Front Page News
Remembering the Hotel Victory
If you’re making a list of important Put-in-Bay historical treasures, you would probably top the list with the Battle of Lake Erie, the building of Perry’s Monument and the tale of the Hotel Victory. The famous battle was won, the Monument still proudly stands today after more than 100 years, and the Hotel Victory story is often a topic of island conversation in spite of the fact it burned to the ground 100 years ago this month. So here’s the story of the Hotel Victory, billed at the time it was built as the largest summer hotel in the world.
In the late 1880’s, Put-in-Bay saw two businesses thriving...grape growing and wine making, plus the development of the island as a tourist destination. Islanders were approached by John Tilloston, from Toledo, with a visionary proposal to build the Hotel Victory, an opulent 625-guest-room hotel in the woods on the south end of the island. He was able to recruit enough investors that on September 10, 1889, the anniversary of the Battle of Lake Erie, a cornerstone laying ceremony took place with a reported 8,000 people in attendance.
A 100-acre site overlooking Stone’s Cove on the southwest side of the island was chosen for the location. Twenty-one of the acres would be used for the hotel and grounds, while the rest were subdivided into small cottage lots.
Prominent Toledo architect E.O. Falls designed a Queen Anne-style three-story building with multiple dormers, towers and turrets, planning the hotel’s facade to create a favorable impression as tourists approached the hotel via steamer. The primary building measured 600-ft. by 300-ft., three-story building with high corner towers around an enclosed courtyard. Attached was the large dining, kitchen and employee housing structure. Workers had to install 16.5 acres of flooring, 16,000 sq. yards of carpeting, 7 acres of shingles, 7.5 miles of baseboard, 1 mile of wainscoting, 1,700 doors, 2,500 windows and a steam heat system. New electric power from the hotel’s own generating station supplied the power for three elevators, individual call buttons in each room and 6,000 incandescent light bulbs to light the hotel.
George Feick of Sandusky was awarded the construction contract and work began with a sawmill and planning mill right on the site. A tent city with a dining hall and dormitories was set up for hundreds of workers. When the first guests arrived in 1892, workers were still busy in some of the areas of the hotel.
Besides the guest rooms, there were the large 1,200-person dinning room (115 ft. by 85 ft.), the 10-table billiard hall, the assembly room for conventioneers, a ladies lounge, a lobby, private parlors, a wine cellar, shops, a green house, a barbershop, a 30-ft.-long bar, a soda fountain, bell boy stations, a newsstand and even a photo darkroom. There were hundreds of tables, chairs, night stands, beds and other furnishings. The kitchen was equipped with the most modern equipment of the time. Plus the hotel was heated with steam heat.
Outside, the grounds were attractively landscaped. A boardwalk with areas to stop and enjoy the view ran the length of the shore. Paths, one with a rustic bridge spanning the ravine that runs through the property, were built. Benches were placed, and there was even a “Trysting Place” which served as a rendezvous for romantic couples.
Although not part of the construction, developers realized there was a need to transport the hotel guests arriving on steamboats in the downtown harbor to the hotel a mile away. A trolley line was built from the docks to the front door of the hotel. There was a half-way stop at the caves.
HOTEL VICTORY OPENS
As with many projects, cost overruns shot the price of hotel to one estimate of $28,000,000 in today’s dollars, but that didn’t stop the hotel from opening. A courtyard-view room for two on the third floor with a shared bath down the hall was the equivalent of $957. If you wanted a lake-view room with private bath on the first floor, it would cost just over $2500 for a couple for a week in today’s dollars.
The hotel opened on July 12, 1892, and by September the hotel was bankrupt and had to close. It reopened in 1893, but closed again in early August due to financial problems and remained closed for the next two seasons. In 1894, a Toledo News reporter wrote “The immense structure is not simply but a home for bugs, rattlesnakes and June bugs. The windows are so thickly covered with June bugs that it is impossible to look through them, and Victory Park - J.K. Tilloston’s dream - is today a cow pasture. A match or cigar stub carelessly thrown near the structure would start such a fire as was never seen before on the island.”
