As they have since the 19th century, tourists still flock to the Lehigh Gorge and its magnificent Glen Onoko falls. Sadly, it seldom makes the news except to record some unfortunates who lose their footing while hiking on the slippery slope.
But about 120 years ago the place had a far different reputation among tourists. At the height of the summer season, two railroad stations- one for the Lehigh Valley Railroad the other for the New Jersey Central- busily conveyed passengers from the hot, steamy cities of smoking factories to the clear air and mountain quiet of the magnificent Hotel Wahnetah, a turreted Victorian vacation resort.
Generously supplied with rocking chairs for those who were not yet known as senior citizens, and also equipped with a dance pavilion for visitors interested in a stately two step or a more robust waltz, the Wahnetah seemed to have it all. And those who had no interest in either type of recreation and who claimed to be blasé about the hotel’s sweeping vistas could occupy a stool at its 84 foot long bar.
But a little over 100 years later, thanks to a tragic fire, changing modes of transportation and the desire for different types of recreation, all that is left of the Wahnetah is crumbling foundations, faded, sepia photographs and colorful, hand-tinted postcards.
The origins of the Hotel Wahnetah are rooted in the 1880s. In 1886 the Glen Onoko Tavern opened on its site to provide hundreds of railroad passengers who came to gaze at the falls with food and drink. During the busy season, one and sometimes two car trains, pulled by a small steam engine named the Lilliput, left Mauch Chunk every 15 minutes for Glen Onoko.
Shortly after it was built, the tavern’s name was changed to the Hotel Wahnetah, said to be the name of an Indian tribe of which the Princess Onoko was a member. This Indian maiden was supposed to have jumped into the falls in mourning over her lover.
How much of this is actual Indian lore and how much can be attributed to the overactive imaginations of railroad company publicists is unknown. But when the hotel was adding a baseball field in 1890, a Mauch Chunk newspaper noted many arrowheads had been uncovered.
Sources differ as to who exactly was behind the Wahnetah’s creation. In 1911 the Allentown Morning Call claimed it was the Lehigh Valley Railroad that was responsible, expanding the princely sum of $60,000.
Others claim that three investors- Edward R. Siewers and E. J. Klotz of Mauch Chunk, and George Esser of Philadelphia- formed the Wahnetah Land Development Co., and had built the hotel. Some argue that Siewers, who was Carbon County’s district attorney, got the money for the Wahnetah from the railroads as his “payoff” for aiding in the prosecution of the Molly Maguires.
With rooms at $2.50 a night or $8 a week, the Wahnetah was not overly pricy, but at that time very few Americans had the concept of a vacation in their heads. What fueled places like the Wahnetah were railroad excursions.
Fraternal orders, churches or employees of local companies would get cut-rate prices on train tickets or hotel rates in order to encourage large crowds to fill the place. One popular 1909 guide book noted the Wahnetah was “much frequented by excursion parties.”
It was not only the middle class who frequented the hotel. In 1888 no less a figure than First Lady Frances Folsom Cleveland, wife of President Grover Cleveland, created a stir by staying there. Her beauty coupled with and her celebrated 1886 White House wedding designated her as one of the era’s celebrities.
Captain William “Billy” Jones, the general superintendent of Andrew Carnegie’s Edgar Thomson steelworks, hosted a party there in 1887 for members of Catasauqua’s iron making Thomas family, at whose Lehigh Crane Iron Works he once worked. Another famous personage of the day, who both worked and played there, was band leader John Philip Sousa, America’s best known music man.
But the Hotel Wahnetah had its drawbacks. Although it drew wonderful large crowds in season it was difficult to get people there in the winter. The exact number of rooms was between 36 and 56. Keeping the large staff needed to maintain it in that isolated location must not have been cheap.
Instead of the Wahnetah being the gold mine investors had hoped, it became a drain on their resources. In 1994, Carbon County historian Judge John P. Lavelle noted Siewers went through all of his own money, borrowed heavily from his friends and then “resorted to fraud, theft and embezzlement.”
When it was discovered Siewers had forged his mother’s name on some railroad bonds he was arrested and only her agreement not to press charges saved him from jail. He later fled to Philadelphia, where he got a job as a business writer for a newspaper.
By the first decade of the 20th century the hotel was in deep decline. Former wealthy guests preferred to have their steamer trunks unpacked in Newport or the south of France rather than the Pennsylvania woods.
But the excursion business went on at the Wahnetah until the drought parched spring of 1911. On April 27, a forest fire that had been burning in the vicinity for several days burst from the trees and its sparks landed on the hotel.
Its isolation sealed the Wahnetah’s fate. Flames raced through the building and, despite the best efforts of the hotel employees, local bucket brigades and Mauch Chunk firefighters, their efforts were fruitless. “Nothing of any consequence could be saved,” noted the next day’s newspaper.
It was 1917 before the remains of the Hotel Wahnetah were finally cleared and razed. That same year, in a tragic footnote to the Wahnetah’s fate, the body of former investor Siewers was found floating in the Delaware River off of Philadelphia’s Market Street, according to Judge Lavelle, “an apparent suicide.”