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Hannibal man plays key role in early St. Louis hotel management

This illustration represents the St. Nicholas Hotel in St. Louis. After his father-in-law’s death on July 3, 1878, Marcus Elzea, who grew up in Hannibal, tried to make a go of the business on his own. Circumstances prevented his success, and he closed the hotel in November 1879. (Sept 15 1878 Sonntagsblatt de Amerika, via Nineteenth Century U.S. Newspapers, Gale, Hannibal Free Public Library)

This sketch portrays H. Clay Sexton, long-time St. Louis fire chief, who told about the history of the St. Nicholas Hotel following an 1884 fire which demolished the pre-Civil war building. The illustration was published in the St. Louis Post Dispatch Jan. 1, 1894.


On a bitterly cold night in early January 1884, a small fire started in an old downtown St. Louis building, and a single engine company was summoned to extinguish the blaze.

As the winds blew, two firefighters climbed a single ladder in order to position a hose directly on the third-story blaze.

A reporter from the St. Louis Globe Democrat was early on the scene, and stopped to chat on the building’s first floor with Charles E. Lewis, who along with his bookkeeper were still in the building, finishing up some accounting work.

No one thought the fire would amount to much. As a precaution, a group then known as the Salvage Corps, knocked on the door to Lewis’ office, and proceeded inside to place covers over valuable stock. While the salvage crew worked, Mr. Lewis calmly discussed the building’s inventory with the newspaper reporter.

And then, “portions of the ceiling began to fall, carried down by the weight of the water which had worked its way down from the third to the second floor. Assistant Chief Gross was coming down stairs when Assistant Chief Hester rushed in and exclaimed: ‘It’s breaking out on the fourth floor.’”

Within moments, “not only volumes of smoke but sheets of flame were pouring out of the windows.” Other fire companies were summoned, but the fire prevailed. Before the night was over, the old building - previously known as the St. Nicholas Hotel – was in ruins.

Gone along with the building was an historic era in the history of St. Louis, and the dreams of a man who was raised in Hannibal: Marcus N. Elzea, the brother of Henry S. Elzea, who developed the Elzea Addition on Hannibal’s west side.

Hotel’s history

H. Clay Sexton, long-time St. Louis fire chief, was on the fire scene that fateful night, and talked to the Globe Democrat reporter about the building’s history.

Chief Sexton said that his father – John Sexton – constructed the original building in 1854, for Mr. Sweringen, who then operated it as a hotel.

“During the war the Federals used it as a hospital, and many a poor soldier gave up his life under its roof,” Chief Sexton said. “After the war it was thoroughly renovated and run as the St. Nicholas Hotel. Later Enos Jennings, now deceased, assumed control of the hotel and ran it with a fair profit, although for years before it never paid expenses, particularly after it has been used as a hospital.”

Enos Jennings was father-in-law to Marcus Elzea, and the two worked side-by-side at the St. Nicholas Hotel until Jennings’ death in 1878.

The Globe Democrat reported the news of Jennings’ death: “Enos Jennings, the old and well known proprietor of the St. Nicholas Hotel, died in his rooms at that house, on Wednesday evening, July 3, after a painful and protracted illness.”

Jennings’ funeral took place in the hotel’s lobby.

The month following Enos Jennings’ death Marcus Elzea took over the management responsibilities. Unfortunately, two issues arose which hampered the hotel’s success.

Emery K. Otey was Enos Jennings’ trusted clerk and business manager. Elzea advertised proudly that Otey would stay with the hotel, conducting the books as usual.

But the Globe Democrat reported that an audit of the hotel’s books following Mr. Jennings’ death showed, “(Otey) does not appear to have been a first class bookkeeper, as an examination of the books, now in progress by an expert accountant, will more fully show when completed.”

When confronted, Mr. Otey asked for a leave of absence, and soon thereafter his whereabouts became a mystery. Left behind were a wife and two young children, and mounting debts at the hotel.

Many of those debts were left by previous hotel patrons, whose current addresses were unknown.

Mrs. Jennings tried to reconcile the debts, but only made a small dent in the large deficit.

In 1881, Otey’s wife, Sarah, was listed in the St. Louis city directory as the ”widow of” Emory K. Otey.

End of an era

On Nov. 8, 1879, Marcus Elzea advertised: “St. Nicholas Hotel is closed.”

On the auction block went 8,000 yards of carpeting; 2,000 blankets; 140 heating stoves; $3,000 worth of sugar, coffee and teas; copper kettles; fine bar fixtures; horses and wagons; and thousands of individual items used in the operation of a hotel.

The first floor of the hotel was remodeled into storefronts. The upper floors became apartments.


The Jennings/Elzea family continued to live at 3633 Cook Street, Slagg’s Addition, City Block 2294.

Marcus Elzea’s wife, Sarah, died on July 9, 1891, at the age of 52, and Marcus died in 1897.

Elizabeth A. Jennings, widow of Enos Jennings, died in 1908 at the age of 87.

Fate of the firemen

It was so cold the night of the 1884 St. Nicholas Hotel Fire in St. Louis, that the two firemen who initially climbed up the ladder to aim the hose into the hotel’s third-story window, actually froze to the ladder. With great force they were able to remove themselves from their predicament and climb down to safety.

Also, as the water froze on the ground, the ice subsequently disabled “one of the vaunted pieces of apparatus of the Fire Department.

“The wheels of the apparatus were frozen so firmly to the ground that it was impossible to move it.

“A rope was attached to the tongue of the truck, and after a couple of firemen had attempted to loosen the wheels by chopping the ice away with axes, a crowd of thirty five or forty men, citizens and firemen, seized the rope and attempted to pull the truck of out danger, up Fourth Street and toward Franklin avenue. Notwithstanding repeated efforts, they failed to move it, and the rope was then secured to the other end in an effort made to draw it in the opposite direction. This also failed and the attempt was abandoned.” St. Louis Globe Democrat Saturday, Jan. 5, 1884.

This 1870 map of downtown St. Louis was created by Hutawa and accessed via the Library of Congress, shows the block where the St. Nicholas Hotel was once located. It was constructed pre-Civil War, used as a Union hospital during the war, was reverted back to a hotel, and was destroyed by fire on Jan. 5, 1884. Marcus N. Elzea, who grew up in Hannibal, operated the hotel along with his father-in-law, Enos Jennings, from circa 1867 until November 1879, following the death of Enos Jennings.

This is the text from a German newspaper advertisement for the St. Nicholas Hotel, dated Sept. 15, 1878. (Sept 15 1878 Sonntagsblatt de Amerika, via Nineteenth Century U.S. Newspapers, Gale, Hannibal Free Public Library)

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