Visalia House – A Bygone Relic of a Frontier Town
The old hotel has been gone from Visalia’s landscape for almost a century now, but it continues to standout in our history as a reminder of our rough and tumble past. When Will Davenport built it in 1859, it was called the Esmeralda, but soon the fanciful name changed to Visalia House. Despite the change to a simpler name, the Visalia House was anything but plain or simple to the townspeople. In fact, when built at Main and Church streets, this first-class two-story brick hostelry was called “one of the most complete hotels south of San Jose,” but eventually, it would be called a “dive.”
Despite its early charm, by today’s standards it was anything but first-rate. According to E. F. Warner, the son of one of the early hotel operators, when it first opened it had a regular dining room downstairs and the upstairs sleeping quarters consisted of one large room. Guests staying for the night would actually rent a space on the floor where they would throw down their bedrolls. Later the upstairs, or “corral” as it was called, was divided into separate rooms. Over the years, the building was remodeled frequently
to keep it updated. At various times it included a billiard parlor, saloon, offices, newspaper, and retail shops.
It was a popular gathering spot for locals and travelers alike, and as a result, was witness to a considerable amount of Visalia history. In 1893, the old hotel offered the public a chance to see a huge, live deep sea turtle on exhibit and then to taste the savory morsels of the reptile prepared by the restaurant chef. Exhibits were popular. For example, people were invited to listen to a new phonograph on display at the hotel, as well as to view a Chinese Museum of Art and Curiosities exhibit, complete with a 30-foot dragon.
During the Civil War, part of the upstairs was rented to two newspapermen named Hall and Garrison, both sympathetic to the southern cause. Their newspaper, the Equal Rights Expositor, provided them a way of sharing their political views. Davenport, their landlord who supported the Union, was uneasy about his controversial tenants, so he asked them to leave. The journalists agreed and relocated. A short time later, the newspaper was attacked and destroyed. The Visalia House had literally dodged a bullet.
The hotel wasn’t always that lucky. It had its share of trouble. All too frequently, patrons, especially those who spent too much time in the saloon, became disruptive and needed to be removed. Sometimes lawmen escorted them out of the building, other times unruly patrons were carried out in the prone position.
On one occasion, a drunken stranger entered the hotel and caused trouble at the pool table. A player named Ketchum pulled out his six-shooter and killed the boisterous man for disturbing the game. At another time, Harry Britten, long-time Exeter justice of the peace, remembered as a young boy arriving in Visalia in 1887 with his father. As they walked into the Visalia House lobby, they heard shots and yelling coming from the saloon. Soon a dead man fell through the swinging doors on to the floor directly in front of them.
A year later, Charles Boles came to Visalia and stayed at the Visalia House for several days. The famous former California stage robber, better known as Black Bart, had just been released from state prison and was seeking solitude. Once the ex-convict was discovered, he quickly left town and was never identified or spotted again. His last known sighting was at the Visalia House.
Owners and former owners of the hotel had their share of problems also. Nick Wren, for example, at one time owned the Visalia House and in 1889, he was appointed Tulare County Deputy Sheriff by Tulare County Sheriff Dan Overall. While pursuing a wanted man, the lawman was killed attempting to make the arrest. Dave Sanders, the owner of the Visalia House in early 1909, also faced an unfortunate end. He was arrested and charged with stealing cattle from the Tim Hayes’ Ranch.
Prior to his trial, Sanders fled Visalia, abandoning the Visalia House. He never stood trial for cattle rustling.
After Sanders skipped, the Visalia House closed its doors for a time. Nasty community ridicule began to build up against the 50-year-old business and building. The negative press and sentiment began taking its toll, and it was now being called the biggest “hell hole” in the city.
Not only was its reputation taking a hit, the aging structure was giving out under its own weight. One evening in February 1915, a corner of the porch suddenly broke loose from the main building and much of the balcony fell to the sidewalk. No one was hurt by the falling debris, but the collapse sealed the fate of the old timer. J. Sub Johnson, the owner of the building, began making serious plans to tear it down and replace it with a new modern, multi-story hotel, one he would call the Hotel Johnson.
In August 1916, the Ferguson Bros. barbershop, the Visalia Water Company, and a Japanese restaurant moved out of the dilapidated building. The following month, the operator of the hotel, H. T. Howell vacated the building. Now completely empty, the oldest building in Visalia was ready to come down. But James Boyer, Secretary of the Visalia Board of Trade, had nostalgic feelings for the historic building and wanted to give it a proper sendoff. He arranged for a band to play as the building was being torn down, and he collected the first dislodged brick as a keepsake to be proudly displayed in a glass case.
The site was cleared and prepared for the five-story hotel. The Hotel Johnson took about a year to build, and on November 6, 1917, the new hotel opened its doors. The Visalia House was gone, but its memory was kept alive when the decision was made to incorporate Visalia House bricks into the new hotel.