NIAGARA DISCOVERIES:The American Hotel, Lewiston

CONTRIBUTEDThis image from the July 16, 1895, edition of the Buffalo Courier accompanied a report about the Cibola steamship fire that destroyed the American Hotel in Lewiston.


Last week Niagara Discoveries looked in on Henry Trafford of Lockport, his grocery business and the troubles he had with some family members. Henry Trafford had an older brother, James, born about 1818 in England. Like his brother, he came to the United States before 1850 and settled in Lewiston.

The Trafford brothers may have come to Niagara County because their sister, Mary Ann, was married to Nelson Cornell, the proprietor of the American Hotel at the end of Center Street at the Niagara River in Lewiston. Accounts vary as to when the hotel was built but the two brothers were employed there in 1850. In fact there were seven Traffords living at the same address (presumably the hotel) that year. A mansion, diagonal across the road from hotel, was built in about 1840 and is known as the Trafford Mansion, although it was likely erected by Nelson Cornell, the more prosperous of the two men at that time.

Over the years, James Trafford’s occupation was recorded as “porter,” “laborer,” “servant,” “keeping house” and “clerk.” He lived with his sister and brother-in-law, the Cornells, most of the time either in the hotel or at a separate residence. There is no indication that he ever married. He moved in with his brother Henry in Lockport shortly before his death in 1891. His estate was left to his brother Henry, his sister Mary Ann, and two other relatives. Henry died a year later and both are buried in Price Cemetery (adjacent to Cold Spring Cemetery) in Lockport.

As mentioned above, Mary Ann Trafford was married to Nelson Cornell. According to her baptismal record, she was born in Kirton, Lincolnshire, England in 1815, the daughter of Robert and Ann Clayton Trafford. She married Nelson Cornell in 1836 and they had three children, Mary, Hiram and Amelia. Nelson Cornell, born in Canada, came to Lewiston in about 1830. He worked as a forwarder before building the American Hotel in the 1840s. Nelson’s brother John married into the Dickerson family, which Niagara Discoveries examined two years ago.

According to the 1902 Pioneer History of Niagara County, Nelson Cornell “ran a general store in the town, as well as the hotel, and for many years supplied the steamboats with wood … that was appreciated by the farmers at the time they were clearing their fields.” The farmers sold the wood to Cornell who in turn sold it to the steamboat companies.

When he became old enough, Nelson’s son Hiram was brought into the hotel business and took it over when his father died in 1872. Tragically, Hiram died two years later, leaving a wife and 10-year-old son, Harry. After Hiram’s death, his wife and mother operated the hotel. When Harry reached maturity, he did not immediately take over the hotel business but instead continued his education and worked for the Canadian Pacific Railroad before returning to Lewiston in about 1890 to take over the operations of the hotel.

For the next five years, the American Hotel was a very prosperous business, particularly during the summer months when the steamers from Toronto would dock in Lewiston. It was one of those steamers that put an end to the American Hotel.

In the early morning hours of July 16, 1895, a fire was spotted on the steamship Cibola, recently arrived from Toronto. Within a matter of minutes the whole boat was in flames and the heat and smoke were so intense that no one could get close enough to cut the ship from its moorings. Soon the dock and wharves caught fire and the flames worked their way up the river bank to the fruit warehouse and then to the American Hotel. Harry Cornell had enough time to summon his family and guests and remove some furniture but the hotel burned to the ground leaving only one chimney standing.

It was estimated that the hotel loss was $20,000 but the entire loss of ship, wharves, warehouse, contents, hotel and other structures was $250,000. Harry Cornell only had about $3,500 in insurance and was at first undecided whether he would rebuild the hotel, but soon built a new grander hotel which he called the “Cornell Hotel” or in some sources, the “Hotel Cornell.” There was almost another disaster in 1909 when an ice jam destroyed the docks and wharves at Lewiston but only slightly damaged the hotel.

Harry Cornell died in 1913 but the hotel continued for many more years. The last mention of it in the newspapers was in 1955. The site is now the location of the Freedom Crossing Monument in the Lewiston Landing Park at the foot of Center Street.

Ann Marie Linnabery is the assistant director of the History Center of Niagara.

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