Sixty-one years ago, Hamilton’s first big hotel was opened for the reception of guests. At that time it was said to be one of the largest hotels in Canada, and it was certainly one of the finest. At that time thirty-one places advertised in this city under the heading of “Hotels,” yet it was doubtful if more than half a dozen of them could furnish decent accommodation for guests. Some of them had very high-sounding titles, but mighty poor cooks. Travelling men gave the town the go-by and would not spend a night here if it was possible to transact their business in time to catch the last train out. This was humiliating to the progressive business men of the town, and Hamilton had any number of that enterprising class in those days. The principal wholesale houses in Canada, next to Montreal, were in this town, and the country merchants who came here to buy goods very freely registered their complaints with the wholesale men with whom they dealt. A few of the comfortable hotels were always crowded, and the wiser country merchants used to send on in advance and secure accommodations. After the opening of the Great Western railway in the fall of 1853, more than ever was the necessity felt for a first-class hotel, large enough to accommodate the increasing travelling public, and in 1854, a few of the more public-spirited business men started a stock-subscription for the purpose of creating a building fund for a new hotel. In addition to the so-called hotels at that time, Hamilton had twenty-six eating houses combined with saloons, where one could get food and liquor to wash it down, but they were not expected or required to furnish lodgings. The stock was soon subscribed, each business man taking as many shares as his interests justified, and as soon as the plans, and the specifications, could be prepared, work was begun on the new hotel. Negotiations had been opened with Charles S. Coleman, a member of the family of celebrated hotel keepers in the United States, to lease the hotel at a nominal rent for a term of years, and Mr. Coleman was consulted as to the manner of building that would best suit a city of the size that Hamilton then was. The result was the elegant hotel known first as the Anglo-American and in later years as the Waldorf.
Land at that time in Hamilton did not have much value, and the lot on the south side of King street, in the middle of the block between John and Catharine streets, was selected as the site for the new hotel. No one seemed to want that lot, for it was on the wrong side of the street for retail business hotels and the wholesale business was located on the same side of the street, between John and James streets. It might be interesting to state as a matter of history that the early circuses and tent shows that visited Hamilton used that lot for exhibition grounds. We doubt if there are many ancient Hamiltonians now living who can remember when Welch and Mann’s great national circus or VanAmburgh’s animal show pitched their tents on that lot. It is about seventy years ago since those celebrated shows travelled through Canada, and having a day off they stopped over in Hamilton and occupied this historic spot. How many of the old boys are now living who spent that day in carrying water from the town pump, that stood at the west end of the Gore, opposite where the Bank of Hamilton now raises its dizzy head skyward? It was a long way to carry water, but what did a boy care if in the end he was to be rewarded with standing room on the inside of the tent? Those elephants and horses and other animals never seemed to get water enough, but when the show began, the boys were permitted to crawl under the canvas and forget the weary hours they had spend in tramping from the town pump to the circus ground.
But the time came when some enterprising shopkeepers were looking for cheap lots on which to build, and what is now the site of a new hotel was covered with a row of frame buildings, and in time at each end of the block more pretentious brick stores were erected. Those brick buildings are there yet, but much larger than were the originals. It was always a wonder why the middle of that block was selected as the site of the Anglo-American, when the whole block might have been bought for less than half the money that was spent for the 160 feet on which the new hotel is built. However, there is no accounting for the judgment of men when they get their minds fixed. It was deemed to be the most eligible spot on King street for a hotel, and there it was built. At the time when the streets of this ancient city were being platted, it was the purpose of the original surveyors to make King street something that future generations would be proud of. The plan was to have it as wide from James as far as Wellington street, which was then the eastern limits of the town, as it was at the west end of the Gore. What a magnificent street that would have been, and it was intended to continue that width as far east as the town might grow in the future. The early settlers who owned the farm lands thought it would be a waste of land to have such a wide street, and they objected so strenuously that the old cow path line was followed, and that accounts for King street being laid out in a gore pattern. The land at that time could have been bought for less than $50 an acre, but as there was no such thing known as legal expropriation proceedings, the farmers won out. Well, the Anglo-American was built on that 160 feet frontage, and for all time to come there, Hamilton’s leading hotel will stand. It was a handsome structure, and the interior was so planned that every room was bright and airy. It was a great day for Hamilton when in the year 1854 the town took a holiday for the laying of the cornerstone; and for the months that followed the progress of the construction was watched with as much interest as though the hotel was to be the personal residence of each individual. It was a new thing for the town to see such a skyscraper as the five-story hotel being erected; for it was at that time the tallest building in the town.
