Ask Rufus: The block where downtown began

Rufus Ward

The old Gilmer hotel block downtown is one of Columbus’ most historic blocks and traces the city’s early history. Its legal description is apt, Block 1 north of Main Street. Though the block is mostly barren today, containing only the old Elks Club, a vacant small brick commercial building, and the Trotter Convention Center parking lot, it was once the center of life in early Columbus.

The first reference to the block is by Gideon Lincecum, who wrote that he built the first timber frame house in Columbus in 1819. Its location was on Military Road in what later became Block 1. In 1819 the only streets in town were the original 1817 Military Road, now Second Avenue North, and the west end of 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 by January 1821 his house was serving as the Columbus post office. Thomas Sampson also moved to Columbus in 1819 and lived in a “double cabin” on the west end of the block. A hotel was opened by Richard Barry around 1819 at the east end of the block where the Gilmer Inn once stood.

Last week I provided Rev. George Shaeffer’s description of Columbus in 1822. He described the Gilmer Block, or Block 1, as follows: “On the north side of Main Street, West End, there was a one-story store run by Captain Kewen. The next building was a small whiskey shop; the next, Barry’s Tavern, a two-story house of rather large proportions, a frame but unfinished; it was on the corner where the Gilmer Hotel is.”

The earliest Columbus map I have found is a Gilmer block map from the 1820s. It shows the Eagle Hotel on the southeast corner of the block and Captain Kewen’s estate on the west side. Interestingly, it also features a 20-foot alley running east and west through the middle of the block. An 1839 town plan again shows the Eagle Hotel on the southeast corner and adds the Bell Tavern, roughly where the Elks Club building now stands.

The stories from the history of this block are fascinating. In 1839, The Columbus Democrat reported that a C. White of Russellville, Alabama, “was mugged and shot” on Military Road north of town. Citizens of the town “immediately” gathered at Bell & Conner’s tavern, where a reward was offered for catching the killer. Then two squads began the pursuit.

There is an interesting document in the Billups-Garth archives of the Columbus-Lowndes Public Library relating to the Kewen property. It reflects business life in what was then the border town of Columbus. The 1829 document concerns the purchase of skins (probably deer) from a Chickasaw named Underwood.

Captain E Kewin

Bearer Underwood owes a Chickasaw due to skins 1.06 1/4

June 14, 1829

tho B. Mullen

Mullen was active in the Indian trade in northeast Mississippi and Kewin owned a shop near what is now the 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 is half a bit, which was called “picayune”. A bit cost 12 1/2 cents, so 2 bits cost 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 clothing store two doors west of the Eagle Hotel. In November 1837, the Adler published a newspaper advertisement. It used the heading “List of Runaways” with the image used in notices of runaway slaves. The notice was a list of the names and addresses of people who had taken “French vacations” from the hotel without paying their bill. In 1839, the hotel announced that its table’s specialty was oysters and that the office of the Tuscaloosa and Pontotoc Stage Line was located at the hotel.

By 1849 there were five buildings facing Main Street on the block. The Eagle Hotel remains to the east; West of the hotel is the Post Office, Thompson’s, an unidentified building and the residence of WH Stevenson.

In about 1860, John Gilmer began building 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 unfinished. The rooms were framed, but the walls were unfinished and unplastered.

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 converted into a military hospital and although classified as 450 beds, according to Shiloh it was overcrowded with about 800 sick or wounded soldiers.

After the end of the war, the first three floors were completed and opened as Gilmer House. In 1883 a Pascagoula newspaperman stayed at the Gilmer and wrote: ‘One of the finest hotels in the South – the Gilmer House. This place is well maintained, has water, gas and all modern improvements, and the tables are stocked with whatever the market offers – in a word, the owner knows how to run a place.”

1871 Columbus bird’s-eye view of Block 1 north of the Main showing the Gilmer Hotel at top right and Taylor’s Wagon Shops at bottom left, which in 1885 included an ice factory.

In 1962, the stately old Gilmer Hotel was demolished and replaced by a then-fashionable (and now demolished) Downtown Motor Inn. This lot has now been purchased and will soon be redeveloped to bring the historic block back to life. On this historic block, where residential and commercial buildings have stood for 203 years, only the now-vacant Elks Club building hints at the block’s former glory as the city’s commercial and social hub.

Rufus Ward is a local historian.

Rufus Ward is a Columbus-born local historian. Email your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]

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