of small manufacturing operations.(2)
These products, along with the people and money behind them, all traveled through Meyersdale. The community established itself as a point of interchange between the metropolitan corridor of the railroad and the rural countryside of southern Somerset and northern Garrett counties. Much to the chagrin of the much older settlements of Somerset and Berlin, the upstart town of Meyersdale became, by the 1890s, Somerset County's principal economic, cultural, and population center. It was by far the largest station stop on the B&O mainline between Cumberland and Connellsville.(3)
By the 1890s, a plethora of new businesses began to replace the rough-built shanties of past generations with more permanent and architecturally sophisticated buildings. Before 1899, the lot at 319 Main Street in Meyersdale was described as the Lillian L. Miller homestead. Crammed onto it were a number of small, wood-frame structures, including a dwelling, billiard parlor, shoemaker's shop, and a stable. That year, however, John and Mary Stein, of Rockwood, purchased the property and razed the structures in preparation for the construction of a new hotel. Built by the Meyersdale Planing Mill and opened on April 1, 1900, the Hotel Stein was a vast departure from the area's other inns. Most of these buildings resembled nothing more than large houses or merely offered rooms above retail storefronts; none were more than two full stories high. But the Hotel Stein was a massive, three-and-a-half story, wood-frame building, veneered in brick. The hotel boasted 44 guest rooms, electric lights, steam heat, and an array of amenities ranging from a saloon and billiard room to men's and women's parlors. Perhaps the most prominent feature of Hotel Stein was its grand, two-story front porch, which extended across the entire front facade.(4)
The Hotel Stein, circa 1900
In the fall of 1901, two men, Charles Knapp and Elbridge Kyle, leased the hotel from the Stein family. Born on October 23, 1870, in Mount Savage, Allegany County, Maryland, Charles Henry Knapp was the son of Joseph and Isabella Knapp. The family later moved to Meyersdale. After graduating from Meyersdale High School, the county's first post-primary institution, Knapp attended St. Charles College, in Maryland; St. Vincent College, in Pennsylvania; and the University of Virginia. He received his law degree from the University of Maryland in 1895 and immediately began to practice in Baltimore. He quickly became a toast of the city's elite social set. His Valentine's Day 1903 marriage to Elizabeth Norris Cushing, a member of one of Baltimore oldest and wealthiest families, was the social event of the season. After the ceremony at the Cushing family's posh Park Avenue town house, the newlyweds spent a lengthy honeymoon at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in Manhattan. Knapp returned to become a full partner in the firm Harman, Knapp, Ulman & Tucker. He served as the principal advisor to Maryland Governor Albert C. Ritchie. Knapp represented Maryland at the 1924 Democratic National Convention. He was later president of the International Baseball League and its Baltimore Orioles franchise.(5)
Knapp's partner, Elbridge C. Kyle, was born the son of a Somerset County sheriff, Edgar Kyle, in Stoystown, on January 13, 1871. At age 12, he left school to become a telegrapher for the B&O Railroad. In 1887, Edgar Kyle moved his family to Meyersdale, where he managed the Jones House hotel. (This later became the Klare Hotel and the old Hotel Central). Elbridge came with the rest of the family and enrolled in Meyersdale High School. He graduated with Knapp. After a short stint in Fairport, Ohio, the younger Kyle returned to Meyersdale in 1890 to become a desk clerk at the Jones House. He was later employed at the Somerset Hotel in Somerset before becoming a manager of the Bedford Springs Hotel Company. In October 1895, Kyle accepted a position as a manager for the Stafford Hotel Company in Baltimore, overseeing reservations at the firm's elite inns in London, Paris, and Vienna, as well as in major cities across the United States. Kyle's experience with European inns as well as his association with the managers of Baltimore's major hotels would ultimately shape his enterprise in Meyersdale.(6)
Opened in 1894, the Stafford was the largest and most modern hotel in Baltimore to that time. Located in the elegant Mount Vernon neighborhood, it attracted the city's most famous visitors as well as serving as home to many wealthy Baltimore residents. Among those who moved into a Stafford suite after the hotel's opening was Charles Knapp. Kyle's subsequent employment at the hotel doubtless brought the Meyersdale High School alumni back together and rekindled a friendship that would last the rest of their lives. At first glance, they seemed to be an unlikely pair: Kyle was a Protestant and staunch Republican; Knapp was a Roman Catholic and even stauncher Democrat. But their relationship was so strong that each served as best man at the other's wedding. And both shared a passion and vision for the same bustling little town in the mountains, 200 miles, by rail, to the west. It appears that the idea of opening or operating a high-end hotel in Meyersdale began at the Stafford. Kyle would manage the hotel while Knapp provided the financial backing. Both would supply the vision. Their leasing of the Hotel Stein was, most likely, merely a means to begin their enterprise, which would culminate in the construction of a new, larger, and more elegant hotel.(7)
Stafford Hotel, Baltimore, in 2004.
