The story of the cursed Grand Central

Hotel was ill-fated from the start

The Baker Hotel (formerly the Grand Central Hotel) sat on the southeast corner of Forest and East Holly streets, shortly after opening in July 1905. Today the Community Food Co-Op is located on the site. (Whatcom Museum of History & Art #2421)

Jeff Jewell
   No business venture in Bellingham history devoured more capital and defeated more good intentions than the ill-fated Grand Central Hotel.
   On May 23, 1887, the inaugural train of the newly completed Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) steamed into Vancouver British Columbia from Montreal. To accommodate the passengers, the CPR had built the Hotel Vancouver at the southwest corner of Georgia and Granville streets. Like clockwork, the hotel opened a week prior to the first train’s arrival.
   Vancouver boomed as the terminus of a transcontinental railroad and the hotel of the same name made a fortune.
   Reginald Jones, an attorney who had represented the CPR, witnessed first-hand the changes the railroad was making in British Columbia. In August 1888, Jones came to Sehome convinced that the CPR would make the tiny town its American terminus. By building a hotel to greet the flood of new visitors, he planned to duplicate the Hotel Vancouver’s phenomenal success.
   Jones found a fellow believer in E.F.G. Carlyon, a native of New Zealand and “man of means,” who had recently arrived in Sehome by way of London. In the spring of 1889, the real estate firm of “Jones & Carlyon” enlisted the architect of the Hotel Vancouver, T. C. Sorley, to design their new “Grand Central Hotel” for Sehome.
   Costing an outlandish $35,000, the 115-room, 3-story Grand Central was truly massive. It had a frontage on Forest Street of 165 feet, a 75-foot wing on Holly Street and a 125-foot wing on the south end.
   Sehome re-incorporated as “New Whatcom” on April 18, 1890. The day before, the Bellingham Bay Express had announced the Grand Central’s completion and imminent opening "in ten days." Weeks and months passed, but the hotel had still not opened.
   With no transcontinental railroad in sight, such a “labyrinthine” hotel looked absurd amid the landscape’s stumps and shacks. On July 30, 1890, O.N. Morse arrived in town to discuss leasing the Grand Central. Morse was the well-known proprietor of the successful Arlington Hotel in Seattle. After a tour of the behemoth building it didn’t take Morse long to realize that he wanted nothing to do with it. He left for home the same day.
   The vacant hotel soon became an embarrassment. Perched on Forest Street and visible from all parts of town, the dark Grand Central cast a shadow of doubt over New Whatcom’s rosy aspirations. Still worse, rival interests were building the magnificent Fairhaven Hotel at 12th and Harris, slated to open that coming September.

In the distance, the Grand Central looms ominously vacant over a rough-and-tumble New Whatcom in 1890. Railroad Avenue cuts across the foreground. (Whatcom Museum of History & Art #2000.57.147)

    Undeterred, Jones & Carlyon continued to invest exorbitantly throughout 1890. That summer they opened the residential Alabama Street Addition on the town’s northern frontier. They spent heavily on a plank road to Lake Whatcom, where they had cleared and platted 200 acres at Silver Beach. And despite the Grand Central being vacant, Jones & Carlyon were building another hostelry, the Silver Beach Hotel, the first piece in a projected suburban lakeside resort. The firm was seriously over-extended and, by December, lost the Grand Central to the Bellingham Bay Improvement Co. (BBI).
   Tossed a hot potato, BBI offered outrageous incentives to “any reasonable hotel man” willing to sign a lease, including free rent for a year and “a bonus of $125 per month.” Advertised as “a golden opportunity,” the generous terms had no takers and the Grand Central stood vacant the entirety of 1891. It was as if the place was cursed.
   In January 1892, Rev. L.W. Applegate secured the empty Grand Central as the home for the new Episcopal hospital. Cobwebs were dusted away and the hotel’s first floor hastily converted into offices, sitting room, parlor, laundry, chapel, an operating room and a morgue. The new hospital’s entire staff consisted of Mrs. M. A. Carson, as charge nurse, and two assistants. Sixteen local physicians pledged to attend the hospital when needed.

