Memories of Pekin’s lost hotels

This is a reprint of a “From the Local History Room” column that first appeared in February 2012 before the launch of this weblog.

Memories of Pekin’s lost hotels

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

Modern travelers passing through Pekin or staying for a few days have a few hotels to choose from out on the east end of town, but in the past downtown Pekin had an array of hotels where visitors to “the Celestial City” could find food and a place to lay their heads at night. Following are some of the interesting details about the history of Pekin’s lost hotels may be gleaned from the files of the Pekin Public Library’s Local History Room.

Gideon H. Hawley opened the first hotel in Pekin in 1830, but little is known about his venture. In 1839, the Columbia Hotel was opened at Margaret and Fourth streets, where the Windsor Hotel later was built. Another prominent hotel of early Pekin was the American, which was torn down in 1874.

In 1848, two ‘first class’ hotels were established in Pekin. One of them, the Eagle, was on the riverfront at the foot of Court Street. The Eagle’s keeper was Seth Kinman, who later achieved notoriety as a hunter and trapper, presenting Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson with buckhorn and bearclaw chairs that he had made. The other hotel was the Taylor House, later called the Mansion House, whose keeper was “Uncle Bill” Tinney, a veteran of the Mexican-American War who was one of the American soldiers who captured General Santa Ana’s wooden leg (the general leaving it behind during his escape on the back of a mule).

The late former Pekin resident Charles B. Smith in 1946 related the following anecdote he’d heard from those days, when Pekin still had much of the character of a wild frontier town:

“A traveler came off an Illinois river boat one day and went to the Eagle Hotel. There had been a little western scrimmage at the Eagle the night before and, though things had not yet been put in order, the proprietor, Seth Kinman, was sitting in front of the door playing his favorite tune, the Arkansas Traveler, with the greatest self-satisfaction. The stranger stopped and asked Seth: ‘Are you the proprietor here?’ Seth, without resting his bow, replied: ‘Wal, I reckon I be, stranger.’ ‘Do you keep tavern?’ ‘Of course I do, keep tavern like hell’ said Seth fiddling away with all his might, ‘Just pile in, hang your freight on the floor and make yourself at home.’ ‘The boys,’ continued Seth, ‘have been having a little fun but if there’s a whole table or plate in the house I’ll get you some cold hash toward night.’

“The stranger didn’t like the place and took his departure leaving the proprietor still enjoying his violin.

“Late in the afternoon the stranger presented himself at the Taylor House. Uncle Bill Tinney met him outside with his most austere expression. His greeting was: ‘Good morning, good morning, sir. Walk in, sir, and take a seat. Shave you as soon as water gets warm.’ The stranger, not requiring the services of a barber, walked away in haste and amazement and Uncle Bill swore audibly: ‘Some infernal Yankee come out west to steal honest people’s money.’

“The next steamboat that came along found the discomfited traveler on the river bank, awaiting passage for anywhere out of Pekin.”

Tinney later became Pekin’s Justice of the Peace and police magistrate, and also served terms as Tazewell County Sheriff and Coroner, acquiring the nickname “Five Dollars and Costs” because that was the fine he would hand down except in major cases. He was even better known for his stance in support of the voting rights of blacks — after the Civil War, he made a name for himself locally when he, a white man, escorted an African-American man of Pekin to the polls to exercise his newly-won right to vote.

The old Tazewell House hotel, owned and operated by Tazewell County Sheriff “Uncle Bill” Tinney, as depicted in the 1873 Atlas Map of Tazewell County

In 1859, Tinney also became the manager of the Eagle, which he renamed “Tazewell House.” Both Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas stayed at the Eagle or Tazewell House when they were in town on lawyerly business at the Tazewell County Courthouse.

Even so, business at the Tazewell House wasn’t very good, so the property passed in 1867 to Thomas K. Bemis, who rechristened the hotel “Bemis House.” Under his direction, as Charles B. Smith recalled from his own youth, Bemis House became Pekin’s preeminent hotel and the center of Pekin’s social life until the 1880s, when it suffered major damage during a tornado. The structure was repaired, but after Bemis’ death it became a boarding house and finally was razed during the 1940s.

Bemis House, at one time Pekin’s preeminent hotel, is shown in this early 20th-century photograph. Under its original name of Tazewell House, the hotel once hosted Abraham Lincoln and other notable local attorneys when they came to Pekin on legal business at the Tazewell County Courthouse. The site at the corner of Court and Front streets is now a part of Gene Miller Park, adjacent to Pekin’s Riverfront Park. PHOTO COURTESY THE TAZEWELL COUNTY CLERK’S OFFICE

In 1879, Mrs. E. Barber converted a building into a hotel on Elizabeth Street across the street from the courthouse. This was Woodard House or Woodard’s, which burned down in 1899. The Tazewell Hotel was built in its place. In 1962, the building was sold to Herget National Bank, which razed it to make way for a parking lot. At the time, the Tazewell was the only remaining major hotel in downtown Pekin.