Knapp and Kyle were not alone in their plans. Since 1900, Meyersdale's existing hotels were busy constructing additions. In November 1902, A.M. Johnson, proprietor of the Johnson House, planned to move his old hotel to the rear of the block it occupied and build a huge new hotel building that would also contain a bank, opera house, and offices. At the same time, a group of unnamed Pittsburgh investors arrived in Meyersdale to survey a parcel adjacent to downtown. The promoter of the project, in perhaps a moment of overly enthusiastic optimism or sheer hyperbole, told the Meyersdale Commercial that the hotel could contain as many as 500 rooms and that he "could fill it the year round." Regardless of the exaggeration, however, interest in constructing grander hotels in Meyersdale had reached a frenzied pitch as Knapp and Kyle came increasingly close to becoming the only entrepreneurs to complete the task.(8)
While Knapp and Kyle planned to start their enterprise with the Hotel Stein, fate chose a different course. Shortly before 6 a.m., on Friday, November 14, 1902, the hotel staff noticed smoke emerging from the wainscoting and behind a built-in cabinet in the kitchen. They roused Kyle, who immediately ripped the wainscoting and cabinets from the walls. He tried using the hotel fire hose to douse the flames, but the fire was already smoldering in the space between the interior walls and the exterior brick veneer. Kyle ordered his staff to evacuate guests while he pulled a general fire alarm. By 8:15 a.m., what had been Meyersdale's grandest hotel was a smoldering ruin.(9)
Kyle and Knapp responded to the tragedy with amazing alacrity. The next business day, they petitioned to transfer their liquor license to the building just west of the hotel site. While this move was legally necessary to retain the license, it was also an indication of an economic reality many hotels faced: despite high occupancy rates, it was often the bar receipts that kept inns afloat. Moreover, Somerset County required that liquor could only be served at member's only social clubs and at taverns also offering lodging. At that same time, Kyle and Knapp purchased outright the site of the ruined hotel from John Stein. Less than a week later, they hired a Baltimore architect to design an even grander edifice for their new hotel. The Meyersdale Commercial reported that the pair "propose[d] to profit by the mistakes made in the old one." The Meyersdale Republican, after reviewing plans for the new hotel, proclaimed: "The exterior of the building is beautiful and artistic in its design and will make a handsome appearance. …When the building is completed Meyersdale will have reason to be proud of it." Kyle and Knapp's desire to not only rebuild the hotel, but to do so in a larger and grander fashion, indicates that the hostelry, complete with bar and dining room, was a moneymaking proposition in the thriving town.(10)
While Kyle and Knapp's "Baltimore architect" is never mentioned by name, circumstantial evidence suggests that it was one of the city's leading architects, Charles E. Cassell. Charles Knapp had been a student at the University of Virginia when Cassell had designed and completed a new chapel on the campus. Cassell had designed both the Stafford Hotel and the office building housing Knapp's law firm. Cassell's Park Avenue home was only a block away from both the Cushing family home and Knapp's later Lanvale Street residence. Given their close geographic proximity and similar social status, Knapp and Cassell most likely attended the same events. The hotel Kyle and Knapp planned to erect in Meyersdale was extremely urban in its design. These elements included a heavy facade. treatment with dropped cornice and a light well, which provided light and ventilation to interior rooms. While both of these features were common in urban areas, the New Colonial Hotel represents the only time they were ever constructed in Meyersdale. The hotel's architect borrowed the stylistic elements familiar to him on the Baltimore streets and brought it to this town deep in mountains.(11)
Kyle and Knapp requested bids for the construction of the new hotel in February 1903. The scale and scope of the project attracted attention from around the region. Local builders competed with contractors from Connellsville, Cumberland, and Baltimore to win the contract. Ultimately, however, Kyle and Knapp decided to hire the local favorite, Meyersdale Planning Mill, one of the most respected builders in the region and, ultimately, the contractors responsible for constructing a large portion of the town's major buildings. Kyle and Knapp accepted their bid of $22,000 on February 17, 1903.(12)
