Ask Rufus: The Block Where Downtown Began
Jhe old downtown Gilmer Hotel Block is one of the most historic blocks in Columbus and traces the early history of the city. Its legal description is appropriate, Block 1 North of Main Street. Although almost desert today with just the old Elks Club, a small vacant brick commercial building, and the parking lot for the Trotter Convention Center, the block was once the center of life in early Columbus.
The first reference to the block was made by Gideon Lincecum, who wrote that in 1819 he built the first frame house in Columbus. Its location was on the Military Road on what became Block 1. In 1819, the only streets in the city were the original Military Road of 1817, which is now Second Avenue North, and the western end of the main Street. Block 1 was centered between these two streets.
In 1820, the post office at John Pitchlynn’s residence in Plymouth Bluff was closed, and on March 6, the Columbus Post Office was established. Lincecum was appointed postmaster, and in January 1821 his house served as Columbus’ post office. Thomas Sampson also moved to Columbus in 1819 and lived in a “double cabin” at the west end of the block. At the east end of the block where the Gilmer Inn once stood, a hotel was opened around 1819 by Richard Barry.
Last week I provided Rev. George Shaeffer’s description of Columbus in 1822. He described Gilmer Block or Block 1 as follows: “On the north side of Main Street, at the west end, was a one-storey store kept by Captain Kewen. The next building was a small retail whiskey store; the next, Barry’s Tavern, a fairly large two-storey house, framed but unfinished; he was on the corner where the Gilmer Hotel is.
The first map of Columbus I found is an 1820s map from the Gilmer block. It shows the Eagle Hotel on the southeast corner of the block and Captain Kewen’s estate on the west. Interestingly, it also shows a 20ft driveway running east to west down the middle of the block. An 1839 town plan shows the Eagle Hotel again in the southeast corner and adds the Bell Tavern to where the current Elks Club building now stands.
The stories of the history of this block are fascinating. In 1839, the Columbus Democrat reported that a C. White, of Russellville, Alabama, “was attacked and shot” on the military road north of town. The citizens of the town “immediately assembled” at the Bell & Conner Tavern where a reward was raised for the capture of the murderer. Then, two groups set off in pursuit.
In the Billups-Garth Archives of the Columbus-Lowndes Public Library is an interesting document related to the Kewen property. It reflects the commercial life of the frontier town of Columbus. The 1829 document relates to the purchase of pelts (probably deer) from a Chickasaw named Underwood.
Captain E. Kewin
It is due to the carrier Underwood a Chickasaw because of the skins 1.06 1/4
June 14, 1829
Mullen was active in the Indian trade in northeast Mississippi, and Kewin owned a store near the present Elk’s Club building. The $1.6 1/4 due reflects the use of Spanish or Mexican silver coins for payment. In Spanish coins, six and a quarter cents equals half a pence, which was called a “picayune”. One bit was 12 1/2 cents, making 2 bits of 25 cents. The story of Block 1 is the story of life on the western frontier in the 1820s.
In 1837 McCluer and Humphries opened a two-door clothing store west of the Eagle Hotel. In November 1837, the Eagle published a notice in a newspaper. He used the title “Runaway List” with the image used in notices of runaway slaves. The notice was a list of names and residences of people who had taken “French leave” from the hotel without paying their bill. In 1839 the hotel announced that its table specialty was oysters and that the Tuscaloosa and Pontotoc Stage Line office was located in the hotel.
In 1849 there were five buildings facing Main Street on the block. The Eagle Hotel remains to the east; to the west of the hotel is the post office, Thompson’s, an unidentified building, and the residence of WH Stevenson.
Around 1860, John Gilmer began construction of a four-story brick hotel on the former site of the Eagle Hotel. At the time of the Battle of Shiloh in April 1862, the hotel was still unfinished. The pieces had been framed, but the walls were unfinished or plastered.
After the Battle of Shiloh, approximately 3,500 wounded soldiers were sent to Columbus, which became a major hospital center for the Confederate army. The Gilmer was turned into a military hospital, and although it was rated at 450 beds, it overflowed with around 800 sick or injured soldiers after Shiloh.
After the war ended, the first three floors were completed and opened as Gilmer House. In 1883 a reporter from Pascagoula stayed at the Gilmer and wrote, “One of the finest hotels in the South — the Gilmer House. This hotel is well kept, is supplied with water, gas and all the modern amenities, and the tables are set with everything there is to buy, in a word, the owner knows how to run a hotel.
Columbus’s 1871 birds-eye view of Block 1 north of the Main shows the Gilmer Hotel at top right, and at bottom left is Taylor’s Wagon Shops, which in 1885 also included an ice cream factory.
In 1962, the stately old Gilmer Hotel was demolished and a then fashionable (and now demolished) Downtowner Motor Inn was built on its site. This site has now been purchased and will soon be redeveloped, bringing the historic block back to life. Of this historic block on which homes and commercial buildings have stood for 203 years, only the now vacant Elks Club building gives any indication of the block’s former glory as the commercial and social center of the city.
Rufus Ward is a local historian.
Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. Send your local history questions to Rufus at [email protected]