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How the Empire began, Salisbury hotel was hub of activity from the start

Editor’s note: The Empire Hotel in downtown Salisbury, now under contract for purchase, started out as The Boyden House and has had many different incarnations. This is the first story in a series about the hotel’s rich history.

By Betty Dan Spencer
Special to the Salisbury Post

January 4, 1855. A banner day for Salisbury!

The first locomotive rolled into town from Charlotte over the newly completed tracks of the North Carolina Rail Road. With the train came the prospects of expanded trade and prosperity. This was the impetus for foresighted and enterprising Nathaniel Boyden and John I. Shaver to begin the construction of two hotels — one on Main Street that continues to dominate the streetscape, and the other, long ago razed, which was near the train depot.

That same year, Nathaniel Boyden, Charles F. Fisher, John W. Ellis, Burton Craige, John I. Shaver, and other investors each agreed to purchase $5,000 worth of stock in order to build a second rail route that would begin in Salisbury and initially terminate in Morganton. It was obvious that Salisbury, located on two railway corridors — north-south and east-west — was destined to become a busy center of trade.

Boyden’s three-story commercial edifice, designed as a hotel with retail store fronts on the ground floor, was situated on the west side of the 200 block of South Main. It was directly across the street from the long-established inn, the Rowan House, which had been the scene of the ball honoring George Washington when he visited Salisbury in 1791. Today City Hall is located on the site.

The local newspaper, the Carolina Watchman, reported on April 26, 1855, that work was progressing on Boyden’s building, and “we hope soon to witness its completion.” On December 18, the Watchman once again mentioned the construction project and noted that the building “though not finished, is a most decided ornament to that part of town.”

A benefit concert

For certain the building was completed by May 1857, because a concert was given there to benefit the Episcopal Church. On June 27 of the same year, an article entitled, “A Jaunt on the N.C. Rail Road,” was published in the Greensboro newspaper, The Patriot and Flag. The writer, using the pen name Ego, gives his impressions of Salisbury:

… A few miles more, and you are landed in the ancient town of Salisbury. I say ancient, because it dates back nearly as far as any town in the State. This town is located in a level country, soil red. It has a population of some 2500 inhabitants. When we landed at the Depot, we found two omnibuses, both bearing the marks of age, we listened carefully to what the representative of each omnibus had to say, for we soon found they were representing two hotels [Rowan House and Mansion House]; we, like a majority of other passengers, got into the largest omnibus,drawn by four splendid bays, with the crack of the whip, and a few turns of the corners, and we were landed at Col  Roberts’ [Robards’] Hotel [Rowan House], where we found a good dinner prepared to satisfy our hungry appetites…Col. Roberts [Robards] is an accommodating landlord and with the aid of a little white lead and oil [white paint], would have a good house. We had a fine walk around the town, and found it quite a business place, some ten or twelve dry good stores, some of them large for retail stores in an inland town. Salisbury has three churches, Presbyterian, Methodist, and Episcopalian, it being the county town, has one of the finest court houses, just built, in the State; nearly all the residences wear the appearance of age, built in the old fashioned style of architecture; a little white lead and oil would improve wonderfully. In passing around, I nearly forgot to mention some of the new buildings under way. 1st Shaver’s [John I. Shaver’s] Hotel, a fine commanding looking building from the outside, it is situated near the Depot. Boyden [Nathaniel Boyden] has also a fine house, which I learned was for a Hotel, it reflects credit on the founder and the town.

The splendid house

For some unexplained reason, when Boyden’s new hotel was completed, it stood unoccupied for more than three years. On December 28, 1858, the Carolina Watchman ran the following story under the headline, “The Boyden House:”

This splendid House, we understand, is to be opened sometime this winter; and from reports in circulation, is to be a first class House. “Cosmo,” the Salisbury Correspondent  of the Newbern Progress,speaks of it as follows:

“We are to have a first class Hotel here at last; that beautiful and spacious building, the Boyden House, constructed on the most approved modern principles, with the nicest architectural conception of room, light, ventilation, convenience, comfort and elegance — and which has stood unoccupied since its completion, three years since, is to open at last. The lessee, a Mr. Boyden, who among his long and varied experiences in hotel management possesses that of four years in the capacity of Major Domo, in the Astor House, New York; and his lady is said to be one of the most accomplished and practical women in the country for filling the difficult and onerous post of Hostess of a first class hotel, and I think no hotel can be first class without such a woman at its head. They bring with them a number of most efficient and proven white servants from New York. There are forty large bedrooms in the house, some with parlors attached. Every room will contain a complete set of cottage parlor furniture. In keeping with this will be all the appointments of entire concern,down to articles the most minute; also a 71⁄2 octavo, parlor-grand piano from Broadman and Gray’s will grace the drawing room.