The year 1903 was unlike any other in Meyersdale's history. By that time, the town had electric lights, paved streets, and water and sewer systems. All of these were installed before any other town in Somerset County had done so. But an unprecedented building boom during the spring and summer of that year marked the pinnacle of the area's golden era. Some 45 building projects were underway in the borough, accounting for 55 individual buildings. The Meyersdale Republican estimated that these improvements totaled more than $230,000, or $4.6 million in 2002. These projects included the H.J. Wilmoth and P.J. Cover mansions, two of the largest and most elaborate homes ever built in Meyersdale. Most notable, however, was the new construction occurring in downtown. In a settlement where few buildings reached three stories or exceeded a footprint of a 1,000 square feet, a quartet of massive, four-story buildings were under construction at the same time: the Citizens National Bank, the Appel-Glessner Building, the Reich Building and the New Colonial Hotel. (The Appel-Glessner and Reich buildings were technically two separate buildings sharing a common wall; they were designed by the same architect, constructed at the same time, and share the same facade. treatment.) These four new commercial buildings, which continue to dominate Meyersdale's skyline, represented three roles Meyersdale played as interface between the metropolitan corridor and the rural countryside: the mover of money, the mover of goods, and the mover of people. However, the Republican estimated that the hotel's actual construction costs exceeded $45,000, where the bank cost $25,000 and the combined Appel-Glessner/Reich block cost another $25,000. The New Colonial Hotel represented a full fifth of the total cost of the 45 building projects underway in 1903.(13)
Construction of the new hotel building lingered into the fall and early winter of 1903, long after the other major building projects had been completed. But the results were breathtaking. Opened to the public on Monday, January 11, 1904, the New Colonial Hotel was by far the largest and most elegant hotel in Somerset County at that time. Architecturally, the hotel was an example of the Colonial Revival, with elements of the Neoclassical. These styles were particularly popular at the turn of the twentieth century, representing a cultural euphoria as the United States began to dominate the world economy and culture. The architecture was meant to suggest an aura of classical sophistication with democratic approachability. It was, however, the only Colonial Revival commercial building in Meyersdale until the completion of the United States Post Office in 1938. The symmetrical facade. originally featured a classical portico faithfully expressing the Greek Doric order. This included round, fluted columns with simple capitals, supporting a frieze with evenly spaced triglyphs. The quoins, along with the multiple-light, sash windows, were meant to evoke the Georgian style, a form of Colonial architecture. Interestingly, several Georgian town homes, with Doric porticos, were adjacent to the Stafford Hotel in Baltimore; Kyle and Knapp would have seen them each time they departed the hotel. Moreover the New Colonial Hotel appears to incorporate elements of the original eighteenth-century Stafford Hotel at St. James Place in London, a building with which Kyle was intimately familiar. Particularly notable were the French doors flanking the hulking, main entrance, the large, tripartite windows, and the overwrought elements of Georgian architecture, particularly the dentiled cornice.
New Colonial Hotel, circa 1904.
This cornice was perhaps the most interesting architectural feature of the hotel. Generally, a cornice was installed at the top of the facade, where the wall and roof met. The peculiar placement of the cornice on the New Colonial Hotel suggested a connection to Kyle and Knapp's urban experiences. By the 1890s, American building materials and methods had advanced to the point where buildings over five stories were relatively simple to build. As real estate prices skyrocketed in city centers, developers increasingly demanded taller and taller buildings. This presented architects with a problem: how would they treat the massive vertical expanse of a tall building? For the solution, they turned to classical architecture, considering the entire facade as a single column, complete with a base, shaft, and capital. By moving the cornice downward, the floors above the decorative element became the column's capital. Not surprisingly, among the most prominent of these early skyscrapers were hotels, including the Stafford Hotel in Baltimore, which had a very prominent dropped cornice. Thus, Kyle and Knapp sought to create in Meyersdale a miniature of the new, grand urban hotels, particularly those in cities along the B&O's mainline from Baltimore-Washington to Chicago.(14)
Knapp and Kyle demanded a level of interior finishing that other buildings in Meyersdale simply did not require. In addition to storage and utility rooms, the lower level hosted a bar, billiard room, three card rooms, as well as cellars for wine, beer, and liquor. The floor of the bar area was a black-and-white terrazzo mosaic and ceilings varied from pressed tin to elaborate wood and plaster coffering. The main floor boasted a spacious lobby, with red oak columns, wainscoting, and a massive, curved front desk. Flanking the main entry were French doors. Large, oak pocket doors provided access to parlors on either end of the lobby. These were most likely originally intended as "sample rooms," spaces where traveling salesmen could display their goods. The large, main dining room featured an elegant fireplace and an edge-cut oak floor. The main floor also contained an office, reading room, kitchen, pantry, and serving room. Elaborate fireplaces and over mantels, each in a different classical motif, dotted the first and second floors. The second floor featured a ladies parlor.(15)
New Colonial Hotel lobby, circa 1910. Elbridge Kyle is standing at left, in front of the desk, with the collies.
