Feature: West Point's Terminal Hotel
Updated: Mar 9, 2022
By Dianne Saison, The House and Home Magazine
Photos Courtesy Historical Society of West Point (HSWPVA)
A postcard from The Terminal Hotel, circa 1900, gives an astonishing glimpse at the 200-room, magnificent hotel that has been forgotten by time. Photo courtesy of HSWPVA.
There is a secret bit of history in King William County, and for nearly a century it has been buried by fire and nearly forgotten by time... However, with help from local historians and residents, the Terminal Hotel in West Point, Virginia, one of the most amazing and beautiful former tourist destinations in the region, has been rediscovered.
During the late 1800s, the Progressive Era brought a wave of industry and wonders to many of Virginia’s communities. Seaports thrived as steamships brought both tourists and trade, and rural towns suddenly became the hottest destinations for socialites and entrepreneurs looking to get away from the hustle of the city. Those Gilded Age travelers found a lavish and welcome home at the Terminal Hotel.
With a flawless view of the meeting of the York, Pamunkey and Mattaponi rivers, West Point’s Terminal Hotel was a massive, five-story Victorian building with towers at each corner. Hundreds of shiny window panes reflected the sun off the water, and impressive painted wood captured the eye and screamed opulence.
This cup and water pitcher, discovered by Ty Bland, are two of the very few items from The Terminal Hotel that survived both time and the 1926 fire. Photo courtesy of HSWPVA.
Built in 1887 by James H. Dooley, the 200-room hotel complex was made an even more enticing destination by its surrounding complex, which included a boardwalk, skating rink, dance pavilion, roller coaster, swimming areas, and more. At the end of a long, wooden pier, guests enjoyed seafood at a special restaurant that featured an upstairs gambling hall, while others kept closer to town, visiting the silent movie hall to catch a glimpse of their favorite stars. Bathing in the river was also a popular pastime, with many travelers looking to the salt water for its healing attributes. According to an 1898 advertisement in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the waters near the hotel were known for aiding in the relief of “dyspepsia and kidney diseases.” The Terminal Hotel was often mentioned in Richmond society pages, as socialites would be noted to have stayed for a “month’s enjoyment,” and often longer. At the rate of between $2 and $4 per day, a stay at the hotel was a true luxury for those of a certain class in that era.
Today, standing on the shorelines of the intersecting rivers, it is easy to conjure up the century-old sounds of revelry that must have been part and parcel of the getaway’s daily life ... children shrieking in joy as the butterflies raced in their stomachs on an amusement ride, gentlemen’s’ boisterous shouts after a good round of cards and the ever-present chatter of ladies as they took turns about the boardwalk, perhaps discussing the most recent gossip or wondrous fashions.
A century-old record of accounts from The Terminal Hotel.
In her memoirs, ‘Recollections of Early West Point’ published in 1931, Mrs. Mary Lipscomb recalled a lemonade well near the hotel — made from a hogshead sunk into the ground with a windlass overhead to bring up the drink, which cost five cents for two glasses. Lipscomb, whose father owned the Grove Hotel close to the Terminal, also fondly recalled the fun river activities, including a bathing house with dressing rooms, and ropes tied high to the building, allowing swimmers to swing out across the river before plunging into the cool waters.
Dances were also a main staple of the Terminal Hotel Complex. Women were noted to have dressed in the latest finery, including Tarleton dresses with French waists and long skirts that swung out as they danced across highly polished wood floors. The revelers were known to twinkle just as brightly as the newly installed electric lighting, wearing sparkling gold dust and powdered-to-perfection wigs, while boasting jewelry that would make royalty jealous. But what could have brought these bejeweled ladies, businessmen, politicians and men of luxury to West Point? What drew the crowds by the thousands? The answer was a single train line, a wonderful convenience of travel left over from the Civil War.
Vacationers enjoy the water views and amenities. Photo courtesy of HSWPVA.
For many years, travel between the City of Richmond and West Point was a necessity. With its deep waters and harbors, West Point became an important hub for traders, shipping and travel, and in 1861, a 39-mile rail line was built by The Richmond and York River Railroad Company as a way to access strategically important Civil War supplies. The City of Richmond also used West Point as its eastern shipping hub. In 1894, it became part of the Southern Railway company, becoming its easternmost terminus, mainly focusing on tourism and trade from the York River and Chesapeake Bay.
