By Diane Euston
When this hotel was built on the riverfront, the area was the center of all of Kansas City simply because it was really all that existed at the time. When a natural rock landing at the foot of current-day Grand Ave. was first used to land a riverboat, it spawned the idea of building a town at its location. Prior to this, it was simply known as Westport Landing and was used as a place to dock boats and proceed four miles south to the town of Westport.
Fourteen men organized the Town Company in 1838 and invested in 257 acres of land; this was the beginning of the Town of Kansas. However, lots weren’t really even sold at a fast pace until 1847. Due to the bluffs and steep trajectory of the area, the lots that sold the quickest were those on the levee or Front St. on level ground overlooking the Missouri River where steamboats had started to utilize the landing.
One of the first businesses to build along the levee was a two-story brick hotel that could accommodate thousands of travelers who landed at the fledgling city before embarking to distant places. Although it had many names over its lifetime, including Troost House, the Union, the American, and the Western, the name that stuck and became recognizable was the Gilliss.
The Gilliss House Hotel saw more in its existence than one can even imagine, and its history is a reflection of the growing pains of a city on the edge of the frontier.
Troost and Gilliss
One of the 14 original founders of Kansas City, William Gilliss (c.1797-1869) came to the future site of the town in 1831 and began to buy up large sections of land. Following him to the edge of civilization was his nephew, Joseph Barkley and his niece, Mrs. Mary Ann Barkley Kennerly.
Around 1840, Benoist Troost (1786-1859), a Dutch-born physician left the east with his wife, Rachel; they had lived in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia before he landed in Independence. He later settled in what would be Kansas City where, after the death of his first wife, he married William Gilliss’s beloved niece, Mary Ann in 1846.
As lots in the Town of Kansas were sold in 1846, Troost bought five prime lots. William Gilliss, who at this point owned three of the 14 original shares of the Town Company, continued to purchase and sell land. With their personal connections via-marriage established, the two men decided to buy a section of valuable real estate on the West Levee between Delaware and Wyandotte Streets. At the time, a small tavern and wagon yard sat there.
About 1847 or 1848, construction began on Kansas City’s very first hotel. It was a two-story brick structure that had 60 private rooms and one large room used for overflow. Attached to the hotel was a brick stable that was filled with horses, buggies and hacks.
As they say, timing is everything. About the time that Gilliss and Troost had finished erecting their hotel, gold was discovered in California, and the levee was the location of tens of thousands of travelers west. At the time, it was “the principal hotel in the part of the country when Kansas City was a frontier town scattered along the levee, and known then as Westport Landing.”
One of the earliest advertisements for the hotel was published in 1850 in the Missouri Republican where its name is identified as “Troost House.” The advertisement was aimed at these California gold seekers, and rooms were described as “roomy and modern.” Living at the hotel on a full-time basis were William Gilliss, Benoist Troost and his wife, a housekeeper, a cook and William Barkley.
By 1851, Dr. Troost had moved onto focusing on his business as the town’s first physician and William Gilliss and his nephew, William Barkley purchased full interest in the hotel. At this time, it was known as “Union Hotel.”
The Union Hotel was a thrifty hostelry– it wasn’t built at first to impress, but it was built for the purpose of being a warm place to stay before the journey out west. In 1851, William Walker stopped to dine with a friend at the Union, and he wrote, “The dinner was nothing to boast of.”
In 1852, the Union Hotel was enlarged and a third story was added. Slowly but surely, the place was becoming one of the finest hotels on the river west of St. Louis.
The New England Emigrant Aid Company
Most of the settlers that made Kansas City their home at this time were from the South, and many of them had pro-slavery tendencies. This was the case of both William Gilliss and Benoist Troost who owned slaves.
By 1854, William Gilliss was looking for someone to take over the lease of the Union Hotel. He placed advertisements in the St. Louis newspapers. “The house is now undergoing a thorough renovation, and can be given possession at any moment,” Gilliss advertised. “But as I have been duped twice lately by people who pretended they were acquainted with the art of tavern keeping, no person need apply but those who can give satisfactory evidence of their capacity, and so security for the rent.”