The guest rooms, divided among the second through fourth floors, were arranged in a U shape around the light well. This provided natural light and ventilation to the rooms on the inside of the hallway. There were originally 58 guest rooms, but this number was reduced to 55 as additional bathrooms were installed in later years. Each floor also had its share of bathrooms and water closets, and every room, except those on the top floor, had a sink with hot and cold running water. Guest rooms became smaller and offered less amenities the higher they were. Those rooms on the top floor were small and, in the spirit of America's grand hotels, were most likely originally intended for the hotel staff and the servants of wealthier guests.
The Republican noted that the hotel was the "handsomest hotel structure in the county," and one visitor to the newly open inn remarked, "Uniontown, with its ten thousand population, has not got so fine a public house."(16) Kyle gave P.L. Livengood, editor of the Somerset County Star in Elk Lick (later Salisbury), a personal tour of the New Colonial Hotel. On January 21, 1904, he published a review of the new hotel in his newspaper:
Last week we had the pleasure of being shown through the Colonial Hotel, the splendid new structure recently erected in Meyersdale by Knapp and Kyle. It is certainly a model hostelry, and the one feature that pleases people in particular is the splendid and handsome equipment of the bedrooms. There is nothing in all Somerset County to compare with it, and landlord Kyle is also a credit to the place. He is very accommodating and gives his entire house his closest personal attention.(17)
Elbridge Kyle provided at the New Colonial Hotel an unprecedented level of sophistication and individual customer service; he had taken his experiences at large urban luxury hotels in the United States and Europe and now applied them to his enterprise in Meyersdale. Unlike the town's smaller hotels, Kyle employed an army of staff members, ranging from bellhops and shoeshines to desk clerks and chefs. Described as efficient and methodical, Kyle managed his staff with military discipline and regularity. "He planned his work and his coming and going with clock-like regularity," remembered Rev. Dr. B. A. Black at Kyle's funeral:
He demanded so much of himself and was so methodical and orderly in his own life that he naturally expected much of his associates. When they did not meet his expectations of course he was disappointed and often disheartened. And sometimes his disappointment was mistaken for harshness. One who holds himself up to rigid standards of efficiency will naturally expect much from others.(18)
Kyle modeled his hotel service on the European rather than the American plan. The American plan "entailed serving meals at fixed times, no frills, no tipping, and little or no follow-up service," while the European plan surrounded the guest in service. The European plan expanded quickly beginning in 1900 at American's luxury hotels and diffused to moderately priced lodging by 1915. Indeed, the growing popularity of the European plan was one the leading factors in the fivefold increase in service workers between 1870 and 1910. This rise in service workers was 2.5 times the rate of increase of the industrial workers most often associated with this same period. And Kyle would have been familiar with the European plan both because of his employment with Stafford Hotels and his association with James P. O'Connor, with whom Kyle founded in 1889 the Maryland chapter of the Hotelmen's Association of the United States and Canada. A former manager of the Stafford, O'Connor was best known as general manager of the Hotel Rennert, which rivaled the Stafford as the most elegant hotel in Baltimore at the turn of the twentieth century. The Hotel Rennert's ads from approximately 1900 through the 1920s expressly mention the "European Plan." The partial adoption of the European plan as early as 1904 in a town the size of Meyersdale appears to have been extremely rare. However, it corresponds to the owners' concept of the New Colonial Hotel as a miniature of large-scale, urban hotels. Two features of the hotel exemplify the European plan. First, the New Colonial Hotel boasted rooms of various sizes that could be arranged in suites, with or without a private bathroom, allowing the facility to lodge guests with a range of socioeconomic statuses. Associated with this were rooms designed for the servants of wealthy guests. The second feature was truly an innovation for a hotel of this size – an electric call box system. Kyle equipped each room with a button that, when pressed, would illuminate its corresponding number on a large board beside the front desk. The system allowed guests to order drinks and meals in their rooms, call for a maid or bellhop, or access any number of the hotel's services. While similar systems had been installed in many American mansions, their existence in American hotels was not widespread at the time of the New Colonial Hotel's construction. Indeed, a widely heralded and only somewhat more sophisticated system was not installed in New York's Waldorf-Astoria until after Lucius Bloom took over the hotel in 1918. Much of the electric call system in the New Colonial Hotel remains intact.(19)
The New Colonial Hotel was also remarkable for its cuisine. At the time, Meyersdale's other restaurants and hotel dining rooms served basic, usually German-derived comfort foods from established menus. But the New Colonial Hotel boasted extensive, multi-course meals with elaborate entrees that changed with each meal each day. A flawlessly attired and, later, uniformed wait staff served the meals on place settings that included china plates, cups, and saucers; crystal goblets; and silver utensils, all on white linen. The hotel's reputation for serving the area's finest cuisine in the most elegant setting continued through the 1960s.