The train was a wondrous advent for West Point, with passengers able to purchase daily, quarterly and annual passage. For a small fee, tourists were whisked away from the city, where, upon arriving in West Point, they were often greeted at the station with live musical bands, refreshments and personal attendants.
Miss Willie Lou Waring looks out at the conjunction of the York, Pamunkey and Mattaponi rivers from the Terminal Hotel pier. Photo courtesy of HSWPVA.
As a result of the trains bringing an influx of thousands of affluent people to the Terminal Hotel, other popular destination spots soon opened their doors, including a bowling alley, tea rooms, and over half-dozen saloons. At a time when many of the region’s towns had gone “dry” due to Prohibition, West Point was considered by many to be a safe haven for those looking for a watering hole. Alcohol poured freely, but with the draw of so many people, local historians note that there were some drawbacks.
In 1894, the town had to build a bigger jail just to accommodate revelers who got “drunk and disorderly.” The party atmosphere also drew the ire of famed activist and Temperance Crusader Carrie Nation, who believed that drunkenness was the ‘root of all America’s evils.’ Nation was famous for carrying a hatchet with her, and literally breaking apart bars and saloons with its sharp edge. Following a failed election by the “Dry” movement in 1908, Nation arrived in town and swung away with her hatchet in a local pub located on historic 7th Street. Nation was arrested, not for the property damage, but for entering a bar — which was illegal for women to do at the time. Although initially fined $5 for her transgression, Nation became so irate — and used a string of invectives the likes of which acclaimed Mayor Andrew Willis Eastwood had never heard from a sober person before — she was fined an additional $5 and subsequently shipped back to Richmond on West Point’s famed rail line.
West Pointers are often amused by visitors who ask directions to the Military Academy, as the famed one is in New York. In the late nineteenth century, however, the town did have a private military school, and pictured here are the cadets, circa 1886, in front of the Terminal Hotel. Photo courtesy of HSWPVA.
Unfortunately for local businesses, West Point adopted laws in 1914 forbidding the sale of alcohol. The Terminal Hotel, and surrounding establishments, were soon forced to close their doors after tourists simply stopped visiting. After its closure, the hotel was remodeled into a boarding house and apartment building. The building quickly declined; however, and on July 2, 1926, it burned to the ground in a historic blaze. Initially attributed in the media to the storage of explosives in the basement, the actual cause of the blaze has been the cause of much speculation amongst townsfolk.
One fireman, the first responder to the scene, recalled to local historians that when he arrived at 4 p.m., the blaze had been seen to have started in the basement, where a whiskey still operation was allegedly being run. Another witness, a young woman bathing on the beach, also recalled a “puff of smoke” coming from the basement just as the fire started.
Whatever the true cause, within hours the fire ravaged the massive hotel, leaving only ashes and debris. Just a few items from the hotel survived the fire and remain to this day. One item was a beautiful and perfectly preserved water pitcher of white china with “The Terminal” clearly written across it. The pitcher was discovered by R. Tyler Bland III, whose family built a home on the property where the hotel once stood. It is the only known surviving piece of dishware from the once bustling hotel, although many postcards still remain as mementos of a time long lost. With the end of the hotel, previous fires that also ravaged the town, and the cessation of daily passenger services on the train line, the town of West Point slowly quieted down, becoming a sleepy hamlet of tightly knit community members who deeply appreciate the history of their quaint village.
Although more recently known for its industry, including a large mill operation, many in the town are increasingly optimistic that West Point is about to go through a resurgence, reinventing itself, as it has done so many times historically. Those who love the town are excited about new plans to once again become a destination for travelers who love both the beautiful natural resources provided by local waters and parks, as well as those who love historically infused towns that also cater to modern day needs.
Despite much of its history having been buried in ashes, a visit to West Point’s beautiful town filled with Victorian houses, friendly residents and especially helpful guides — including historians who drop everything on the drop of a dime to give newcomers personal tours through past events — proves that this former hub of activity is poised to become a phoenix and again draw crowds to this gem of King William County.
The House and Home Magazine would like to give its warmest appreciation to all those who helped the research of this article, including Historical Society of West Point members R. Tyler Bland III, President Carol Cunningham, and Vice President Bill Palmer, author of “Forged in Fire: A History of the West Point Volunteer Fire Department.” For more information on the Terminal Hotel, or West Point history, visit hswpva.org.
Originally Published February 7, 2018: http://thehouseandhomemagazine.com/culture/west-point-s-terminal-hotel/
Thank you to The House and Home Magazine for this wonderful feature of West Point!