William Jennings Bryan, Presidental contender, delivers a speech from the Grand Central’s balcony on April 2, 1900. (Whatcom Museum of History & Art #1969.221.198)

    A house-warming party for “St. Luke’s Infirmary” was held Feb. 19, 1892, with 600 guests in attendance. The new hospital was lavishly decorated with streamers and bunting, and that evening the Grand Central’s modern "Edison incandescent electric lights" were turned on for the first time! After speeches, there was a banquet and dancing as “strains of the waltz were reverberating through the building.”
   Of the Grand Central’s hundred-plus rooms it was hoped that 40 on the second floor could eventually be equipped for patients, yet when St. Luke’s opened only nine rooms were ready. Three months later, Rev. Applegate announced that St. Luke’s was in financial trouble. Upkeep on such a large building, most of which wasn’t even used, was draining the institution. The hospital moved out once its yearlong lease expired and the Grand Central was empty again.
   Meanwhile, Jones & Carlyon had exhausted $50,000 of initial capital and were bankrupt. The ex-partners spent the summer of 1892 suing one another.
   The forsaken Grand Central found only occasional use during the next decade. It housed the Whatcom County Fair in 1894 and 1895, serving as a “Commodious Exhibition Building” for agricultural products. In the late 1890s it was a flophouse for New Whatcom’s underemployed. Newspapers reported that a number of squatters were “practicing housekeeping” in the building and many worried the place was a firetrap.
   On April 2, 1900, the Grand Central had one hour in the national spotlight. U.S. Presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, on a whistle-stop campaign through the Northwest, stumped from the hotel’s second-story balcony. He railed against imperialism and trusts while promoting the coinage of silver, then headed to Fairhaven. That fall Bryan lost the election to William McKinley.
   In 1902, there was hope that the Grand Central would finally become a first-class hotel. Maris Taylor, a prominent South Dakota businessman, announced his plans to open the Grand Central following “extensive repairs.” The building had been given to him by a mortgage company as payment for his services as a receiver.
   Taylor sank a fortune into the Grand Central’s makeover. He had the massive structure lifted up and a new foundation of Chuckanut sandstone built beneath it, giving the hotel an additional floor for convention rooms. Further improvements included addition of a double balcony, new siding, new roof, heating plant, plumbing, elevator, fire-suppression system, exterior paint, as well as interior plastering and wallpapering. All 150 windows were replaced and all 120 rooms were decorated with new furniture.
   Three years and $30,000 later the rebuilt Grand Central, which Taylor renamed the Baker Hotel, celebrated its formal opening on July 4, 1905. Yet the curse persisted. The City’s re-grade work on East Holly Street disrupted hotel operations. Taylor sued the City for $7,000 in lost business and damages to his building.
   But the City engineer pointed out that when the Baker Hotel had been lifted up for foundation work it was set back down “several inches” into the public right-of-way. Either the entire building would need to be lifted again and moved a tad to the south or Taylor could just drop his lawsuit and all transgressions forgiven. Taylor yielded.
   In May 1906, the Baker hosted a convention of the Washington State Dental Society. It was a momentary triumph. By November the sheer stress of running the place forced its manager, F. D. Stevens, to resign in order to save his sanity. Despite hosting a State Teacher’s Association convention that December, the Baker was mortgaged for $15,000 to the Lumberman’s Indemnity Exchange of Seattle.
   The mortgage money didn’t last long. In Septtember 1907, Taylor sold the Baker Hotel Co. to the Arnold Brothers, two “experienced hotel men” from Seattle. The $9,000 deal came with a decade’s lease on the building, but Clarence and Wilfred Arnold wouldn’t last a year. After sinking $5,000 into improvements, they sold the business to the Chicago Hotel Co. for $5,830. The curse continued.
   The president of the Chicago Hotel Co. was E. B. Deming, head of Pacific American Fisheries, the huge salmon cannery in South Bellingham. Within a year Deming had dumped $12,000 into the Baker and opted out.
   In 1910, Maris Taylor took the helm again for one last try with the Baker. Once more, extensive re-grade work by the City, this time of Forest Street, made access to the hotel difficult. Heavy equipment, including temporary installation of a rail steam shovel, created constant noise and dust. It was a bad omen. By 1914, Taylor was financially drained and unable to meet his obligations on the building.
   It wasn’t until 1920 that the Lumberman’s Indemnity Exchange found a way to finally turn a profit from the Baker Hotel. The firm had the old Grand Central dismantled, yielding a harvest of 200,000 feet of lumber. The curse was finally over.
   Henry Lewis had his new Packard dealership built on the site in 1926. Today the Lewis Building is home to the Community Food Co-op.



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