Woodard’s Hotel on Elizabeth Street across the street from the courthouse was opened by Mrs. E. Barber in 1879. It burned down in 1899 and was later replaced by The Tazewell Hotel.

The Tazewell Hotel stood until 1962, when it was purchased by Herget Bank and demolished to make space for a parking lot.

Around the turn of the century, the Tazewell was one of seven hotels in the city. One of them, the Illinois Hotel (formerly called Sherman House), outlived the Tazewell by little more than a year, being torn down in the spring of 1963. Sherman House was built in 1874 by John Weber at the corner of Second and St. Mary streets. The Union House was opened in 1881 by Leonhard Dietrich. Two others, the Central House and the Columbia (opened in 1893), were torn down in the 1950s. By then, however, the era of Pekin’s grand downtown hotels was already past.

The Illinois Hotel, originally called Sherman House in the 1800s, was located at the northeast corner of Second and St. Mary streets. It was torn down in the spring of 1963. The block of St. Mary Street between Second and Third streets no longer exists, now occupied by public housing.

Central Hotel, or Central House, was operated by the Rossi family at 333 Margaret St. It was demolished in the 1950s.

The Columbia Hotel, at the corner of N. Fourth and Margaret streets, was opened in 1893 by William H. Lauterbach. It was demolished in the 1950s.

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Abraham Lincoln slept, stood and walked here

This is a revised version of a “From the Local History Room” column that first appeared in May 2014 before the launch of this weblog, republished here as a part of our Illinois Bicentennial Series on early Illinois history.

Abraham Lincoln slept, stood and walked here

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

The Union barely had time to celebrate Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse on April 9, 1865, before the nation was horrified by the assassination of its Commander-in-Chief, President Abraham Lincoln, at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C., on April 14 – a mere five days later.

One of Pekin’s pioneers was in Washington, D.C., during those days of sorrow: Seth Kinman, who formerly operated a hotel in downtown Pekin, claimed to have been an eye-witness of the president’s assassination, and contemporary newspaper accounts say Kinman took part in Lincoln’s funeral cortege.

As a result of his assassination, Lincoln came to be revered as a martyr for the cause of preserving the Union and for the abolitionist cause. The people of Illinois in particular have held his memory in the highest esteem ever since. It is in the state capital, Springfield, where he is entombed, and in towns and cities throughout the state Illinoisans are still proud to point to buildings and locations where Lincoln once lived, worked, or stayed. This is especially true of communities in central Illinois.

One of our county’s Lincoln sites unfortunately was destroyed by fire in May 2014 – the approximately 180-year-old Lilly Inn in eastern Tazewell County, one of the county’s oldest buildings, was a local link to President Abraham Lincoln, who stayed at the inn while riding the circuit as an attorney in central Illinois from the 1830s to the 1850s.

The Lilly Inn was, of course, far from the only site in our area with ties to Lincoln. For example, his work as a lawyer sometimes brought to him Mason County, where he is known to have stayed in the home of his friend Samuel C. Conwell on Washington Street in Havana. Conwell’s home, which he built in the early 1850s, is still standing.

In Tazewell County, Washington also boasts of its connection with Lincoln. At the old Washington Hotel, which stood where a BP parking lot is today, Lincoln made a stump speech during a stop on the way to Galesburg to debate Stephen A. Douglas. Some years ago, Washington placed five Bronze footprints at locations in Washington where Lincoln is known to have stopped in his travels.

Lincoln’s work brought him to Tazewell County two or three times a year, and he represented clients at the county’s courthouses in Tremont and Pekin. Naturally this work produced numerous Tazewell County legal documents bearing Lincoln’s signature or handwriting or name, and most of these precious mementos of Lincoln’s life, while remaining the possession of Tazewell County, are now in the keeping of the state of Illinois in Springfield.

One of Lincoln’s more important cases was Bailey vs. Cromwell (1841), in which Lincoln appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court in Springfield and won the freedom of Nance Legins-Costley (“Black Nance”) of Pekin, a slave of Pekin pioneer co-founder Nathan Cromwell. Lincoln successfully argued that Costley and her children had to be recognized as free under Illinois law since there was no legal documentation establishing that they had ever been the property of the principals involved in the case, or that Costley had ever agreed to a temporary contract of indentured servitude.

When he came to Pekin for court, Lincoln often stayed at the old Tazewell House hotel, which stood from 1849 to 1904 at the corner of Court and Front streets (Gene Miller Park today). After the Tazewell House hotel was demolished, its threshold was preserved at the Tazewell County Courthouse, and was inscribed with words commemorating the fact that “Hereon trod the great Abraham Lincoln – Stephen A. Douglas – John A. Logan – Robert G. Ingersoll – David Davis – Edward D. Baker and others.

Tazewell House presumably was the Pekin hotel in the lobby of which, according to Tom Wheeler’s article, “The First Wired President,” published on a New York Times blog in May 2012, Lincoln first saw a telegraph key in 1857.

