By Sal Maccarone
There was a time when hotel lodgings were very basic, consisting only of a room with a bed, a nightstand and a common bathroom at the end of a long hallway. That all changed somewhere along the way as luxury hotels were conceived and then built. Here in America, that change happened as a direct result of the industrial revolution.
As wealth and the railroads increased the ability of travel, demand for safe and comfortable accommodations increased as well. This country’s first full service luxury hotel is said to be the Parker House in Boston, which opened in 1855. Boasting both a public restaurant and in-room private bathroom facilities, it was the talk of the nation at the time. Now credited with many important historical meetings, events and happenings, like the invention of the Massachusetts state dessert, Boston cream pie, and the place where JFK proposed to Jacqueline Bouvier in 1953. Some other famous guests included Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Carnegie, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Charles Dickens, who lived in the hotel for two years. It is said that Sir Charles still roamed the restaurant, hallways and stairwells of the original hotel, long after his death in 1870.
It wasn’t very long before California had a luxury hotel of its own, which was built with the riches realized during the gold rush of 1849. As San Francisco became a boom-town, and then the largest city on the west coast, there was a need to rival the East. Banker William Ralston and Senator William Sharon were to fill that need in 1875 with their Palace Hotel on the corner of Market and New Montgomery streets. At a cost of nearly $5 million, it was a spectacular eight-story brick building that housed 750 guest rooms. It also had electric call buttons, hydraulic elevators, a sky lit ceiling, two restaurants, a carriage house and a swimming pool.
The building was originally constructed with an interior courtyard that facilitated the horse drawn taxis of the day, but that was changed amidst complaints about the smell. Affectionately known as “The Bonanza Inn,” the Palace Hotel was the largest hotel west of the Mississippi.
Now, for the interesting part:
It seems as if Ralston’s “Bank of California” failed in August of 1875, which was partly due to his partner having liquidated a large share of Comstock Lode stock. On the very day that he lost control of the bank and hotel project, Ralston mysteriously drowned in the nearby San Francisco Bay. The hotel was opened on schedule two months later by Senator Sharon. A correspondent from the Democratic Press (which later became the SF Examiner), reported that nearly 100 people, himself included, thought that they had seen the deceased Ralston at the event that night. Countless more people had also reported seeing him through the years leading up to the 1906 earthquake when the building stood, but was gutted by fire. The new Palace Hotel was not rebuilt until 1909 after which time the image of Ralston was never to be seen again.
The new Palace Hotel, which is now 110 years old, has had its share of paranormal activity as well. It is a common fact that Warren G. Harding, our 29th president, passed away in the hotel’s presidential suite while he was on a western tour. While the actual cause of death was not absolutely determined, some disturbing evidence pointed toward his wife, Florence, who would not allow an autopsy. President Harding has been seen in the vicinity of room No. 8064 — the room that he died in — by many credible witnesses since that fateful night in August of 1923.
The Palace Hotel remains a remarkable building that has served our country in many positive ways since it opened; such as hosting the banquet that marked the opening session of the United Nations in 1945. For more than 140 years, many presidents, dignitaries and ordinary folks from all over the world have been impressed by this hotels grace, beauty, presence and history.