The Palace Hotel – Staging in the West

Published by: David Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives, LLC
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All imagery and text is copyrighted with All Rights Reserved. The material may not be broadcast, published, rewritten, or redistributed without prior written permission from David E. Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives, LLC
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In today’s world, it’s not unusual to seeearly western vehicles on display in major hotels, banks, restaurants, themeparks, museums, and other public gathering places.  After all, the legacy and lore of the AmericanWest continues to be popular with audiences around the world.  What often goes unseen, though, is how thesesame vehicles were also used as promotional icons throughout the latter part ofthe nineteenth century.  Truth is, theallure of the West and its vehicles was well-known to nineteenth centurymarketers.  In fact, some were alreadyvisually tying these rolling works of art to the frontier as early as the1860’s and ‘70’s.  Reinforcing thatpoint, our Wheels That Won The West® Archives include a few examples of periodpaintings and engravings originally commissioned by the likes of PeterSchuttler, Milburn, and Studebaker Wagon Companies. 

What is harder to find are actual photosshowing these vehicles directly involved with event marketing efforts (beyondtrade shows, fairs, and Wild West shows) during these timeframes.  I know the challenge firsthand because we’vebeen actively collecting early vehicle imagery for over two decades.  In that time, we’ve uncovered some amazingmoments in time.  Things like tall-sidedwestern freighters being righted after a mountain-side wreck, photos oflegendary vehicle brands that are all-but-extinct today, early chuck wagondesigns and descriptions, rare Exposition wagons from the United States’ firstcentury as a nation, and even one-of-a-kind wagon factory images are just a fewof the finds we’ve been fortunate to uncover. 

In the middle of it all, I can get lost inthe history, nostalgia, and details of these old photos.  There’s so much going on.  From the people, clothing, scenery, andsignage to vehicle designs, period tools, weather, and terrain, every originalimage is chock full of primary source information.  Even so, uncovering photographs of thesevehicles being used as promotional tools can be a tall order. 

With great fanfare, thePalace Hotel opened in San Francisco in 1875.  The grand design andextensive accoutrements made it an instant landmark of the West.

Not long ago, I came across a photo fromthe mid-1870’s.  It’s a shot showing theinterior courtyard in the Old Palace Hotel in San Francisco.  I say ‘old’ because the hotel still exists inthe same location on Montgomery street but, it was rebuilt after itsdestruction in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.  Like other structures, it managed to largely survivethe enormous ground-shaking but it couldn’t hold up to the relentlessfires.  Almost immediately after thequake, the old hotel was razed and work began on a smaller, temporary Palacehotel.  By December of 1909, a new Palacehotel was completed on the original site. Today, the facility continues to receive high marks as an exceptionaland luxurious guest experience.    

This rare view of the OldPalace Hotel in San Francisco shows a period touring coach as part of apromotional display.

Upon completion, the original structurestood 120 feet tall and was said to have been the largest hotel in theWest.  Similarly, it was San Francisco’stallest building for a number of years.  The magnificent facility was designed so thatthe whole creation surrounded a huge interior courtyard.  White columned balconies fronted sevenstories and a massive skylight.  Withmore than 750 rooms, there were accommodations for 1200 people.  Hydraulic elevators (referred to as ‘risingrooms’) were lined with redwood paneling. Individual rooms included 15 and 16 foot ceilings as well as privatebaths and electric call buttons for attendants. The exquisite lodgings also featured a barber shop, multiple diningrooms, billiard rooms, ballroom, reception rooms, and even fireplaces in theguest rooms.  Visitors were treated asregal nobility, wanting for nothing.  Thecentral court was surrounded by marble-tiled promenades and a tropical gardenfilled with exotic plants, statues and fountains.  Just as notable, the courtyard was anchored bya paved, circular drive and huge doors allowing horse-drawn carriages andcoaches to enter and exit the interior of the hotel.  Guests departing for depots, ferry landings,and the like were able to check their bags before leaving the hotel and avoidthe logistics of keeping up with their luggage when departing. 
As I studied the old photo, my eyes ranover the beautiful columns, globed light fixtures, and flourishing plants.  Then, focusing on the far end of thecourtyard, I noticed a seating area. Centering that section, a twelve-passenger (including driver) Yosemitestagecoach was on display.  The wheels ofthe coach were secured inside a grooved rail and signage was positioned nearthe front of the coach.  When consideringthe clientele of the hotel, it’s not hard to deduce how this piece was beingused.  There were countless excursionsites near the city as well as those taking in the scenic California coast andhistoric interior.  Capitalizing on thoseopportunities, these open-sided touring coaches were among the most popularways to view America’s western wonders. From Yellowstone to Yosemite and numerous other locales, these carefully crafted designs were used in all types of recreational outings.  Thousands upon thousands experienced themajestic beauty of America while surrounded by the style and splendor of athoroughbrace-cradled ride.  
With its circular drive, theinterior courtyard of the Old Palace Hotel offered extraordinary comfort andconvenience to hotel guests.

Looking closely at the vehicle in thephoto, it’s easy to see the high-gloss varnish, paint, and lettering as well asthe unmarked leather and bright, clean canvas on the rear boot and top.  The coach appears to be new and in pristinecondition.  Later, pre-quake photos, showdifferent courtyard displays that do not include the coach, leaving us towonder where the vehicle might be today or if it has survived?  To that point, there are a number of thesecentury-plus-old touring vehicles that do still exist.  From private collections and historicalorganizations to museums across the country, many of these legendary stagescontinue to be part of promotions showcasing the wealth of stories and rich,national heritage of the Great American West. Again and again, these old wheels are proven to be more than justleftover parts of a forgotten world. They’re connections to and reminders of the blessings of freedom,inspiration of dreams, and rewards of hard work.  

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