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  • Our History

    By Steve Cottrell


    It was with mixed emotions that I learned of the sale of the National Hotel. I’m glad Tom Coleman found a buyer who will respect the hotel’s history but wish it had happened 10-12 years ago so that he and Ernie (Ernestine Kehn) could have jumpstarted their retirement.

    New owner Jordan Fife has ambitious plans for the Grande Dame of Broad Street and will begin by replacing the old gal’s aging infrastructure, top to bottom. I wish him great success.

    Although touted as “The Oldest Continuously Operating Hotel West of the Rockies,” (in continuous operation since its doors opened in 1856), there was a fire in 1863 that leveled much of downtown Nevada City and forced a temporary closure. But, what the heck; the Holbrooke Hotel in Grass Valley claims it operates “The Oldest Bar West of the Mississippi.” Maybe, they forgot about Prohibition?

    Among several colorful “facts” used to promote the National Hotel over the years has been a claim that Lola Montez stayed there, but Lola left Nevada County in 1855 and never retuned. And while notorious highwayman Black Bart is reputed to have been a guest, I’ve always wondered under what name he registered.

    And as for a recent press release announcing the sale and mentioning that Presidents Grant, Cleveland, Garfield and Harrison had been guests at the hotel, well, sorry, it never happened. 

    Guess it’s called marketing? 

    In addition to rebranding with its original name, (National Exchange Hotel), Fife will create a new lobby downstairs and turn the current lobby area into a restaurant –– marking a return to the hotel’s 19th century layout.

    One of the most noteworthy banquets held in the original second-floor dining room occurred September 6, 1871, when Nevada City resident Aaron Sargent, one of only three California congressmen at the time, anxiously awaited telegraphic returns of that day’s statewide election. 

    Joining Sargent at the head table was Abraham Lincoln’s first vice president, Hannibal Hamlin, then a senator from Maine. Hamlin had traveled to California in mid-August to campaign on behalf of Republicans, ending his three-week swing through the state as Sargent’s guest in Nevada City. 

    When telegraphic reports received during the banquet confirmed that Hamlin’s effort on behalf of Republican candidates had been an overwhelming success, the former vice president stood and proposed a toast to future U. S. Senator Aaron Sargent. Additional toasts followed. (Prior to ratification of the 17th Amendment in 1913, senators were chosen by state legislatures. And with Republicans controlling the statehouse beginning in 1872, Sargent was poised to become California’s next senator).

    On March 4, 1873, Congressman Sargent did, indeed, become Senator Sargent. Five years later, he introduced a bill giving women the right to vote, but it took until 1920 before his unaltered words were ratified as the 19th Amendment to the Constitution.

    The National Hotel was my primary place of employment in 1977-78, 1980-81, and 1991-2010. I started as a night bartender when Dick and Nan Ness were the owners and later served as Tom Coleman’s beverage manager. My final several years were spent at the registration desk, although I continued to pull some shifts behind the bar as well.

    In 1977 when Mr. Ness hired me, the hotel was the hub of community social life. The regulars were men and women who had doggedly survived some tough economic times in the 1950s and ’60s and helped shape what became the town’s 1970-80 renaissance. 

    They had survived the freeway debacle, countywide mine closures, and a diminished logging and lumbering industry. They shared their memories, boasted of Nevada City’s fascinating history, and made me feel at home the first time I stepped behind the bar. And they were damn good tippers to boot.

    But that was then, and this is now.

    Happy retirement, Tom and Ernie. Welcome aboard, Jordan.

    Steve Cottrell is a historian, former city councilman and mayor and a longtime Nevada City resident. He now lives in St. Augustine, Fla. He can be reached by emailing exnevada

    About the photo:   

    Hannibal Hamlin, who was Abraham Lincoln’s vice president from 1861-65, attended a celebratory 1871 banquet at the National Hotel in Nevada City as the guest of Congressman Aaron Sargent.