Monday, June 7, 2021

Hotel Rathbun

by Erin Doane, Curator

The northwest corner of Baldwin and Water Streets in Elmira, where the Chemung Canal Trust Company now sits, was once the site of Hotel Rathbun. In its heyday in the early 1900s, the hotel was considered one of the finest between New York City and Buffalo. It had hundreds of luxurious rooms (65 with their own bathrooms), richly furnished parlors, a gentlemen’s café, and a billiard room, which was frequented by Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain).

Hotel Rathbun, c. 1900
In 1833, Abraham Riker built the Eagle Tavern – the precursor to Hotel Rathbun – where Isaac Baldwin’s house had once stood. The new brick building was three-stories tall with a domed cupola on top and tall columns at the Water Street entrance. It had one of the largest meeting rooms in the village, which made it a popular gathering spot.

Image of the eagle that once graced the Eagle Tavern, Elmira Telegram, October 19, 1924
In 1841, the owner at that time, a Mr. Webb, was swayed by that year’s temperance campaign and banished all liquors from the tavern. The business, inevitably, failed and Silas Haight took over ownership. In 1844, Haight became owner of the Mansion House on Lake and Market Streets and E.R. Brainard took over the Eagle Tavern. After the tavern burned in 1849, Brainard rebuilt and reopened the business as the Brainard House.

Brainard House, c. 1850s

Brainard died in 1851 and John T. Rathbun took over ownership of the hotel. He changed its name to Hotel Rathbun during the Civil War. Just a few years later, in 1868, the hotel underwent extensive renovations. A new building was erected in the rear of the hotel where the old kitchen had been. It included an elegant billiard room, parlors, offices, and additional guest rooms. Existing rooms were repaired, painted and papered, and refurnished. A new, spacious entrance was added on Water Street as well as an iron porch with a balcony on the second floor. The hotel could accommodate 500-600 overnight guests and seat up to 400 in the dining room at one time.

John T. Rathbun leased the hotel to a series of different proprietors over the years. Coleman and Pike were the first to operate the property, followed by Enos Blossom, then Slater, Abbott, and Hayt. In 1898, Col. David C. Robinson bought the land and building from Rathbun and John W. Kennedy and Edward M. Tierney took over as proprietors. Under the new owner and managers, the hotel underwent another major renovation. The building was completely modernized, including the addition of ensuite bathrooms and electric lighting. An elegant new gentlemen’s café and barroom was added with a billiard room off the back. The new design also included storefronts and offices on the first floor.

Hotel Rathbun lobby, 1899

Hotel Rathbun billiard room, a favorite hang-out of Samuel Clemens, which had shrimp pink walls, 1899

Hotel Rathbun barroom, 1899
Hotel Rathbun’s grand reopening in 1899 marked the start of the its golden age. The hotel became known throughout the East for its hospitality and cuisine. The dining room, bar, and grill were enjoyed by both travelers and Elmirans. Samuel Clemens was said to have been a regular visitor to the billiard room in the years he summered in the city. Until the Mark Twain Hotel opened in 1929, Hotel Rathbun was the area’s most modern, luxurious hotel. The front desk clerk had to turn guests away nightly because the rooms were always filled.

Hotel Rathbun, c. 1920s

In 1934, Hotel Rathbun was taken over by the Knott Hotels Crop. Then around 1940, the American Hotels Corp. took up the lease. The hotel had gone into decline, likely from age, the economics of the time, and growing competition from other hotels and motels. Up until June 10, 1941, there were advertisements in the newspaper offering accommodations at $7.00 a week for permanent residents, but that wasn’t enough to keep the business afloat. On June 12, residents were served with notices to vacate and the hotel’s demolition began on August 1. Hotel Rathbun was completely razed by October 1941.

Hotel Rathbun’s entrance, 1940




  1. I love the history of Elmira with pictures taken of various historic sites. I would love to see the history of the Mark Twain Hotel and how it’s being used now,

    1. Hi Karyn! I did a post on the Mark Twain Hotel several years ago. Here's the link: