history of the Hotel Coolidge and that of the railroad in the Upper
Connecticut River Valley are inextricably linked. Indeed, it was the
advent of railway service that originally created the need for hotel
accommodations in White River Junction.
The Central Vermont Railway laid the first
rails in early 1847 and, by the following year, the line stretched 25
miles north to Bethel. On June 26, 1848, Vermont's first passenger train
began service between White River Junction and Bethel, and by 1849,
the line extended 90 miles north to Burlington and 15 miles south to
Windsor. The success of the Central Vermont from Burlington to Windsor
prompted the rapid addition of other lines to this area, and soon White
River became the most important junction in Northern New England.
1849 Brings the First Hotel
Colonel Sam Nutt, a successful riverboat captain,
recognized the need created by the railways for first-class hotel accommodations
River Junction. In 1849, he retired from the river, purchased the Grafton
House in Enfield, NH (some 20 miles to the east), had it transported
to White River Junction, and after a period of reconstruction, opened
the Junction House.
Colonel Nutt operated the Junction House for ten years
it to the Barrons family in 1859. Soon after acquiring it, the Barrons
bought another hotel and had it moved and united with the original structure.
When this combined hotel was destroyed by fire in 1878,
its loss was regarded as "the natural sequence of the unrestricted
looseness that characterized his (the senior proprietor's) system of
running the Public House."
From the 19th to the 20th Centuries
By the end of 1879, a new structure containing
200 rooms had been rebuilt and sold. Under the stewardship of Ballard
and Andrews, the hotel's new owners, the Junction House soon became
noted for its fine service and hospitality. At the turn of the century,
no less than five railways served White River, generating business from
50 daily passenger trains and vast freight traffic. At that time, the
Junction House hosted heroes' welcomes, fairs, and served the performers
from the Gates Opera House that was located next door. Records indicate
that during this period the hotel accommodated more than 38,000 guests
per year, prompting local wags to maintain the "the beds never
cool down at the Junction House." In the winter of 1920, the hotel
numbered among its guests the silent movie star Lillian Gish and the
famous director D.W. Griffith. Miss Gish and Mr. Griffith had come to
Vermont in order to film the ice scenes for "Way
Renamed in 1924
Its then-owner Colonel Wheeler chose the name Hotel
Coolidge in honor of his close friend Colonel John Calvin Coolidge.
The father of President Calvin Coolidge, Colonel Coolidge was a frequent
guest of the hotel, and his picture still hangs in the lobby, sternly
surveying passersby. President Coolidge himself stayed on the first
floor in Parlor Room A, preferring by reason of superstition to occupy
an unnumbered room.
While changes in structure have been an intricate
part of its history, the present Hotel is essentially that which resulted
from a major reconstruction carried out in 1925. (Photo shows hotel
A comprehensive and extensive sprinkler system was
installed in the 1930s, , making the Coolidge one of the safest hotels
anywhere. In 1950, artist Peter Michael Gish called the Coolidge
home. In exchange for room and board, he painted the murals in the Vermont
Room and the Cocktail Lounge.
The late fifties saw the inauguration of the
Coolidge dining Room's tradition of providing excellent American and
Continental fare in a formal dining atmosphere. Though the dining room
personnel are still uniformed and the tables covered in the whitest
of linens, today's patrons may dress informally while enjoying complete
dinners at prices that are most affordable.
In more recent years, a program of renovation and
consolidation on the sleeping floors has resulted in the Hotel's ability
to offer, among its 96 clean, renovated rooms, enough variety to accommodate
individual preferences and needs at attractively affordable rates. And,
as it has since 1849, the Hotel continues to accommodate passengers
and crews from the trains that serve the Upper Valley. Whether seeking
lodging for a night, a weekend, a week or a month, a satisfying meal
in the Coolidge dining Room, an hour or an evening of relaxation in
the cocktail lounge, guests find that the Hotel Coolidge, a landmark
in White River Junction, offers the warmth and charm of a rich past
together with up-to-date conveience and reliability.
The Hotel Coolidge and the Creative Economy Ethic
Since 1985, the Hotel Coolidge has been especially
involved in the concept of a Creative Economy. That year, as a new innkeeper,
I produced a concert in the opera house featuring The Butch Thompson
Trio from the "Prairie Home Companion." This led to the formation
of River City Arts, and shortly thereafter, to the White River
Theater Festival, the Yankee Brass Band Festival and the Cabin Fever
Music Series. This eventually led to the fortunate arrival of Northern
Stage in 1998. Cultural initiatives have continued on other fronts
in the form of the Glory Days of the Railroad Festival created
by me, John Gibb of Quechee and Jean Ballin of Thetford and River City
Arts Board member, who gave this now ten-year-old festival its name.
The railroad heritage involvement has included support and leadership
for an emerging transportation museum and similar efforts are underway
for a transportation-planning institute.
Hotel employees literally helped to construct the
opera house that was eventually renamed in honor of my father and
mother, Fred and Bonnie Briggs, for their support and contributions.
The role of the hotel staff included building risers, installing lighting
and rehabilitating the salvaged movie theater seating there today. The
entire staff is encouraged to "pitch in," both on and off
duty, to participate in community happenings. They haul chairs, set
up rooms, move pianos, and otherwise make things possible in the name
of hospitality and community. Included in this work is a photographic
contest each year at the Glory Days of the Railroad Festival.
Engaging the inquisitive traveler in the history and
the progress of bringing back community in such places as White River
Junction has included a relationship with Elderhostel. Cultural
programming developed by the hotel and selected associates has resulted
in literally thousands of people, including grandchildren, from all
states in the country to stay in White River Junction for a week at
a time. The intensive curriculum intertwines performing artists with
historians and naturalists to tell the story of the region, its prospects
and its challenges.
The most recent addition to the Creative Economy in
White River Junction has been the emergence of a unique school called
The Center for Cartoon Studies (CCS). Offering a two-year
degree around the art of "graphic novel" this school is supported
by nationally known and respected cartoonists and is attracting serious
students from some of the nations best known four-year colleges as well.
The Hotel Coolidge is embracing this initiative by reformatting its
cafe into a casual room called "Inky's Place" after
the fictional character lying behind the school's founding. The space
is to serve as a casual meeting place for the community, a performance
space for musicians and poets as well as the defacto "student union"
for the CCS.
Although the original vision of a historic district
centered on the hotel was driven by my belief in the wisdom of pedestrian
neighborhoods built on a "human scale," confluence with the
arts was early to occur and compelling as well. The transition path
from a warehousing, wholesaling, retailing and transportation hub has
been slow to emerge. This transition, begun as far back as the late
1950s, is only now clear enough to celebrate. The watchwords of the
railroad era have been replaced by "Entertainment and Office"
and, with respect to retailing, "Convenience and Craftsmanship."
As one can only now easily realize, these new verbal
cornerstones start and end with activities deeply rooted in creativity!
Initially lured by affordable and available space, creative spirits
should now forever be a part of the heartbeat of the village both economically
and as a genuine sense of place known to so many as White River Junction.
David C. Briggs, Innkeeper