Another four months elapsed before the hotel actually opened for business on May 1, 1859, under the management of Col. L.L. Boyden.

Colonel Boyden’s urbanity and expertise in hotel management brought a new level of hospitality and entertainment to the small town of Salisbury. Whether it was coincidental that his surname was Boyden, or that  he was a kinsman of Nathaniel Boyden, the owner, has not been determined.

Col. Boyden immediately engaged townsman Thomas Evans Brown to convey passengers arriving by train to the hotel or to stable the horses of guests. He then invited J. J. Bruner, editor of the Carolina Watchman, to dinner, and the  following week, on May 28, the hotel received the desired personal endorsement, kudos and free advertising. Bruner wrote:

The Boyden House —  Col. L.L. Boyden, the lessee of this splendid Hotel, sent us an invitation o dine at his House on Thursday last. We accepted the compliment, the more readily because we wished to tell our readers something about this Hotel. Such a House is not often to be met with in the country, and an enterprise so creditable to our Town and County, deserves to be noticed and patronized. It is a nice place, a superb House; and we share in the common desire to see the liberal enterprise and industrious efforts of Col. Boyden receive the public favor they so richly merit. Try the Boyden House—you will find it pleasant.

1860—
New management & politics

Col. Boyden’s management of the hotel was short-lived. By February 1860, William H. and C.M. Howerton had leased the hotel. Acting as their agent, their 65-year old father, Thomas Howerton, became the manager. When the 1860 Census of Rowan County was enumerated on June 11, the Boyden House had 16 permanent residents. Residing at the hotel, in addition to Howerton, were his wife Mary M., daughter Emily M., and son  Alburtus W., one of the hotel’s clerks.  Also living there were: David C. Bryant, hotel clerk; J. M. McLeod, clerk at the railroad depot, and a native of Washington, D.C.; Alexander Murdock, bookkeeper and a native of Scotland, and his wife Minnie E.; John Spelman, editor of the Salisbury Banner and a native of England, and  hiswife Mollie E.; William Hennig, music teacher and native of Germany; and James J. Long. James C. Turner, engineer of the Western N.C. Railroad, wife Mary, and  daughters, Martha and Daisey, also boarded at Boyden House.

By mid-year the upcoming state and national elections were on everyone’s minds. One of the first recorded overnight visitors to the Boyden House was John Pool and his family on June 8. Pool, candidate of the Union Party, was opposing Salisbury’s own John Willis Ellis, Democrat, for his second term as governor. Curious to see the man about whom they had heard so much, a  large number of citizens gathered at the hotel. The Salisbury Band arrived to play spirited and stirring music, and the evening had a festive air. Pool acknowledged the cheering reception he received and said he supposed it meant they approved of his policies!

On Thursday, October 11, the largest political gathering that the people of North Carolina had ever witnessed convened in Salisbury. The rally was held for three days to promote the ticket of John Bell and Edward Everett of the new Constitutional Union Party. They were opposing Abraham Lincoln and Hannibal Hamlin of the Republican Party, and the candidates of Democratic and Southern Democratic parties in the upcoming presidential election.

The Union Party was formed by the last vestiges of the defunct Whig Party, and they hoped to ward off Southern secession.

On Friday morning a procession formed at 10 o’clock in front of the Boyden House, under the direction of mounted marshals, and hundreds marched to the factory grove (later the Confederate States Military Prison) to hear a round of speeches. This was the forerunner of many processions and parades that started at the Boyden House. Following the mass meeting, The Weekly Register of Raleigh ran the following story on October 17:

We were among the numerous guests accommodated at the “Boyden House,” now under the charge of Major Howerton, during the late great meeting at Salisbury, and should be derelict to our own feelings if we did not state, that every thing was done by the “Old Major”— rank Democrat as everybody knows him to be — to accommodate his many lodgers and boarders. We don’t say this in a “Deadheadical” sense. inasmuch as we had the pleasure, as we certainly felt it to be our duty to “foot our bill.”