In its first two decades of operation, newspapers boosted their accolades of the hotel from the finest in Somerset County to "one of the best hotels in Western Pennsylvania."(20) Certainly there was nothing else like it on the 95 miles of the B&O mainline between Cumberland and Connellsville, marking Meyersdale's position as a regional hub. Not surprisingly, with its gracious accommodations, unsurpassed cuisine, lively saloon, and large meeting spaces, the New Colonial Hotel became the center of Meyersdale's social life. It hosted a steady stream of parties, banquets, community celebrations, and the meetings of fraternal organizations. Indeed, most of Meyersdale's active social organizations met here, including the Meyersdale Womens Club and the Lions Club. The Meyersdale Rotary Club, at the time a powerful collection of the town's leading businessmen and professionals, met so often here that they eventually gained their own meeting room, on the east side of the first floor.(21)
The comings and goings of visitors and residents through the New Colonial Hotel established it as a center of news and gossip in the town. Much of the out-of-town news came by way of the "boomers," or traveling salesman, who established the hotel as a regional hub as they pied the rails and roads of this remote area of western Pennsylvania and Maryland. The news and gossip was further enhanced by the Western Union telegraph office in the lobby, which later also hosted one of the first public pay phones in Somerset County. Even as the number of passengers on the railroads decreased through the early twentieth century, a hubbub continued in the lobby. The New Colonial Hotel served as Meyersdale's bus depot. Somerset Bus Company conveyances provided daily service to and from the small villages dotting the Casselman Valley, as well as between Somerset and Cumberland, Maryland.(22)
Although Knapp sold his share of the hotel to Kyle in 1906, the latter continued to operate the hotel by himself until he retired from day-to-day management in 1912. Kyle's lifestyle following his retirement from the New Colonial Hotel suggested that the business allowed him to amass a considerable fortune. He became one of the town's leading citizens. He served as superintendent of the Sand Spring Water Company, overseeing the largest expansion since the firm first piped water into the borough. Kyle sat on the Board of Directors of the Second National Bank in Meyersdale. Perhaps his most important post-retirement position was his appointment to the Board of Directors of the Somerset County Home and Hospital. Through the 1910s the condition and management of the hospital and home deteriorated to the point that it was ranked among the worst institutions in the state. The Pennsylvania State Board of Charities eventually stepped in and forced the resignation of two board members. County residents overwhelmingly supported Kyle's appointment to one of the vacant seats. Through the hotel, he had proven that his regimented and strict management style led to success. Kyle was largely credited with gutting, reorganizing, and, in a matter of a few years, transforming the Somerset County Home and Hospital into one of the state's top facilities. Moreover, at his funeral, Kyle's pallbearers were all the most successful businessmen and political leaders in Meyersdale. Among them were S.B. Philson, chairman of Citizens National Bank; J.H. Bowman, chairman of the Second National Bank; entrepreneurs G.W. Collins and Fred L. Wilmoth; and physician Dr. Bruce Lichty.(23)
After his retirement from day-to-day management, Kyle leased the building to a series of hotel management concerns. As his health steadily declined, Kyle sold the hotel outright in 1924 to James W. and Delbert Rush. Historic photographs suggest that it was during the Rush period of ownership, the latter half of the 1920s, that the New Colonial Hotel underwent its most profound structural alteration: the replacement of the original portico. The new porch was not nearly as formal as its predecessor. It did, however, reflect the more modern tastes and styles of the 1920s and included a streamlined, neon sign. The new porch also remedied a serious flaw: the original portico was too small for socializing. The new porch took advantage of the building's unusually deep setback while extending east to the edge of the front (south) facade Multi-light, double-hung sash windows enclosed the balcony, creating a generous sunroom. Most importantly, the new porch allowed the hotel to install a line of large, comfortable rocking chairs. These chairs, with their commanding view of Main Street, became an institution in themselves and, for many, one of their most beloved memories of the New Colonial Hotel. Leroy Glime, a longtime Meyersdale resident and former mayor, remembered as a child looking up at the men sitting on the hotel's porch. They were dressed in the period's finest fashions as they smoked cigars. Glime equated them with the faces he saw in the dining car window of the B&O's posh Capitol Limited as it sped through Meyersdale. "I thought that they must be the richest men in the world," Glime recalled.(24)
