More than just a hostelry, it was a beacon before fire destroyed it 90 years ago today
December 10, 2004
It truly was something to behold. At six stories and 160 rooms, the International Hotel was more than just a hostelry, it was a beacon that radiated wealth, opulence, and just a hint of the grandiose when it opened on Saturday, March 31, 1877. It was the third International Hotel to sit at the Northwest corner of Union between B and C streets in Virginia City.
The hotel was rebuilt after its predecessor was destroyed in the great Comstock conflagration in October 1875. In operation for 37 years, the third International suffered the same fate as the previous hotel when it burned to the ground in an early morning fire on Saturday, Dec. 12, 1914.
In his book “Elegance On C Street” published in 1977, Richard C. Datin details the history of the International Hotel from its birth on March 24, 1860, to its demise on that cold December day in 1914.
The first International was a joint venture by partners Isaac Bateman and Andrew Paul. Built of rough-hewn timbers cut from Six Mile Canyon, it was a single-story lodge containing about a dozen sleeping rooms and a bar. The kitchen and dining area were in the basement. By 1862 when it was determined Virginia City and the Comstock mines were no flash in the pan and that the town was going to take on some permanency, the smart money started investing heavily in Virginia City’s future. That same year Bateman & Paul started a major reconstruction project on the hotel. When finished, they had built a three-story brick building. The entrance fronting C Street was about 40 feet and was leased to a couple of merchants.
A year later the original wooden portion that fronted B street was removed and shipped to Austin where Bateman & Paul along with a third party used it to build the International Hotel in Austin. A four-story brick addition replaced the old wooden structure and it became the main entrance to the Hotel. Residents now had only to walk across B Street to be entertained at Piper’s Opera House. Additional refinements and upgrades were constantly added to the hotel such as gas lighting. It was a splendid establishment and stood for a dozen years until being leveled in the great Virginia City fire Oct. 26,1875, that destroyed a major portion of the town.
Construction on the third International began the following May and it’s this third rendition of the hotel that became the most luxurious of any hostelry catering to the public in Nevada at the time. A third of a million dollars went into its construction and furnishings. Datin called it Virginia City’s “Palatial Palace,” where accommodations rivaled the finest offerings to be found on either coast. First-class rooms with gas lighting that included board could be had for $55 a month. The fee for an overnight stay was $2.50. Bonanza King John Mackay became a permanent resident at the hotel for several years when his wife, Marie, relocated to Europe.
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Like its predecessor, the new International received new technological upgrades as they came on the market. It had a hydraulic elevator in service when it opened in 1877, but the hotel didn’t get wired for electricity until 1900. A huge celebration was held in Virginia City on Oct. 20,1900, when the town finally got wired. Fittingly a big banquet was held at the International Hotel marking the occasion.
By 1914 the glory days of the great Comstock Lode were a distant memory of over three decades. Virginia City’s population had dwindled and the International Hotel fell on hard economic times. About a dozen people were in the hotel on that December morning when the fire broke out about 5 a.m. It was never proven to a certainty where and how the fire started. Fire was seen on the roof about the same time a Chinese cook discovered fire and smoke in the kitchen when he went there to get the morning breakfast started. Fortunately no one was killed and the fire department did a remarkable job containing the fire to the hotel as they first had to deal with frozen fire hydrants before they could apply any water to the building. The hotel was a total loss and nearby establishments like the Fredrick House, Sawdust Corner Saloon and Post Office lost windows due to the intensity of the heat. Flames came precariously close to bringing down Piper’s Opera House, but due to the determination of firefighters from several companies it was spared.
At the time of the fire the hotel was owned by Helena Rolfe who inherited it from her father, Albert Hanak upon his death in 1900. The hotel was insured for $2,500 and though there was talk of rebuilding a fourth International Hotel, it never came to pass. Today a parking lot marks the site where the International Hotel once stood.