Every man and woman in Hamilton felt a personal interest in that hotel, and when the last hammer sounded and the master builder said the work was completed, the managers very generously opened its doors to the public that it might see what a grand thing had come to Hamilton through the enterprise and liberality of the progressive business men who had contributed to its erection, for the men who furnished the money never expected to receive a penny in the way of dividends. And they were not disappointed, as subsequent events proved. But they had the comforting solace that Hamilton had at last a first-class hotel and a landlord that had the experience and ability to keep it at the head of Canadian hostelries. The Anglo-American soon won a reputation for its comfortable rooms and for its cuisine, and instead of travelling men hurrying away from town, rather than put up with former discomforts, the hotel was crowded with guests, especially over Sunday. The hotel was dedicated by a grand ball, and in order to give Mr. Coleman a financial benefit to start with, the price of tickets was placed at $10, the gentlemen having the privilege of taking one or more ladies. It was an extremely select affair, as ten dollar bills in those days did not have a very wide circulation among the average Hamiltonians; but those who could not attend, for financial reasons, had the pleasure of seeing the handsomely-dressed women and their fashionably-equipped escorts enter the hotel, and of hearing the fine orchestra, brought from Buffalo for the occasion. It was joy enough to watch the dancers as they whirled around the large dining room, transferred into a ballroom for the opening night at least.
There was a sound of revelry that night,
And the Ambitious City had gathered then
Her beauty and her chivalry, and bright
The lamps shone o’er fair women and brave men.
A thousand hearts beat happily, and when
Music arose with its voluptuous swell,
Soft eyes look’d love to eyes which spake again,
And all went merry as a marriage bell.
The wealth and fashion of Hamilton and the surrounding country was there, and Byron’s description of the ball the night before Waterloo, fits in to tell the story. It was the first grand event of the old town, and it was fittingly observed. There are not many left of the young men and women who were present on that opening night, but to the survivors it comes as a dream of the past, never to be forgotten.
The Anglo-American was built before its time. A population of 15,000 was not large enough to draw custom to a hotel kept in the style that it was. Mr. Coleman was disappointed although the business men gave him every encouragement, and the stockholders were willing that he should continue as lessee at a merely nominal rent. The term for which he had originally leased the house having expired, no inducements could be strong enough to persuade him to renew it. He liked Hamilton and its people, but better inducements were offered elsewhere and he bade farewell and left town with less money than he brought to it. The panic of 1857 struck Canada with foirce, and Hamilton felt it at its worst. There were but few manufacturing industries in the town, and nearly all of them were closed or the men put on short time. Men by the score were leaving every week to seek employment across the border, and none returning to take their place was poor encouragement for a hotel with a large payroll and an empty dining room. In fact, the only paying department in the Anglo-American was its bar. Old-timers will remember the genius who presided behind the bar. He was an Adonis that any photographer would delight to have for a sitter, so they he might enlarge it for the front show window. He was a man of pleasant features, with a long black beard nearly a foot in length. He went on duty about 6 o’clock in full evening dress, low cut vest, broad expanse of snowy linen with an immaculate rolled-down shirt collar and white necktie, and was a picture that foolish women would rave about and a drawing card with the men. Behind the bar with him were two or more assistants dressed in white linen suits and as lavish shirt fronts as their principal, and to them was allotted the task of rinsing the glasses and keeping the bar polished. The principal barkeep never did any of the wash up; all he did was to hand down the decanters and take in the cash. He was popular with the patrons of the bar, and through his acquaintance with prominent men connected with the Great Western succeeded in getting a conductorship on the road. But the end finally came and the Anglo-American sounded “lights out,” closed its doors to the travelling public, and Mr. Coleman and his pleasant family returned to their homes across the border.