Guaranteeing someone would pay the rent was only part of the problems in Kansas City. The bigger issue was the Kansas-Nebraska Act. In a pro-slavery town run by predominately pro-slavery men, there was some serious concern about the type of people coming through town.
Abolitionists were flooding the riverfront and moving into Kansas Territory to ensure that with popular sovereignty, those elected into the newly-established territorial legislature would ensure Kansas was a free state.
At the foot of Delaware on the levee, the Union Hotel also represented how closely men and women of different morals lived together within close confines despite their opposing views on the institution of slavery. The owners of the hotel held slaves and were supporters of the South, but within a few short years this hotel on the levee became the headquarters of free soil men.
The New England Emigrant Aid Company was established in response to the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The company guaranteed low-cost transportation to Kansas Territory and helped with temporary housing once they reached there. The goal was to encourage anti-slavery men to move and ensure these men would vote in territory elections.
The Company left Boston in July 1854 and arrived about two weeks later in Kansas City. Major Samuel C. Pomeroy, the financial agent of the society, purchased the Union Hotel from William Gilliss for $10,000. It’s unclear whether Gilliss was aware of the motivations of these free state men when he sold him the hotel.
The New England Emigrant Aid Company would travel into Kansas and establish the town of Lawrence within months.
After purchasing the Union Hotel, “the building was renovated, the name changed to ‘American House,’ and reopened to the public with improved service.” The New England Emigrant Aid Company had plans to use the location as a staging area before emigrants moved west into Kansas Territory.
Pomeroy offered a lease to Shalor Eldridge (1816-1899) who had arrived with the group and was a strong abolitionist. While under his control, another floor was added. Recalling his time in Kansas City, Eldridge wrote, “As southern men are notable for their liberality in patronizing public houses, the management of the hotel brought me into association with most of the prominent men of western Missouri. And as Kansas City was the principal base of operations of the proslavery party, these relations afforded an opportunity for learning the plans and purposes of the leaders.”
Even though the population of Kansas City was only 478 just one year prior, the influx of pioneers had greatly impacted the fledgling community. Between 1856 and 1857, when riverboat traffic was at its height, the hotel had 27,000 guests.
Even at this time, the bluffs towered over the riverfront and the “city” was concentrated on two blocks. The narrow strip of ground where the hotel stood, known as the levee or Front St. was tucked next to towering bluffs that had yet to be cut away by Irish laborers. Shalor Eldridge wrote, “[The bluffs] rose so abruptly that the third floor of some of the buildings could be reached by a step from the face of the bluff. The streets of the town were yet to be.” At this time, the only street which had begun grading from the levee was Main St.
By this time, the hotel, operated by Eldridge, was four and a half stories tall with a large steeple that held a bell that would ring to announce mealtime to guests. These meals were informal affairs with a long table in the center that could fit about 50 to 60 people, but due to the hotel’s popularity and overbooking, they oftentimes would cram three to four times that many into the room.
From One Side to the Other
Kersey Coates (1823-1887) arrived in Kansas City in 1854 from Pennsylvania. A Quaker, Coates was deeply involved in the Free State movement as he set up his business ventures in Kansas City. On April 13, 1856, Kersey Coates returned from Philadelphia with his new wife, Sarah after a four-day, five-night trip on the steamboat William Campbell. Looking at the levee and up at her new home of Kansas City, she wrote, “Alas! How my heart sank when the thought passed through my mind, ‘And is this to be my home!’”
Mrs. Coates stayed in an 8×10 room on the second floor of the American House (Gilliss) overlooking the levee. She wrote in her journal:
“It was interesting to watch the arrival and departure of steamers and to witness the antics of half-drunken Indians from over the Kaw, who, mounting their ponies, with unearthly yells would fly by my window reeling to and fro as though ready at any moment to fall to the ground. It was no unusual thing to see fifty or sixty armed Southerners arrive and to hear their cry, ‘Death to all the d—d Yankees!’
The territorial governor of Kansas Territory, Andrew Reeder (1807-1854) was in a heap of trouble in 1856. When Missourians stormed over the border to vote illegally, the scales were tipped and the legislature (coined “The Bogus Legislature”) elected were pro-slavery men. Reeder was “hotly pursued by his pro-slavery enemies” who “swore they would kill him on sight.”