The Rushes may also have been responsible for remodeling the dining room. This included the fitting of ceiling beams and an elegant new wall treatment that featured the hotel's monogram emblazoned on a shield. The most important and unique features installed in the dining room were a series of large murals painted by Cumberland artists Hermann and Gertrude DuBrau. Certainly Meyersdale's other hotels and businesses had murals of their own. But they always portrayed pleasant but nondescript landscapes. The DuBraus, on the other hand, only painted specific local scenes. One of the smaller murals probably depicts a bridge and dam just across the state line in Maryland. On the east wall of the dining room, the DuBraus painted their largest murals. One depicted a maple sugar camp along the Casselman River. The other showed Keystone Viaduct, the Western Maryland Railway's spectacular crossing of Flaugherty Creek and the B&O mainline, east of Meyersdale – a major engineering marvel in the area. Interestingly, the DuBraus' choice of subjects for their largest murals prophesied the two major features for which Meyersdale would become best known in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries: the annual Pennsylvania Maple Festival and the Great Allegheny Passage, the rails-to-trails project linking Pittsburgh to Cumberland, constructed on the Western Maryland's abandoned right of way.
New Colonial Hotel, circa 1930. Note the remodeled porch.
Despite the success of the New Colonial Hotel's remodeled porch and dining room, the economics of operating the hotel had drastically altered by the time the Rushes had purchased it. The biggest change came in 1919 with the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment, which prohibited the manufacturing and transportation of alcohol in the United States. Prohibition hit all hotels, large and small, particularly hard. Local legend maintains that a speakeasy opened deep in the recesses of the hotel's basement. While the illegal manufacture of alcohol did occur in remote areas around the town, no evidence supports the existence of a speakeasy at the hotel. Regardless, without legal saloon proceeds and, later, the onset of the Great Depression, the Rushes' business faltered and an aged and ailing Kyle repurchased the hotel at a sheriff's sale in September 1932. Kyle died less than a month later. His widow, Elsie, continued to own the hotel. She leased it to the Greenoble Hotel Corporation, which appointed F. P. Greenlund as general manager. Elsie Kyle eventually sold the hotel in 1939 to John and Mary Sherman, who brought new life to the struggling enterprise.(25)
John Sherman was born in Italy in 1892, coming to America at the age of 10. He married Mary Dickey of Marblehead, Ohio, and had two children, John and Evelyn, the latter of whom assisted in operating the inn. Mr. Sherman's hotel career in Meyersdale began as a manager and barkeep at the Somerset House, which is now the Moose Lodge. Unlike previous owners of the New Colonial Hotel, the Shermans actually moved their residence to the building, providing the family with certain financial and operational efficiencies. They assumed the southern portion of the second floor as their apartment. The Shermans understood that the economic environment that had made the New Colonial Hotel possible had changed. They placed even more emphasis on the dining room and bar, providing Mary's home-cooked yet elegantly presented meals and a casual place to socialize. Most insightful, the Shermans immediately launched a billboard advertising campaign as more and more travelers came by automobile than by train.(26)
By the time the Shermans purchased the New Colonial Hotel, it had earned a half-century-long reputation as Meyersdale's premier gathering place. Through its lobby passed wealthy travelers and actors performing at the town's opera houses, as well as miners and farmers in town for the weekend. It became a temporary home and office to salesman working the region – a circumstance that would continue to keep occupancy rates high. "Salesman traveling out of Pittsburgh and Cleveland and Baltimore, when in this territory, arrange to be in Meyersdale overnight so they can put up at the New Colonial," noted the Meyersdale Republican in 1940. "They like its atmosphere, its unequalled accommodation; the friendly manner of the proprietor and his assistants."(27)
Following, World War II, however, Somerset County began a long, slow decline in its economy and population – a decline that would continue through the 1980s. Shaw Mines and other local large-scale operations could no longer afford to mine the low-grade coal buried too deeply in the earth's crust. Small manufacturing companies moved elsewhere to newer facilities and cheaper labor. Farmers faced a diminished return on their crops at the same time taxes on their land soared. Many were forced to sell their beloved sugar maple groves to lumber companies. A chance endorsement of Somerset County maple syrup by radio star Kate Smith, however, led many in Meyersdale to consider holding an annual maple festival – to support the maple industry and bring visitors to downtown Meyersdale.