Lincoln’s legal career created another tangible link between Lincoln and Tazewell County – Lincoln sometimes would purchase his clients’ land and hold it for them in his name, later returning it when cases were concluded. That’s how Lincoln came to own several parcels of land in Tazewell, including the land at the intersection of Allentown and Springfield roads (where Morton has held the annual Punkin Chuckin event).

This 2008 Pekin Daily Times informational graphic chart describes 22 sites in Pekin that have direct or indirect links to President Abraham Lincoln. The list was researched and compiled by Dale Kuntz.

In 2008, retired teacher Dale Kuntz of Pekin, who served on the Tazewell County Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission preparing for the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth in 1809, proposed that the city of Pekin create a historical “Lincoln Walk” in downtown Pekin to help visitors and residents learn more about Lincoln’s ties to the city.

Kuntz’s historical research had identified 22 sites along the proposed route that can be shown to have direct and indirect Lincoln connections, starting at the bank of the Illinois River where Lincoln had landed in 1832 when his oar broke while he returned from the Black Hawk War, then heading along Front Street south to Cynthiana, then east to Broadway, out to Sixth Street, then back west along Court Street to end at Gene Miller Park, the former site of the Tazewell House hotel.

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Seth Kinman’s presidential gift

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

During the summer, this column took the opportunity to feature a number of historical artifacts that were preserved in the Tazewell County Courthouse’s 1914 cornerstone time capsule. This week we’ll take a look at two more artifacts from the courthouse’s cornerstone – a pair of printed cards featuring a California “mountain man” named Seth Kinman (1815-1888).

One of the cards shows a photograph of Kinman himself, looking a lot like Kinman’s contemporary John “Grizzly” Adams (1812-1860), a much better known California mountain man who inspired a 1974 feature film and a 1977-78 NBC television series entitled “The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams.” The other card shows a unique piece of furniture – an elk horn chair that Kinman presented as a gift to President Abraham Lincoln on Nov. 26, 1864. As sharp as the antlers of the chair’s back and arms appear to be, it seems the president would have had to take extra special care if he ever tried to sit on it. Presumably the piece was meant to be decorative only.

The two cards identify Kinman as “the California Hunter and Trapper,” but tell us nothing else about him, nor do they provide any clues that might explain why these two curious photo cards were selected for inclusion in the Tazewell County Courthouse time capsule.

The explanation may be found on page 25 of the 1870-71 Sellers & Bates Pekin City Directory, where we find the following colorful anecdote related by Pekin’s pioneer historian William H. Bates, under the heading “’FIRST-CLASS’ HOTELS”:

“The year 1848 witnessed the establishment of two ‘first-class’ hotels. The ‘Eagle,’ which stood on the site now occupied by the Bemis House [Note: the site is near the corner of Court and Front streets in Riverfront Park], was kept by Seth Kinman, who afterwards acquired considerable celebrity as a hunter and trapper in the far west, and by presenting buck horn and bear claw chairs, of his own make, to Presidents Lincoln and Johnson . . .

“The manner of welcoming guests to these hotels was somewhat peculiar, as the following instance will illustrate: A traveler came off a boat one day, and went to the Eagle Hotel. There had been a little western ‘scrimmage’ at the ‘Eagle’ the night before, and though things had not yet been put in order, the proprietor, Seth Kinman, was sitting in front of the door, playing his favorite tune, the ‘Arkansas Traveler,’ with the greatest self-satisfaction. The stranger, stopping, said to Seth: ‘Are you the proprietor here?’ Seth, without resting his bow, replied, ‘Wall, I reckon I be, stranger.’ ‘Do you keep tavern?’ ‘Of course I do; keep tavern like h-ll,’ said Seth, fiddling away with all his might. ‘Just pile in; hang your freight up on the floor, and make yourself at home. The boys,’ continued Seth, ‘have been having a little fun, but if there’s a whole table or plate in the house, I’ll get you some cold hash towards night.’ The stranger didn’t like the place, and took his departure, leaving the ‘proprietor’ still enjoying his violin.”

Additional biographical information on Kinman may be found in various articles published online, including an extensively researched biographical article at the Wikipedia online encyclopedia website. These sources tell us that Kinman arrived in Tazewell County with his father in 1830, later heading out to Humboldt County, Calif., around the time of the California Gold Rush. Cultivating the life and somewhat eccentric image of an uncouth and brutal wilderness hunter, mountain man, and teller of tall tales (mostly about his own adventures, or alleged adventures), Kinman would become something of a national celebrity. Besides his 1864 visit to Lincoln’s White House, Kinman claimed to have witnessed the president’s assassination the following year, and contemporary newspaper accounts say he took part in Lincoln’s funeral cortege. Kinman afterwards operated a hotel in Table Bluff, Calif., where he died after accidentally shooting himself in the leg.

Kinman was known to hand out copies of the photo cards such as were preserved in the courthouse cornerstone, and the pair of cards from the cornerstone presumably were given by Kinman to Bates, who oversaw the selection of artifacts for the 1914 time capsule.

#abraham-lincoln, #seth-kinman, #tazewell-county-courthouse-time-capsule, #william-h-bates