Ever imagine what one of the earliest hotels In Watertown, N.Y. looked like? Look no further than the Oakland House.
Constructed in 1808 by Henry Coffeen, the Oakland House was considered the best hotel in the county. A year later, Coffeen would start the first newspaper in Watertown here, The American Eagle, described as an “organ of the rising Van Buren element in the Democratic Party of the time,” though it supported Republican-Democrat in politics as well as President Monroe. In its early days, it sat opposite of both the County Jail and County Courthouse on the “other” square
The photo above is likely after 1915 or thereabouts when the hotel once again became home to a printing press – an otherwise ideal location between the county jail and city hall if it weren’t part of Watertown’s ‘Red Light’ district with all sorts of unsavory watering holes nearby with names like “Bucket of Blood” and “The Pig’s Ear.”
Prior to the Oakland House being built in this location, a building that was a printing office was situated near this location as seen on a map drawn in 1804 and discussed in an 1887 Watertown Daily Times article. Perhaps its location is was why, once built, the Oakland House “housed” a printing office on numerous occasions. Other interesting information offered in the article was the lower end of Public Square being referred to as “The Mall.” I’m assuming this was the Woolworth Bldg end as the State Street end was higher elevation.
During the Civil War, the Oakland House would be used as a recruiting center for Henry D. Rich, Recruiting Officer. “Forty-Two Dollars Bounty will be paid for all good, able-bodied men.” Rich would also be seeking 100 good artillery horses and 100 good cavalry horses.
The Oakland House had a long history of crime and tragedy, from pocket-picking, to shootings and suicides, making the fact that it was once owned by a city policeman, John Van Wormer, himself a victim of several thefts, somewhat ironic.
One tragedy particularly of note a well-known local football player, Ray B. Storey, who, at the age of 23, played for the Watertown football team and considered their best player. The Watertown Re-Union reported on October 12, 1901:
Storey was 23 years of age and a young man of rare strength and magnificent physique. He was cheerful and sanguine in his manner and the last man thought likely to end his own life.
A letter left on the bedroom stand in his hotel room, addressed to his brother read:
When this reaches you, I shall be dead. God forgive me for the act, but life holds nothing for me now. Give me a decent burial. John Allen owes me about $12. Save my nugget pin for Frank.
While no-one knows for certain what spurned the act, it was known that Storey, who was engaged to Ms. Grace Graves, a student at Oneonta State Normal School, planned the marriage to occur after she graduated – despite her parents’ opposition. According to his roommate and fellow football teammate George Putnam , Storey had been awaiting a letter from Ms. Graves, telling Putnam “If I don’t receive one today, she’s got to show me.”
The Oakland House would be torn down 31 years later, in 1932.