On Thursday, March 18, 1948, the New Colonial Hotel transformed from social center to secular temple. On that date, U.S. Representative William J. Crow placed a paper crown on the head of Agnes Jean Hornbrook, Queen Maple I, while standing on a rostrum in front of the hotel. Before them, cramming Main Street, was a crowd reportedly numbering in the thousands. In addition to providing an elegant backdrop to the coronation ceremonies, the New Colonial Hotel also served as the nerve center for the early festivals, hosting banquets, concerts, displays, and, in the west parlor, festival headquarters. The early festival organizers could have chosen any number of venues to host events, but none rivaled the New Colonial Hotel in elegance and importance. Indeed, in 1950, the festival tried hosting the coronation ceremony at Market Square in Meyersdale. The next year, organizers gladly returned the event to the hotel.(28)
U.S. Rep. William Crow crowns Agnes Jean Hornbrook as Queen Maple I at the first Maple Festival in 1948. They are standing in front of the New Colonial Hotel.
Because of the Maple Festival, the hotel hosted a number of dignified guests, including U.S. Representatives Anthony J. Cavalcante, Edward L. Sittler Jr., and Richard M. Simpson; Lieutenant Governor Daniel B. Strickler; Governor (later U.S. Senator) James H. Duff; and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Charles F. Brannan. A brief partnership with Quaker Oats, featuring its pancake mix, brought Aunt Jemima herself to the hotel's kitchen, frying pancakes for awaiting dignitaries in the dining room. Queens continued to be crowned in front of the New Colonial Hotel for approximately a decade.(29)
The New Colonial Hotel provides an elegant backdrop for the coronation ceremonies of the ninth annual Maple Festival.
In the 1950s, the hotel also hosted world-renowned operatic baritone John Charles Thomas as he returned to his birthplace. Thomas was the lead baritone for the New York Metropolitan Opera and was an RCA recording artist. Among his hits were recordings of Home on the Range and The Lord's Prayer. In 1954, the dining room was the site of a lavish banquet held in Thomas's honor. He had just completed a sold-out concert at Meyersdale's State Theater, were all ticket proceeds benefited the construction of Meyersdale Community Hospital.
After John Sherman's death in 1955, Mary continued to operate the hotel, with the continued assistance of her daughter and son-in-law, Evelyn and Stephen Gimble, and nephew John Kamalsky. But the region's recession brought fewer and fewer visitors to town. Advertising on new media and quicker means of communication replaced the traveling salesmen. Each night, increasingly more rooms were vacant at the New Colonial Hotel. By the mid 1960s, financial difficulties forced the Sherman family to defer routine maintenance of the usually impeccably kept hotel. In declining health, Mary sold the building in late 1966 or early 1967 to Robert J. and Evelyn F. Glessner; John H. and Dorothy E. Mostoller; and Lawrence A. and Dorothy Will. To give new life to the enterprise, these investors changed the name of the hotel to the Stagecoach Inn and renovated the interior. Perhaps the most notable change was the addition of the first floor "sunken" cocktail lounge. This was accomplished by enclosing the easternmost portion of the front porch and remodeling the rest of the east parlor in a style popular in the late 1960s, including dark paneling, shag carpet, and velvet-covered walls. Unfortunately, more and more attention was focused on the basement and first floor – which generated some revenue – while the upper three floors deteriorated.(30)
In 1971, Jay L. and Cornelia C. Shaulis purchased the Stagecoach Inn. But strapped with the large, aging building while the region languished in a recession, the endeavor ultimately proved impossible. The hotel once again sold at a sheriff's sale in 1978. Purchasing the building were Blaine and Anna Sechler, who gave the old hotel new life as Sechler Sports Distributing. The Sechlers remodeled the lower and main floors for use as a warehouse, showrooms, and offices. They also installed a modern apartment on the second floor. The Sechlers remained the owners of record almost continuously between that time and February 2004, when Cheria Yost and Adam Thomas, the current owners, purchased the property.