Gov. Andrew Reeder was trying to escape in May 1856 when Kersey Coates and others hid him inside the Gilliss Hotel. The story goes that the governor was disguised as a woodchopper “and with his ax and bundle on his shoulders and managed to make his way down the river.” He was able to escape. An oil painting of the disguised governor hung for many years at Coates House in the Quality Hill neighborhood that Kersey Coates developed.
The New England Emigrant Aid Society erected a hotel in Lawrence in 1855 known as the Free State Hotel, but during the first Lawrence Raid in May 1856, the hotel was burned down. Afraid of the same fate at their hotel in Kansas City, the Emigrant Aid Company opted to dispose of it and Shalor Eldrige moved to Lawrence to take over the property that had burned and rebuilt it.
There was no lost love with Kansas Citians at their decision. Transferring proprietorship to a pro-slavery man would save the business from pro-slavery torches.
In June 1856, Mr. Chiles took over the hotel. Kansas City’s first newspaper, the Kansas City Enterprise,reported, “Mr. Chiles comes recommended as one of the very best hotel keepers in the country; in fact, his reputation is coextensive with that of the ‘Phoenix Hotel’ of Lexington, Ky., of which he was several years the host. They have made a good investment, the property being the most valuable in the west.”
Mr. Chiles “was a strong pro-slavery man and during his occupancy, the house was the resort of all the slave holders and fire-eating pro-slavery men of this section.”
Ownership passed to St. Louis lawyer Nat Claiborne who operated the hotel for three years until 1860. During his tenure, “the pro-slavery men lived in royal style at the Old Gilliss.” There was a poker room where it was said a man from New Orleans lost $35,000 in one night.
The Gilliss House Hotel
In 1860, Dr. William A Hopkins and his brother, Charles G. Hopkins purchased the hotel. An extensive remodel took place where the second floor (which was the main floor) featured the parlors. The third floor included suites and “double bedrooms.” The fourth floor had single rooms. The Daily Western Journal of Commerce wrote, “The rooms are all beautifully carpeted and papered – the furniture is all new and elegant, particularly the beds.”
Surprisingly, the hotel didn’t hold the name “Gilliss” until this point in history; however, the history of this building and its significance as Kansas City’s first hotel has forever coined it “Gilliss House.” The photos which exist of the building are all from its last owners when the sign plastered across the building read “Gilliss House” and steamboats could see it from hundreds of yards away.
During the Civil War, the hotel was used as a place to house military leaders. Maj. Gen. Samuel Curtis stayed there before he traveled to Harris House in Westport.
The infamous Gilliss House Hotel closed to guests for good in 1868 just as the Hannibal Bridge brought the railroad across the river. Steamboat traffic slowed to a crawl, and the need for hotels and businesses on the levee had passed. Charles Hopkins tried to convince the city to purchase the hotel, including 20 furnished bedrooms, for use as a hospital. It was declined.
Within a few short years, the levee which was the heart of the action for over 20 years fell into disrepair.
By 1890, Gilliss House had been partially demolished on the western side. The first and second floors were occupied by businesses, and the basement, once the kitchen, was full of water. The building was used as a soap factory and later a pickle factory.
In 1902, there was a large fire in the building when it was used as a pickle factory. The building was owned by a soap company, and there was a lot of oil on the floors from its soap manufacturing. Thus, it was hard to control the flames and little of the building survived.
The Finest Hotel in Town
Today if you venture out to the Town of Kansas Pedistrian Bridge overlooking the Missouri River, you can glance back at what once was the levee and envision what once was. Just to the west of the bridge and visible in the winter months, you can see a portion of the gray limestone foundation of what made up the Gilliss House.
This, along with a collection of photos, are the only concrete pieces of evidence left. But the stories of its history and the importance of this location shouldn’t be overlooked. To imagine what this building saw in its lifetime is a testament to the tenacity of the pioneers who took a gamble on the edge of the frontier.
Diane writes a blog about the history of the area. To read more of the stories, go to http://www.newsantafetrailer.blogspot.com.