The last 25 years of the 19th century saw the great popularity of resort hotel vacations.
Even though tucked away in a remote corner of New York state, Chautauqua Lake became a center for vacationers and during that time a great number of hotels, large and small, were built along the lake shore.
The reasons behind such development locally were an accurate reflection of the national picture of the time. The great surge of railroad building that took place after the Civil War carried mainline connections of the Erie, Pennsylvania and New York Central systems into Chautauqua County. The local feeder lines that were built brought visitors from afar to the lakeshore point of their choice. The railroad line first called the Chautauqua Lake Railroad, from Jamestown to Mayville, was in place along the east side of the lake by 1888. Connections along the west side of the lake were slower to develop. Chautauqua Traction, a trolley line built by the Jamestown Street Railway Company, did not reach Mayville until 1904. Consequently, that part of the lake saw less hotel development. Lakewood was the exception. It had an early station stop on the Erie Railroad, and by1893 the Jamestown Street Railway Company had extended its lines to the small settlement. Lakewood grew almost entirely as a center for the resort business. For almost three decades, until the turn of the century, Lakewood had a widespread reputation as one of the premier western New York resorts.
John Cowing whose family owned a large tract of land along the west side of the lower lake, built one of the first hotels in that area in1870. Although the spot, called Lakeview, was relatively uninhabited, the Allegheny and Great Western Railroad had established a depot there a few years earlier. When Mr. Cowing built the hotel he also built a wharf long enough to allow large steamers to dock. That facility was the first such accommodation on the west side of the lake between Jamestown and Mayville. With the access by both water and land, Lakeview began to develop into a small village. In 1872 the Cowing House was renamed the Lakeview House. In 1880 the village was officially names Lakewood.
The Lakeview House remained a center of the increasing lake resort business until the late 1880’s. In 1889 the aging building was razed to be replaced by another hotel of grander proportions, the Sterlingworth. The Sterlingworth Hotel was the second hotel to stand on the site of the present Lakewood Park. The earlier hotel, the Lakeview House, was purchased and razed in 1889 by Ernest Frisbee after he sold his interest in the neighboring Kent House. He built the much grander and more modern Sterlingworth. Only the inner courtyard and a few strong walls of the earlier structure were retained.
The new building’s castle-like appearance was enhanced by a lofty crenellated lower which rose above the main entrance, and six smaller rounded towers which were placed at intervals above the irregular roofline. The hotel sloped downhill from Terrace Avenue to the lakeshore and extended 120 feet along the lakefront. The long dock in front of the hotel was a regular stop for the large steamboats for many years.
The Sterlingworth’s first season, 1889, was one of unparalleled prosperity. However, in succeeding years it became increasingly difficult to pay for the expensive hotel operations with the income from the short summer seasons typical of Chautauqua Lake. In 1895 Mr. Frisbee was forced to sell the hotel at a judgment sale. The sale price of $30,000 fell short of the total mortgaged amount of $200,000.
On the afternoon of July 9, 1903, a fire started in the dining room of the Waldemere reportedly from the flame of a plumber’s lamp. It was efficiently extinguished by the Lakewood firemen. However, during the following night flames broke out from the roof of the building, spreading so rapidly and with such intensity that it was impossible to save the building. The first of the two hotels in Lakewood called Kent House was built in1875 near the beginning of the era of resort vacationing. It stood just east of the Lakeview House at the site of the present Chautauqua Lake Yacht Club. The main building covered 138 feet along Terrace Avenue with a 60 foot arm extending northward toward the lake. The following year it was enlarged to provide accommodations for 500 guests.
However, at 6:00 am on October 17, 1887, shortly after the season closed, a kerosene lamp exploded in the hotel kitchen. The fire soon engulfed the whole building. Construction on the second Kent House began in January 1888, only a few months after the disastrous fire that completely destroyed the first hotel by the same name. At a cost of $100,000, the owner, Mr. Ernest J. Frisbee, built an even grander structure on the same site.
The main entrance, topped by an observatory and an ornamental tower 125 feet high, opened from a wing that had a 144 foot frontage on Terrace Avenue. At either end of this main portion, two wings extended134 feet toward the lake. They were artfully finished off with circular towers capped with cupolas. The roof was made of Vermont slate. Standing five stories high, the hotel had a total floor space of 15,000 square feet. A glass-enclosed court between the two wings faced the lake and from this an open-air promenade led to the long dock. By 1909 the large unused hotel was in the hands of the Brooklyn Trust Company. Having no prospects for a sale or for operating the hotel, the out-of-town combine auctioned off the entire contents, inventoried at $35,000. It was called the largest public sale of hotel furnishings ever held in western New York.
The Kent House was boarded up late that year and stood deteriorating for six more years. In its prominent location along the Lakewood shore it was an eyesore and a sad reminder of grander times. In 1916 J.M. Van Ness and A.N. Broadhead bought the building for $3,000 and it was demolished. Some idea of the building’s size was revealed in the list of materials salvaged when it was razed: 600,000 square feet of lumber; 1,131 doors; 1,000 cords of kindling wood; 4 carloads of 2×4 and 9×6 studs; and large amounts of brick and slate. It has been noted that much of this salvage was purchased by individuals who used it to build new homes, many of which remain today in the Lakewood and Celoron areas.
Financial problems that plagued hotel owners and led to eventual loss or closing, were built into the huge structures. Their design, their size, and the required life-style of the elegant resorts, all part of their appeal, were also part of their failure. Huge mortgages incurred to meet construction costs were a constant burden. Foreclosures and bankruptcy sales were common. Whether the hotels suffered from good or poor seasons, the great wooden structures with extensive hardwood interiors were at all times potential victims of fire. More than half of the large hotels from this picturesque era disappeared in this manner. Some of the fires occurred spontaneously or accidentally. Arson was the established cause of at least two of the blazes. It is interesting to note, also, that many hotels destroyed by fire in the later years, were for the most part already out of business.
Finally, the popularity of the great hotels was destroyed by the coming of the automobile. Americans gained the ability to travel independently and to vary their vacation times and activities. Touring and sight-seeing by car became popular. A few weeks in a rented cottage by the shore, or in a private summer home took the place of the season at the resort hotel. Those grand but aging structures that did not go up in flames saw their patronage fade and gradually closed their doors. A few lingered along the lake shore, sad and disintegrating reminders of happier days, until they were finally demolished.