In late 1895, the hotel and its contents sold at a sheriff’s auction. The hotel and grounds sold for just over a half million dollars and the furniture sold for just over two hundred thousand dollars in today’s dollars.
Without the huge debt load, the hotel opened again on July 20, 1896. The hotel was promoted then on a large scale to bring in new customers and conventioneers. One of the guests was the widow of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
The unfinished interior work was completed and the hotel entered its glory years. In 1898, a 30-ft wide and 100-ft. long, covered, lake-water-filled swimming pool called the “Natatorium” was built. It was the first pool in the country which allowed both men and women to swim together.
Another interesting thing happened in 1898. Five mild cases and one serious case of smallpox were discovered amongst the hotel’s mostly “colored” help. Dr. John Bohlander, a physician from the island, quarantined 200 guests and 250 employees at the hotel. The quarantine was successful and the disease was spread to only 27 mild cases. Unfortunately, when one of the hotel’s employees was diagnosed, he ran screaming from the building and jumped off one of the cliffs along the shoreline where he died on the rocks below. He was the only fatality. Interestingly, a Hotel Victory brochure several years later advertised “All White Servants.”
In 1899, brothers and hardware merchants C.W. and J.W. Ryan, purchased the Hotel Victory and brought in T. W. McCreary as the hotel’s general manager. McCreary went about revitalizing the troubled hotel. He not only had a genius for promotion, but was also the “perfect host”. Visitors found a visibly revitalized and refreshed Hotel Victory as the 1900 season began. McCreary became the longest-running manager at the Hotel Victory, which experienced the peak of its popularity and success during his 1899-1907 tenure. McCreary’s unceasing publicity efforts established the Hotel Victory as THE PLACE to stay, making it worth the higher rates the hotel charged to meet its costs and offset the fact that it had a short season. He was also great at attracting group meetings to supplement the usual crowd of tourists. He also touted the many activities, entertainments and safety measures taken to insure for the comfort and entertainment of guests.
To keep guests happy, the hotel had a house physician, a dentist, a tailor, a dark room for amateur photographers, a manicurist, a ladies’ shop for fancy goods and toilet articles, an ice cream parlor (soda fountain), a barbershop and public baths, a livery with “pleasure wagons,” a telegraph office and long distance telephone access, a stenographer, a newsstand, a laundry, a pool room, a lounge for the ladies, a conference room and more.
For activities, guests could take a “constitutional” on the grounds, swim in the natatorium, ride the water toboggan, go on moonlight hayrides and trolley parties, watch the sunsets, go fishing (and have your catch cooked for your dinner), and enjoy the benefits of “Strontium Spa Water” directly at the spring, reported to be in the lobby. The water claimed to be the greatest of all the hotel’s attractions was touted as one of the best remedies ever discovered for all forms of brights disease and help with Paddock disorders, whatever they are.
The Victory had a symphony orchestra and band of musicians employed throughout the season. In addition, there were children’s parties and dances in the ballroom.
Guests could also “get behind the scenes” and visit the hotel kitchen, pantry, storeroom, cold storage, wine cellar or laundry, as well as investigate the other workings of the “great hotel.” Guests could also leave the grounds and enjoy all the other tourist attractions of Put-in-Bay and Middle Bass.
THE WINGED VICTORY STATUE
McCreary hired the German sculptor, Alfons Pelter, to design the Victory Monument for the hotel grounds. Twenty-two feet high, the bronze monument featured a winged woman holding a wreath in one hand and a staff in the other. The “Winged Victory” monument was surrounded by a stone balustrade, the ruins of which can still be seen today. The Vice-President of the United States, Charles W. Fairbanks, attended the unveiling ceremony in 1907.
Unfortunately, McCreary also died in 1907, and Colonel B.G. Doyle took over the management. Two years later, the hotel closed again.
THE FINAL YEARS
By 1911, a Chicago newspaper reported that neglect and decay caused the hotel to look like a “haunted” place. Meanwhile, rumors had circulate about the hotel reopening or getting new ownership; however, a short-lived remodeling effort quickly halted because money was again a problem.