Brilliant affair

Abraham Lincoln won the national election on November 6, 1860. The issues between the North and the South escalated. There were fears of impending secessions by Southern states. In view of this, a Military Convention met in Salisbury on November 14 and 15  for the purpose of revising the Military Code of North Carolina. Forty-two companies from all areas of the state were represented.

On the first evening, a military ball was held at the Boyden House, and the Carolina Watchman reported it was a “brilliant affair.” An invitation, possibly initiated by Nathaniel Boyden, a principal stockholder of the Western N. C. Railroad, was issued to the delegates to take an excursion on the train to the terminus at Morganton. For some, it was the first time they had ever seen mountains — “the great forms of these sublime works of nature,” as the Watchman described them.

Howerton was at the helm of the Boyden House for only 15 months when, on May 20,1861, at the called convention in Raleigh, North Carolina voted to join the Southern Cause. The Ordinance of Secession was introduced by Salisbury’s own Burton Craige. Of opposite persuasion was Nathaniel Boyden, the owner of the Boyden House. A native of Massachusetts, he was an ardent Union man.

The advent of the Civil War  radically changed the dynamics of Salisbury from a quiet village to a more populated and bustling town. Because of  its location on two railway lines and with the same factors that made it a good business hub, Salisbury became a strategic site for the Confederacy.

The Confederate States of America purchased the abandoned cotton factory and used the property as a garrison and prison. The entrance to the prison was only two blocks from the Boyden House. From the upper floors of the hotel, one could watch activity at the prison. Likewise, because of the topography, the captives could see the upper floor of the hotel from the prison grounds. In the etching of a baseball game at the Salisbury Confederate Prison “drawn from nature” by Major Otto Boetticher in 1862, the top of the hotel is visible in the background.

Nathaniel Boyden and other investors established the North Carolina Agricultural Machine Works in 1856. Located on East Kerr Street, it became the Confederate Ordnance Works in April 1863. A year later, by official order, it was designated the Salisbury Arsenal. Instead of manufacturing plows and farm implements, its production focused on wartime needs. It generated shoes for horses and mules, cartridges, bayonets, cannonballs and muskets. Other major supplies, such as food and uniforms, were stored in Salisbury. Corn was raised and whiskey was produced for the use of the Confederate military on land purchased for the purpose and located on the Bringle Ferry Road.

Not much information can be found concerning the Boyden House during the war years. The proprietor’s son, Dr. W.H. Howerton, advertised in June 1862, that he had returned to Salisbury and was available for professional services at the Boyden House.

Wearing a different hat, Howerton, as agent, advertised an auction to be held at the Boyden House on January 2, 1865. Even though the Emancipation Proclamation had been issued in January 1863, to be auctioned was one negro man described as a No. 1 field hand, and a negro woman and child, described as a No. 1 cook, washer and ironer. There was no report on the outcome of the auction. Around the same time, H .McCoy, whose address was the Boyden House, advertised he wanted to purchase a “No. 1 nurse with a good disposition and experience.”

Under the heading “Latest from the Front,” the Boyden House Store began advertising in December, 1864.  The business came into being to provide customers with items scarce in wartime. Some items advertised for sale were bleached sheeting, cotton yarns, English needles and pins, shirt buttons, writing paper, pocket knives, caps (bullets), snuff, shoe polish, smoking tobacco, Black Ten (strong chewing tobacco).

The war in all its ugliness reached Salisbury when Gen. George Stoneman and his troops stormed into town on April 12, 1865. They set about burning the prison, the arsenal, tanneries, distilleries, stores.

Even though fires raged in four blocks of downtown Salisbury, the Boyden House escaped destruction. James Brawley writes in “The Rowan Story”:

“For some reason Stoneman refrained from wanton destruction of private property… According to some reports, it was the intervention of Nathaniel Boyden, who had gone to school with Stoneman in their native state of Massachusetts, that caused him to be so lenient towards private property.”

Coming next Sunday: The Boyden House after the war

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