BUSINESS TRAVEL IN OLD WEST MINING TOWNS
History article by Harold Hough
Traveling miners have it easy today. A day of travel in Business Class can get a mining executive to nearly any mine in the world. Along the way, they have decent food, imported wines, and comfortable reclining seats to make that travel as comfortable as possible. And, when they get there, they can usually rely upon hotels and restaurants that make the stay as bearable as possible.
That, however, is a lot better than what mining executives had to endure in the late 1800s. Travel, lodging, and food were miserable and often a health risk. Economy class seating, Motel 6, and MacDonald’s seem luxurious by comparison.
But, given the fact that business travel in the 1800s might take months or years, especially if you were one of the many British investors in American mining ventures, the quality of hotels that one stayed in every night was probably the biggest burden that mining executives had to bear.
The quality of Western hotels in the 1800s was summed up by a frequent traveler in the Southwest, who said, “I have slept in beds active with snakes, lizards, scorpions, centipedes, bugs, and fleas. Beds in which men stricken with plagues had died horrible deaths. Beds that might reasonably be suspected of small pox, measles, and cholera.” No wonder visitors at taverns preferred to stay up by the fire until late at night rather than spend any more time in the establishment beds than necessary.
One of the biggest problems with Western rooms was the bugs. One newspaper correspondent who tried to sleep on a couch described it this was, “the couch was in the possession of insectile inhabitants, who resented our invasion of their premises in the most aggressive and bloodthirsty manner. The reader shall be spared the bristling terror of that memorable night. It combined the horrors of a prize fight with being buried alive.”
Of course veteran travelers knew ways to survive the nightly attacks. An Albuquerque newspaper told of a man, “who went from Fort Wingate a few days ago, passed the night at the Rito, unable to sleep for several hours on account of the chinchas which amused themselves racing over his body. About midnight he sent one of the house boys for a leg of mutton, paying him a dollar for his services. Putting the meat in the middle of the floor, the chinchas went to the banquet and he slept very well until the morning.”
Bugs weren’t the only thing the traveler slept with. Private rooms were unheard of and the traveler usually shared the room with several others – many who may not have held the same high hygienic standards. One traveler stopped in a hotel and asked for the best room in the house. He was told that he could occupy the same room that had just recently been vacated by Senator Stephen Douglas. The customer readily agreed, only to learn that the room contained four beds and seven sleeping men. The customer went back to the desk and told the host, “I should be honored to sleep in a room so lately occupied by Senator Douglas, but I will not sleep with the whole Democratic Party."
These hardships weren’t just found at the seedier hotels. Horace Greeley, who once said “Go west young man, go west,” once stayed at the Denver House, which was known as the “Astor House of the gold fields.” He wrote that, “Every guest is allowed as good a bed as his own blankets will make. The roof and windows of the log building were covered with canvas and the six bedrooms were separated by walls of cotton sheeting.”
Greeley was lucky that he could afford to stay at such a quality establishment. Those miners on a budget had to stay at the seedier hotels. They might share a bed with up to four people – most of questionable character and hygiene. A man could be robbed while sleeping and wake up with nothing but the clothes on his back; which explained why most slept fully clothed.
That is not to say that some hotels didn’t try to provide some amenities, like those little bottles of shampoo and hand lotion we find today in our rooms. Frenchman Louis Simonin was traveling through Denver in 1867 and commented on the finer touches. “You will find mirrors, combs and brushes, all fastened to a long string, so everyone may help himself and no one carry them off. You might laugh in Paris at these democratic customs; here they are accepted by all and are even welcome, except perhaps the toothbrush, which is regarded with a suspicious eye.”
Of course, the business traveler who survived these accommodations during the early days did find that hotels did improve dramatically as the 1800s came to an end. Denver finally built some hotels that rivaled the Astor back in New York. And, hotels in mining towns like Tombstone and Bisbee were beginning to catch up. However, the mining executive who went out to the newest mining camps still needed to bring his own toothbrush and a leg of mutton.