By Stephen D. Bowling
Throughout the history of Breathitt County, one structure has loomed most prominent on the Jackson skyline and has served as both the social and cultural center of the community. For nearly one hundred years, the yellow, buff brick of the four-story facade of the Hotel Jefferson had been a well-known part of downtown Jackson.
In 1891, the Lexington and Eastern Railroad changed Jackson forever when the railroad made its final push by tunneling through the mountain at the mouth of Cane Creek and extending the lines up the Kentucky River. Overnight Jackson became the “boom town” of the mountains. All train freight and passenger traffic bound to points farther up the Kentucky River Valley stopped at Jackson. Suddenly, the hotel business in Jackson, which had been very sporadic before the railroad reached Jackson, became very profitable, and more than twenty-five hotels opened the doors between 1891 and 1894.
Charles Jefferson Little and Clayborn Xavier Bowling grew anxious to capitalize on the travelers who came to Jackson on the train. The two investors began construction on the foundations of what was initially known as the Xavier Hotel in the spring of 1907 on property Little owned on Main Street. Nearly six months into the ambitious project, work was halted due to a lack of funds. From 1907 to 1912, the sandstone foundation sat unfinished and was eventually covered with weeds and briars.
In 1912, Charles J. Little was anxious to try again. Little approached several investors in Jackson. Together, they created the Hotel Jefferson Company to construct and operate a state-of-the-art hotel on the site of the proposed Xavier Hotel. Six prominent businessmen and community leaders formed the Hotel Jefferson Company, including Mitchell S. Crain, Charles J. and Armina Little, John T. Hindman, M. P. Davis, and Stephen J. Crawford. Incorporated on September 25, 1912, the Company wasted no time clearing the Xavier Hotel foundations and starting constructing the hotel.
By July 1913, work had been completed on the main structure and the rooms on the second floor. The unique building was a great attraction as it was constructed and was unlike any other in Jackson. Little and the Hotel Jefferson Company purchased polished bricks for the front of the building from suppliers in Louisville and Cincinnati and shipped them to Jackson on the Lexington and Eastern Railroad.
The structure contained fifty rentable rooms and was equipped with hot and cold running water. The installation of modern, iron fire escapes made it “almost impossible for guests to be injured should a fire unexpectedly breakout.” The Hotel also offered guests an in-house barbershop and a shoeshine stand in the basement.
The first guest was registered at the Hotel Jefferson on July 17, 1913, but an early complaint from residents was the early morning sounds or hand saws and hammering as workmen completed the third-floor rooms. Construction continued on the elaborate trim work and stair casings and on an additional house in the back of the hotel for the primarily black staff of five men and eight women.
By February 1914, while the building neared completion, the creditors and contractor that the Hotel Jefferson Company had employed to build the structure began to knock on the door looking for payment.
J. J. Fitzgerald & Company, the Richmond Heating and Plumbing Company, and several other companies filed suit against the Hotel Jefferson Company and all six trustees. The case, filed in the Eastern District of the United States Federal Court, sought payment for services rendered in the construction of the hotel.
On February 7, 1914, Charles J. Little filed a petition in Breathitt County Circuit Court before Judge Hugh Riddle against the Hotel Jefferson Company and the Hargis Commercial Bank, asking that a receiver be appointed to handle the now-bankrupt hotel.
Jackson businessman A. H. Patton was appointed as the receiver and ordered by the Court to continue to operate the Hotel until the debts could be reorganized.
The court case in Breathitt County split the trustees of the Hotel Jefferson Company. The case dragged on from 1914 until it was finally resolved by the courts on January 16, 1919. The courts ordered a Commissioner’s sale of the property, and Armina C. Little purchased the building.
Following the court case, C. J. Little and his wife Armina operated the Hotel for some time and officially announced, on May 12, 1919, that the Jefferson Hotel construction was completed, but the expanded dining room was later added in 1923 and remodeled in 1934. In June 1920, C. J. and Armina Little sold the Hotel and property to W. D. and Genoa Archibald of West Liberty, who moved to Jackson and operated the Hotel until 1925 when they sold to Allie B. Weed.
From 1925 to 1998, the Jefferson Hotel was owned by ten different owners including Weed, Nim Henson, Benton and Kate Howard, and Dr. F. C. Lewis. The Hotel was in continuous operation for many years under the management of Herbert W. Spencer, J. W. Hagins, and numerous others.
Following its time as a Hotel the structure was also home to a boarding house, doctor’s office, pizza parlor, shoe repair store, and several other uses during which time several of the walls were changed but the basic structure was erected in 1913 remained.
By 1998, the Hotel had been neglected for years, and the once-bustling hallways then stood vacant. The Hotel Jefferson stood firm through three fires and the inundations of time and weather. The building was sold to the Breathitt County Industrial Development Foundation, Inc. on December 18, 1998. Work started on the hotel’s newest incarnation as a new center for Jackson- a center for education and learning.
The building was transferred to the Lees Campus of Hazard Community and Technical College and was used as a classroom and administrative facility for several years. It now is the home of the regional driver’s license office.
The Hotel Jefferson stands as a shining example of the intersection of the old and the new in Jackson. Equipped with the latest internet and fiber optic technology, the building draws a sense of establishment and strength from the classic charm of the traditional designs and craftsmanship of the ninety-year-old structure while providing much-needed services to the people of Jackson and Breathitt County.
© 2022 Stephen D. Bowling
What a fabulous article. We visited the hotel many times while Margaret and F.C. Lewis owned it to visit our Lewis family. Many good times sitting around the huge kitchen table gossiping with sisters Fannie Hayes, Margaret Lewis, Emma Watkins, Flo Little, and Gen Garrison.
Their bird Cookie was endlessly entertaining to my kids, besides the old Coke machine in the lobby and miles of hallways to run.
Thanks for your research and lovely article!
Dr. LEWIS, Margaret, Fannie, Jack, Kelly and Emma were part of our lives. Grew up at Highland, just down the road from Mrs. Lewis (Minerva). She was a sweet lady and we visited with her often. Do not remember what happened to her but would love to know. Remember her flowers, especially the roses. Dr. Lewis was our family doctor for decades. He also delivered my wife in his hospital which I think was across the street above the drug store. Wonderful memories. Remember Jack and Fannie when I think they lived in the Jefferson. Seems that they lived in the Highland home, maybe looking after Mrs. Lewis (?). Would love to know more about these dear folk! Sinc., Gordon Edmondd
I was born (1939) in Elkatawa, Kentucky just outside of Jackson. There was a Swinging Bridge you could walk across the Kentucky River then; later a bridge was built so cars and horse drawn wagons could get into downtown. This Hotel was across from the Court House. Many people stayed there over the years.
I wish I could go back there and see it one more time.