There’s nothing like a complicated and slightly shady past to make a place interesting! What is now an unassuming single-story building in the Haymarket Landmark District has been through lots of adventures and tragedies that you would never know by looking at it. What started out as the St. Charles Hotel has undergone numerous name changes, fires, scandals, and remodeling projects since its beginnings in Nebraska’s early statehood. In the Fall 2012 issue of Nebraska History, Patricia Gaster tells about the early history of this hotel and the struggles in the life of its frequent proprietor, Kate Martin.
When Kate’s first husband Robert Charters began the St. Charles in 1867, they were both recent immigrants from Ireland. At the time, Lincoln had fewer than 500 residents, but business for the hotel grew quickly as Lincoln had just been declared the state capital. By 1872 it had more than 5,000 people along with many travelers.
In 1879 Charters died suddenly, leaving Kate in charge of the hotel. She got married again in 1880 to Thomas Cokely. While Cokely became the official hotelkeeper, Kate was still very involved. Cokely had been managing for less than a year when he ejected a particular man for disruptive behavior. The man then stabbed Cokely in the arm, and he died from the wound several days later. Although recuperating from this fresh tragedy, Kate proved herself a capable business woman in managing the hotel. But the St. Charles’s excitement was far from over. In 1884 it caught fire and burned down, despite the valiant efforts of firemen. During the fire, Kate was credited with saving a young girl from the second story of the nearby building where the fire had started.
Kate was not adequately insured to cover her losses from the fire, but was popular in Lincoln, especially among the Irish community, and had lots of help to rebuild. When the hotel re-opened later that year, it was now a very modern three-story building, advertised as “fresh and new.” Liquor was sold on the first floor, a development that would factor into some of the hotel’s later drama.
Gaster follows the story of the hotel through several more stages of its life, with Kate close by as long as she lived. After all the different remodeling projects, damage, and repair over the life of the St. Charles, there is little left of the original building. The top two stories have been removed, and what was the first floor is currently occupied by Geller Design, Inc. The location is inconspicuous now, but it has a rich past that has seen much of Lincoln’s life. You never know what stories might be behind a building you pass every day.
-Joy Carey, Editorial Assistant