This Month in New Bern History – September 2022

A Landmark Hotel, A Hidden Story
by Claudia Houston, Historian, New Bern Historical Society

1884 Photo by William Garrison Reed, photographer, and former soldier in the 44th Massachusetts Infantry who was stationed in New Bern during the Civil War and returned to the city to take photos of places he remembered.

The landmark Gaston House Hotel, once situated on the three hundred block of South Front Street (current site of BBT/Truist), was a popular hotel in New Bern for many years. Over the 110 years of the hotel’s existence it underwent several changes of name and ownership. One relatively short and little-known chapter in the hotel’s chronicles left an infamous mark in America’s history.

The building on South Front Street was one of the largest constructed in New Bern. It initially housed a merchant firm but became the Gaston House Hotel in the 1850’s. In August of 1887, a notice appeared in the local paper that the Gaston House was for sale and Dr. Frank Hughes became the new owner.

In 1894, a series of newspaper articles described announced the change of the hotel’s name to the Hotel Chattawka. The name hearkens back to the days when Native Americans who resided in what is now New Bern called the area Chatawka which meant “cooling place.”

Hotel Chattawka Menu, New Bern Daily Journal, 04 Nov 1894, Sun, pg. 1

On August 2, 1894, it was announced that “The owners and managers of the Hotel Chattawka are pleased to state that on Wednesday evening, September 6 that the house will be thrown open to the public from 8 to 11 pm for inspection and herewith extend a cordial invitation to all. The opening banquet will be served from 8 to 10 pm to all who wish to partake at 75 cents Per plate.” (Daily Journal, New Bern, September 4, 1894, pg. 1)

On September 6, 1894, the hotel reopened as the Hotel Chattawka. The review of the hotel was detailed and effusive. The hotel had been updated with additions making it “airy, commodious and comfortable.” Additions included speaking tubes that connected the office with each floor, electric bells in every room, public areas lit by electricity, and all areas decorated with luxurious carpeting and furniture.

In March of 1898 three men met for lunch at the Hotel Chattawka. They were New Bernian Furnifold Simmons, head of the State Democratic Party; Josephus Daniels, powerful editor and publisher of the Raleigh News and Observer, the most influential newspaper in the state; and Charles Aycock, an up-and-coming attorney and politician and future NC Governor. They met throughout the spring and summer to find a way back to power after the recent election, which saw the Democrats lose the governorship and legislature, and the election of many Blacks to positions of power once dominated by whites. These three men devised and launched a Democratic campaign strategy based on white supremacy. This hate-filled campaign ultimately led to a coup in Wilmington in 1898, an armed overthrow of a legally elected government, and mass killings of Blacks.

1910 postcard, New Bern Historical Society

In July 1906, Hughes sold the Chattawka Hotel and all adjacent buildings on South Front Street, and all the stores and buildings on Middle Street extending to the Trent River to Mr. J. B. Blades, a wealthy lumber magnate, for $100,000. The hotel was renovated once more and in 1907 reopened as the Gaston Hotel. During New Bern’s Bicentennial Celebration in 1910 it was touted as “the best hotel in the state.”

In the 1950’s the hotel - once again in decline -  underwent yet another restoration and name change, emerging as the Hotel Governor Tryon. Sadly, this grand New Bern landmark was destroyed by fire in 1965. The Hotel Chattawka’s short chapter in history would probably have been forgotten but for the ignominious political scandal associated with it. It will however live on as part of the narrative of this important New Bern landmark.

Courtesy New Bern-Craven County Public Library

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