During World War I, the E.M.T. Automobile Company in Detroit purchased the hotel and began yet another remodeling effort before the Flanders Realty Company of Detroit eventually bought the hotel.
Flanders spent a reported $40,000 for the hotel and another $100,000 on remodeling it before opening it in 1918. The owners sought convention traffic and marketed the hotel as a great getaway for Army and Navy men on leave during World War I. Rooms cost $1.50 and up, and crowds started to arrive at the hotel again.
In 1919, a Chicago group headed by Charles J. Stoops purchased the hotel and obtained a $250,000 mortgage on it. There were great hopes for the hotel with the predicted post-war economic boom, but business was less than brisk and rumors of closure again surrounded the Hotel Victory.
HOTEL VICTORY BURNS
On Thursday night, August 14, 1919, shortly after the dinner hour, a fire started in the northwest corner of the third floor of the reopened hotel. The fewer-than-40 guests were able to escape unharmed. Looters, meanwhile, stole many of the personal belongings left behind by fleeing guests, pieces of the hotel’s furnishings and anything else of value they could cart off. An hour later, the entire building was an inferno and no match for the island’s fire department which concentrated on saving nearby structures. The flames, shooting more than 75 feet in the air, lit up the sky and could be seen as far away as Sandusky, Toledo and Detroit. Ashes reportedly landed on Kelleys Island. The next day there was nothing left but foundation ruins. Damage was estimated between $500,000 and $1,000,000, or $7,400,000 to $14,8000,000 today.
There was much speculation that the fire was purposely set to collect the insurance on the building, but it was later learned there was little insurance and that the fire was probably due to an electrical problem. In any case, it was the end for Hotel Victory.
THE LAST 100 YEARS
The Hotel Victory site lay fallow and underdeveloped until the State of Ohio purchased the acreage in 1938 to build a new public park. The park site became part of the Ohio State Park System in 1951. One hundred years later, there are a few hints that something once graced the land now occupied by campers. The remains of the natatorium are most prominent, now fenced in for safety concerns. Nearby is the stone base of the bronze Winged Victory statue. The actual statue was carted off the island during the scrap metal drives of World War II. For many years, you could find small charred items such as pieces of broken plates, silverware, pottery and artifacts, but after 100 years, such finds are now rare.
One can only speculate what would have happened with the Hotel Victory had it not burned. Mackinac Island’s majestic Grand Hotel opened a couple of years before Hotel Victory. Although it also went through some hard times, it still stands today, a proud survivor of an era that started 130 years ago. Over the years it has been visited by U.S. Presidents and First Ladies, Thomas Edison, Mark Twain, celebrities and dignitaries from all over the world. There have even been movies made at the Grand. Had the Hotel Victory not burned, would it have enjoyed a similar glory? With its financial troubles, Prohibition and the Great Depression may very well have been too much for the Hotel Victory to weather. Although if it had survived, could you imagine today’s golf carts parked in front of the glorious structure, with visitors wanting to tour the grounds or have lunch in the huge dining room. Like the Grand on Mackinac, it would have been a glorious attraction for Put-in-Bay.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
If your interest has been peaked and you want to know more about the hotel, there is a binder with photos and more information about the Hotel Victory in the office at the South Bass Island State Park. You can also visit the Lake Erie Islands Historical Society Museum downtown behind the Put-in-Bay Town Hall where there is a special display this season with loads of Hotel Victory memorabilia, photos, furniture and other items. The museum is open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.
State Park Ranger Renee Market will be marking the anniversary as part of Green Week activities in the State Park on Wednesday, August 14th, from Noon to 6 p.m. Plans call for outlining the exact location of the hotel so one can get a feeling for what was there. There will food, refreshments and beer and wine available. Everyone is invited to come out to this event.
There are also island history books which help tell the story, plus there are articles and photos on the internet. Islander Barbara Allen Cooper also wrote a booklet about the Hotel Victory.