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The Randall: Best $2 hotel in the state

from the archives of The News-Sentinel

Two concrete pillars on the west side of Harrison Street at the end of The Landing (Columbia Street) are all that remain of the Randall Hotel, "the best $2 hotel in Indiana."

In its heyday, between 1890 and 1930, the Randall boasted of having a telephone, running water and steam heat in every room.

"Everything First Class" was the motto, with any meal for 50 cents or lodging by the American Plan at $2 per day. The hotel then was a five-story brick building with 83 rooms and a 35-foot veranda along the front; nearly half the rooms had a window on Harrison Street with a view to the east down the entire length of Columbia, to Lafayette Street.

On the left, looking down Columbia from the Randall, was the Bash Block - the huge Orbison Basin of the Wabash and Erie Canal, where canal boats could turn around. Here, for many years, was the large harness shop of A.L. John and then the Protective Electric Supply Co., which developed its own lightning rod, called the "Protective Can Top Cable Terminator."

The Randall Hotel began in 1828 as a tannery. Built by Absalom Halcomb and Isaac Marquis, and later (1856) operated by James Robinson, this tannery was a simple brick building with great vats in the basement where the hides of animals were thrown to soak in a urine and oak bark solution. The smell of the place was terrible, but the process was effective.

Tannery became hotel

James Robinson and his son, James , made a hotel out of the tannery in 1870 and called it the Robinson Hotel. Three years later, the hotel was leased for $7,000 to J.H. Buckles, a resourceful manager with many sons, and in 1876 the name was changed to the Grand Hotel.

The Grand Hotel was a "Methodist hotel" with no drinking or dancing allowed. It also was a hotel of many then-modern conveniences. A hydraulic ram pump furnished pressure to force water into the rooftop cistern from two wells in the hotel basement. The wells were used only when the water in the canal was low, because the well water on Columbia Street was notoriously unpleasant (even compared to the canal).

The Buckles boys worked the water pumps each day and hauled pails of water to each room from the single tap on each floor. Ice water also was available. Only woodburning stoves were used to heat the building in its early years. Sometimes three boatloads of wood were required to heat the place in the winter. A horse-powered sawmill for cutting firewood was located in the hotel, as was a horse-powered elevator.

The Buckles boys were constantly employed in the winter hauling firewood to the stoves, which were not in the guests' rooms, but rather were located in the hallways. One particularly bitter winter when the temperature fell to 28 below zero, a guest came down to the desk in the morning with his beard caked with ice. He claimed he had slept warmly enough but that the moisture of his breath had frozen his beard.

Strange initiations

During the 1870s and 1880s, the secretive firemen's club called the IKZs (Independent Knights of Zoroaster) held its strange initiations in the rooms on the second floor at the north end. Often they would drop initiates through a trap door and down a chute into the old canal basin just next to the hotel, pulling them back up with a rope tied around the waist. The IKZ also held parades once a year in which the initiates were carried in coffins.

In these years, the hotel became the headquarters for theatrical troupes that played the Colerick House down the street. The Buckles brothers remember sneaking in "with props from the hotel" to watch favorite actor Joe Jefferson play in "Rip Van Winkle." But above all, they doted on Buffalo Bill during his several stays at the hotel while playing the Colerick and the fairgrounds at the end of Calhoun Street.

In 1881, the Buckleses added a 24-foot section to the north end of the hotel and ended their tenure at the Grand in 1888 when they leased the place to another manager, who called it the Brunswick. The new operation lasted only a year.

In 1889, Perry A. Randall, a prominent local attorney, bought the hotel for $45,000 and renamed it the Randall Hotel. The formal opening was held the next year, and it soon became a popular meeting place for groups and clubs. With only a few setbacks, the hotel grew over the next 20 years. Randall added a large veranda (1891) to the front, an electrical power plant (1894), and a wide selection of wild game to the menu. A remodeling came in 1897, but a major fire next door in 1904 caused the greatest overhaul of the building. A fifth story was added to increase the hotel by 53 rooms, and the adoption of the European Plan for room rates - 75 cents to $1 per day - greatly enhanced the popularity of the hotel.

Randall, who gave the hotel its best-known name, was an attorney who made an indelible mark on his contemporaries.

When he died on Feb. 1, 1916, he was given the distinction of being honored almost immediately with a statue, which today faces West Washington Boulevard and the St. Marys River just behind the Swinney Home in Swinney Park.

Randall born in Avilla

Randall was born in 1847 in Avilla, in Noble County, where his father, Edwin, was a probate judge. He came to Fort Wayne at the end of the Civil War to attend the Fort Wayne High School (1864-1867), and in 1873 he graduated in law from the University of Michigan.

Randall was intensely interested in public works, particularly in revitalizing the canal era by constructing a canal from the city to Chicago via Wabash, Rochester and Gary. By this plan, especially in Randall's eyes, New York could be directly connected to Chicago by water, by way of the Erie Canal and Lake Erie. And Fort Wayne would be the crucial midland terminal.

As president of the national Canal Association and a director of the Indiana Rivers and Harbors Congress, Randall pushed everywhere until the day he died, even to the presidential offices of Teddy Roosevelt, to get a new canal started. But he failed.

Randall's widow took over

Winifred J. Randall, Perry's widow, lived for many years after her husband's death in 1916. The first woman in the United States to operate a lumber business, she also took over management of the Randall Hotel with great competence for nearly half a century.

A graduate of Savannah Academy in Ashland, Ohio, and the International Business College of Fort Wayne, Winifred Randall was especially active as a civic leader in the Historical Society and the Daughters of the American Revolution. She also was in the group that started the Fort Wayne School of Art - today the Museum of Art.

But as for the Randall Hotel: In the years of the Great Depression, the place increasingly became a residence rather than a hotel. Nevertheless, it stood until Winifred's death in 1963 as the landmark building of Columbia Street.

--March 21, 1994