The Block Island Times

This Week in Block Island's history, early June 1888

The Block Island man who feared no man
By Robert M. Downie | Jun 07, 2012
Life at Old Harbor’s Ocean View Hotel more than a century ago was decidedly grand.

This week in Block Island’s history in early June, 124 years ago, imagine you are preparing for the coming tourist season — and you are 59 years old.
Your hotel is the highest priced on the island, but so incessant is the demand for rooms by elite visitors arriving from Northeastern, Midwestern, and Southern states — that almost every winter by necessity you have enlarged the hotel with wings, ells and smaller annexes.
Your brochure, given away to tourists, lists many of those notable people, occasionally with signatures reproduced next to their testimonials. Their biographies now, in 2012, can be easily found on Wikipedia.
There was, for instance, visits by the country’s most famous entertainment impresario, P. T. Barnum, who came complete with entourage and considerable baggage for weeks at a time.
From the political world there came myriads of mayors and governors.
Washington, D.C. supplied the more powerful, such as U.S. Vice Presidents Thomas Hendricks and Schuyler Colfax, and various U.S. senators, representatives, and ambassadors.
So many U.S. Supreme Court Justices came en masse, that they once held an official hearing at your hotel.
There was also a guest General Adolphus Greeley, an explorer who was once closer to the North Pole than anyone else — and financier Russell Sage whose money created the college of that name — and John Jacob Astor who 20 years later would be the richest and most renowned of the 1,500 who perished on the Titanic’s maiden voyage.
And Philip Armour who after a successful career in meat packing would die with an immense fortune of $50 million.
And perhaps the most influential newspaper writer in the country, Henry Watterson, who sent dispatches and editorials from the Ocean View Hotel that changed politics nationwide, winning the Pulitzer Prize decades later for his editorials urging the United States to enter World War I.
So, there you are, just before the summer season of 1888, owner of the Ocean View Hotel overlooking Old Harbor at Block Island, the largest hotel in southern New England. And you are expecting some of the wealthiest, well-known, most consequential Americans to once again visit your business, which is in its prime of life.
How do you care for all the needs and whims of so many significant people, who scatter about the public rooms in your hotel, across your vast porches, into your town, hither and thither?
Unlike this summer of 2012 when a veritable platoon of armed and trained men are being hired to police the island’s wayward visitors, there are no police on the island in the 1800s.
Nevertheless, the caliber of people you expect to visit your hotel in 1888, if translated into 2012 terms, would include the likes of eminent technology magnates, popular television newspeople, A-list actors, Supreme Court Judges and other high-ranking politicians.
As you make preparations for the summer, you must be sure all will function well, with the more than 200 rental rooms in the gargantuan 330-feet long main hotel, with its dozen supporting buildings, printing office, orchestra, gaslight generating plant, telegraph office, stables, restaurant, farm, dozens and dozens of waiters from the nation’s finest colleges, dozens and dozens of chambermaids from New England farms and mill-towns and all types of other behind-the-scenes personnel.
You keep extensive handwritten journals, tracking every expenditure, everything needed, everything done and all still you must do to make it through the summer.
On page 493 of your most personal logbook you jot down a heading titled “Hotel Affairs Worth Remembering” using a phrase that in 2012 would be good for the title of a cable television program, but in 1888 is simply matter-of-fact.
Amongst the random thoughts you write on page 493, like a modern-day businessman’s punch list of tasks to accomplish, you begin with one that reveals the extremes you’ve gone to, to become the success you are:
“Purchase sugar in 20-barrel lots at refinery and get it one cent less a pound.”
That is followed by a cryptic reference to several “good” Block Island men, their surnames still common on the island in 2012:
“Besides Eli Sprague, Warren Rose & Jim Mitchell, have two good men. Justin, the rock driller, is a good man.”
Then more business basics:
“Heads of Departments must nightly send a copy of their receipts to Proprietor’s Office, or their receipt book.”
“Get a marble mortar to pound up old bread for cracker dust.”
“Have Housekeeper and Assistant, the latter to daily inspect all help’s rooms, and report their condition as to cleanliness, and signs of liquor being used therein.”
“For Book Keeper in Laundry there should be an elderly woman who’s faithful and reliable, one that would look out for the interest of the Hotel.”
You, the owner of a summertime enterprise, seem to be a good subject for a psychological study in annual-retentiveness.
But you must think of everything, the world is on your shoulders. This hotel, from bread crumb on up, affects some of the most influential people on the planet.
What if something goes wrong? Where is the last line of defense? Who will be the one to stop history from careening off on a course of tragedy, of a nation falling into despair?
So, you write near the bottom of page 493:
“Should be two Watchmen, one for inside of Hotel, and one for outside building ...”
And then the very special words come to your mind. As earnestly as you dug gold with bare hands in your youth, finding your fortune in California 38 years earlier, that enabled you to buy this land and build this gargantuan hotel from scratch. As pragmatically as you now count the pennies to be saved in a barrel of sugar. As patriotically as a decade before, when you accompanied President Ulysses S. Grant in a buggy from your hotel to the Southeast Lighthouse.
You place pen to logbook honestly, with the knowledge you will carry out this chore as surely as you have thousands of others, and you write the words that might alter the nation’s history:
“... the latter should be a man who fears no man.”

Comments (0)
If you wish to comment, please login.