Over the course of its century-long history, the New Colonial Hotel has served as a reflection of the Meyersdale area's economic and social history. It preserves a sense of elegance and lavishness of golden age gone by while weathering devastating economic storms. Today, the Historic Colonial Hotel is a landmark in Meyersdale – one of the most visible buildings in the town. It's graceful facade and sheer mass make it one of the most significant elements contributing to Meyersdale's unique sense of place.
1. Herman E. Basehore, "Meyersdale History," [pamphlet] Meyersdale: Meyersdale Area Jaycees, 1976.
2. Charles S. Roberts, Sand Patch: Cumberland to Connellsville and Branches 1837-1993 (Baltimore: Barnard, Roberts & Co., 1993), 84-93; Adam Thomas, "Riding into the past: A trip down the Salisbury branch," The [Meyersdale] New Republic, 8 September 1994, p. 1.
3. William Welfley, "History of Meyersdale" in William H. Koontz, ed., History of Bedford and Somerset Counties, Pennsylvania (New York: Lewis Publishing Co., 1906).
4. "The New Hotel Building," Meyersdale Commercial, 26 October 1899, p. 5; "Hotel Stein," Meyersdale Commercial, 26 April 1900.
5. "Charles Henry Knapp," in Eugene Fauntleroy Cordell, University of Maryland, 1807-1907, vol. 2 (New York: Lewis Publishing Co., 1907), 131; "Weddings: Knapp-Cushing," Baltimore Sun, 15 February 1903, p. 6; "In Social Circles," Baltimore World, 16 February 1903, p. 4; Baltimore Evening Sun, 1 November 1934.
6. "Elbridge C. Kyle," in William H. Koontz, ed., History of Bedford and Somerset Counties, Pennsylvania (New York: Lewis Publishing Co., 1906), pp. 422, 424.
7. "Weddings: Knapp-Cushing;" AIMCO Stafford Apartments, "The Stafford Apartments," pamphlet available to potential renters, Stafford Apartments, Baltimore, 2004.
8. Meyersdale Commercial, 20 November 1902, p. 7.
9. "Hotel Stein in Ashes," Meyersdale Commercial, 20 November 1902, p. 3; "Hotel Stein Entirely Destroyed by Fire," Meyersdale Republican, 20 November 1902, p. 1
10. "Will be Replaced," Meyersdale Commercial, 20 November 1902, p. 3; "New Hotel Plans Completed," Meyersdale Republican, 5 February 1903, p. 4.
11. "Weddings: Knapp-Cushing;" "Charles Henry Knapp;" Brexton Renaissance, "Charles Emmett Cassell," [website]; available from http://www.brexton.org/; Internet; accessed 24 August 2004.
12. "The bids for the building of the new hotel…," Meyersdale Republican, 12 February 1903, p. 5; "Home Concern Gets Contract," Meyersdale Republican, 19 February 1903, p. 3.
13. "$230,000 Improvements," Meyersdale Republican, 21 May 1903, p. 1; Myrtle McWilliams, "New Colonial Hotel history starts after Stein fire in '02," Meyersdale Republican, undated article (circa 1967) in the collection of Adam Thomas; 2002 cost based on the Consumer Price Index.
14. Richard Longstreth, The Buildings of Main Street: A Guide to American Commercial Architecture, updated ed. (Walnut Creek, Calif.: AltaMira Press, 2000), 76.
16. "The Colonial Hotel," Meyersdale Republican, 7 December 1903, p. 1; "The Colonial Hotel opened its doors…," Meyersdale Commercial, 14 January 1904;
17. P.L. Livengood, Somerset County Star, 21 January 1904; quoted in McWilliams.
18. Rev. B. A. Black, D.D., eulogy for Elbridge Kyle; quoted in "Two More of Meyersdale's Sterling Citizens Join the Great Majority," Meyersdale Republican, 20 October 1932, p. 1, 4.
19. "Elbridge C. Kyle," in Koontz, 424; William Leach, Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture, (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), 131-2.
20. "Two More of Meyersdale's Sterling Citizens…";
21. John Kimalsky, interview with Cheria Yost, 31 May 2004.
23. "Two More of Meyersdale's Sterling Citizens…."
24. Leroy Glime, interview with Adam Thomas, May 29, 2004.
26. "Shermans Give Meyersdale Fine Hotel," Meyersdale Republican, 28 November 1940.
28. Pennsylvania Maple Festival scrapbook, in the collection of the Pennsylvania Room, Meyersdale Public Library.