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One of Williamsport's Great Hotels: Hotel Updegraff

by Joseph Grafius

Who would have thought that a bundle of letters found under some attic floor boards would become the key to unlocking the history of one of Williamsport's less well-known but successful businessmen.  The letters were found by my uncle, Jerry Grafius, in 1957, and were passed along to me in 1999.  After months of researching the names contained in the letters, I was able to compile a reasonable account of the main characters and their histories.

The letters, roughly a dozen, belonged to William B. Updegraff and were dated between 1862 and 1864.  They gave a glimpse into what times were like for a northern farm family during the Civil War era.  The letters are a story on their own, but what I discovered through my research was one of William's greatest accomplishments, the Hotel Updegraff.

William B. Updegraff was born in 1844, the great-grandson of Derek Updegraff.  Derek was one of the first settlers in the Williamsport area.  He built his homestead in 1792 on what was known as "Long Reach."  Roughly two centuries later, this structure became known as the Thomas Lightfoot Inn.  William was born and raised in the white brick house next to his great-grandfather's homestead.  In June of 1863, when he was barely 20 years old, William enlisted in the army due to the "emergency" that was declared by Governor Andrew Curtin.  He served 100 days protecting Harrisburg during the Battle of Gettysburg.  Upon his return home, he resumed the farming tradition of the family.

In 1868, William married Anne Elliot, the sister of the ex-mayor William G. Elliot.  Through this relationship, Mr. Updegraff became more interested in business ventures in downtown Williamsport.  His father, Daniel, having greater financial assets, had taken the lead in 1879 and purchased the "Hepburn House," an old hotel on the southeast corner of West Fourth Street and Pine Street.  This structure had occupied the site of the former "Doebler House," one of Williamsport's earliest hotels.  William was brought in by his father to be the superintendant and his younger brother, Fremont, was the billiard clerk.

The family business arrangement lasted ten years until Daniel turned the ownership of the hotel over to his sons.  In late 1890, William and Fremont announced that they were going to demolish the old Hepburn House and build the city's largest and most modern hotel.  They would name it in honor of their father.

Construction began in the spring of 1891 when the foundation was dug and the first shipment of iron pillars and girders were set in place.  Excerpts from the Williamsport Sun newspaper of June 23, 1891, described the appearance of the structure at that time and what the completed project would have to offer the citizens of Williamsport.  "The new Updegraff House will be a magnificent structure, a giant in stature and splendid in proportions.  Six stories high with a mansard roof, it will look almost like a "cloud piercer."  The heavy iron pillars, weighing nearly two tons, stand on poured foundations of stone and cement.  All together, there will be more than two hundred tons of iron work in the building.  All modern conveniences will be introduced.  Electric lights, electric bells, steam heat and an elevator are just some of the luxuries that will be incorporated for the pleasure of the public."  To provide electricity to the hotel, the brothers installed their own power plant in the basement of the building.

In September, 1891, the roof was put on the south wing and wiring for 500 incandescent bulbs was started.  In October, the flagstone sidewalks were laid and slate work on the mansard was completed.  By November, the interior work had commenced with plastering.  The hotel was completed in the spring of 1892 and William and Fremont opened their doors for business on April 1st. On April 6th, the Lycoming County Medical Society held their annual banquet in the luxurious dining room.  Within a short time, the Updegraff brothers expanded the usefulness of their own electric power plant by stringing wires to provide lighting for the whole block that was bounded by West Fourth, Pine, Willow and Court Streets.  Their enterprise became known as the Citizens Electric Company.

William and Fremont remained the proprietors of the hotel until 1918, when both brothers passed away.  William died February 18th and Fremont expired in September of that same year.  In September of 1920, the executors sold the hotel.  A few years later, the Lycoming Hotel was built, making it the largest building in Williamsport.  The Updegraff Hotel continued to be a cornerstone in downtown Williamsport with numerous stores occupying the ground floor and the upper floors still operating as a hotel.  Over time, the hotel changed ownership and became the Ross Hotel.  Decades later, it became the Center City Hotel. 

William B. Updegraff and Fremont are both buried in the family plot in Wildwood Cemetery.  William's homestead still exists on South Reach Road, but his great-grandfather Derek's home, the Thomas Lightfoot Inn, was destroyed by fire in 2001.  Besides the hotel, the only other legacy remaining of these two brothers is a small street in the Reach Road area, just off Royal Avenue, called Fremont Street. 

If it wasn't for the bundle of letters that sparked my curiosity, I would never have known the story behind one of the greatest remaining landmarks in downtown Williamsport.

 

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The Face of Death
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