Sunday, February 26, 2017

The Magnificent McHenry House Part 1: A City Arrives

A crowd gathered to greet one of the inaugural A & GW trains. Note the Depot in the background.   
As time progresses forward it becomes increasingly difficult to imagine the grand structures that once dominated the landscapes of our community. While a long list of such buildings could be compiled for Crawford County, few would compare to the magnitude and grandeur of the McHenry House and the adjoining depot of the Atlantic and Great Western Railroad in Meadville.

The McHenry House was a premier dining hall and hotel, named in honor of James McHenry, Esquire, the London financial agent sent in 1859 to ensure the successful construction of the Atlantic and Great Western (A & GW) Railroad. McHenry couldn’t have imagined the challenges that awaited him, but even so, he managed to secure needed resources, albeit controversially, despite labor shortages, political infighting, and the Civil War.

The Railroad Comes to Town

On October 28, 1862, the tracks of the A & GW reached Meadville; a month later the first passenger train arrived to great fanfare. The crowd of onlookers was so large the train was forced to stop at Race Street until the tracks could cleared. But the curious crowd wasn’t the only thing waiting to greet passengers, who were immediately awed as their train was swallowed whole by the depot’s full-length awning, covering the entirety of the tracks.  

The McHenry House extending off the west side of the Depot
In its entirety, the Meadville Depot extended from Center to Chestnut Streets. Officially it was listed as 327 feet long and 127 feet wide, encompassing and area of 41,520 square feet of space. Inside the depot, aside from ticketing stations and passenger waiting areas, were well-lit offices, tenements for employees, and large machine shops. Impressive in its own right, the Depot still did not account for the splendor of the McHenry House which adjoined the Depot on the western side.

During that period, railroad dinning cars were a rarity, meaning trains needed to account for stops along the route to allow passengers a chance to eat and refresh themselves before embarking on the next leg of their trip. This, then, was the main purpose of the McHenry House. It is unclear as to whom the credit for the McHenry’s House should be attributed, but given that A & GW board president, William Reynolds resided in Meadville, it is logical to believe he was a proponent of its construction given all the potential upside for the community.

Whatever the case, the McHenry House did indeed put Meadville on the map not only literally, but also in terms of luxury and style on par with only New York City. Such grandeur may have been the plan from the start as the officers of the A & GW instructed the McHenry House’s Superintendent, R. M. N. Taylor, Esquire, to spare no expense in making it the finest dining hall in all the West.  Taylor did just that.

Guests enjoyed beautifully decorated rooms and could step out onto the ten-foot balcony porches to a view of neatly arranged flower beds and ornamental shrubbery accenting the structure’s exterior. Inside, hungry passengers were immediately taken aback by the cavernous, two-story banquet hall with seating for 600, its stained-glass windows, dark walnut finish, and a cuisine that matched such splendor.

As one passenger described it in the February 9th, 1864 Crawford Democrat:

“Arriving at Meadville you are conducted into the splendid dining-hall, which but for the numerous tables loaded with good things, would remind you of some Gothic church, with the open roof and chancel in the [center]… I comprehend why passengers are allowed fifteen minutes beyond the time for refreshments—there is a feast for the eyes, which are [scarcely] satisfied when the stomach is full.”

The Dinning Hall at the McHenry House
Taylor’s menu routinely comprised of 4 types of cold meats, 6 varieties of game meat, 5 entrees, 5 roasts, 8 relishes, 5 pastries, and 8 desserts. Such a fine spread earned comparisons with establishments in New York City. Famed newspaper editor, Horace Greeley took such claims a step further in a January 19th, 1864 expose of the A & GW in the New York Tribune:

“At Meadville is the great Hotel and Dining Hall of the road—the Dining Hall among the best in America. …Meadville, formerly one of the most secluded and out-of-the-way county seats in the West, is henceforth as accessible and eligibly located as any town in Pennsylvania west of Pittsburg[h]. It was always a beautiful spot, situated in a fertile and delightful region. Henceforth, its trade must be large and its growth rapid.”

This quite literally was William Reynolds’ intent in building a railroad through Meadville, and the notoriety of the McHenry House aided in that pursuit. Despite whatever differences Reynolds may have had with McHenry and the English contingent, he still recognized McHenry’s crucial influence in making the railroad a reality.

Celebrating McHenry 

In early September 1864, a grand ovation was thrown at the McHenry House both in James McHenry’s honor and to celebrate line’s completion to St. Louis, Missouri. The already manicured gardens and grounds were decorated with miniature flags and ornamental wreaths for the event. At the top of the building, the flags representing the countries of the A & GW’s biggest investors, England, and Spain were flown along with the U.S. flag, while a large sign at the south entrance greeted the guest of honor with “Welcome McHenry” in large letters.

The Depot decorated to receive McHenry and the European dignitaries
The forces of nature, however, would delay the event after strong storms washed out bridges east of Corning, New York, forcing the European guests of honor to wait for a special train to continue their journey to Meadville. Upon their eventual arrival, Reynolds and other town officials greeted McHenry at the train and escorted him to the dining hall for a large feast followed by a firework display later that evening. The moment, however, likely meant more to Reynolds than it did anyone. It was his vision and persistence that prevailed despite a number of difficulties, not the least of which was the ongoing friction between him and these same European partners.

Soon after work had started on the rail line, Reynolds accused McHenry of seriously mismanaging the company’s finances, a fact evidenced through the ignoring regular audits and later, failing to account for $4 million in expenditures. This, while at the same time, having to constantly prod English engineer, Thomas Kennard, to keep up with the construction schedule while withstanding the pressure of Jose de Salamanca, Spain’s principal investor, to make up for delays.

William Reynolds
Reynolds' feelings seem apparent in the cordial yet tepid tone by which he introduced McHenry and the European contingent that evening. In the end, however, his objective had been met, and whether the McHenry House had been named so out of obligatory courtesy or the insistence of the European contingent is unknown. To the residents of Meadville, such turbulent political undercurrents were irrelevant in comparison to the resulting prosperity the railroad brought to the area.

A report in The Crawford Democrat best summed up the community’s sentiment.

“This great road, one of the most wonderful and successful enterprises of modern times is of course the great feature of Meadville. To it Meadville owes its recent life and bustle, its influx of population, business and riches. Its big depot, its huge machine shops, its numberless tenement houses for its employees, and last but not least, its magnificent hotel, the McHenry House, are the most prominent and important building in the city.”

Indeed, the McHenry House and depot were more than a mere building. Meadville was now recognized as the most important stop along the A & GW line, and as the Cleveland Daily Leader remarked, “few inland towns [have] so steady and substantial trade,” as Meadville. Such economic stability was further buoyed by its increasing population which surged from 3,000 to over 5,000 in only a few short years, a period referred to as the “material second growth” of Meadville.

COMING NEXT - The Magnificent McHenry House Part 2: Departures and Demise
The future of the McHenry House would flourish under the direction of a beloved manager, and it would become a source of speculation in the wake of a president's assassination. Read it Here.


Published Works
Stewart, Anne. Moore, William. Images of America: Meadville, Arcadia Publishing, Charleston, SC. 2001
Ilisevich, Robert. Remembering Crawford County, Pennsylvania's Last Frontier. The History Press. Charleston, SC. 2008
Reynolds, William. (editors) Gifford, Peter. Ilisevich, Robert. European Capital, British Iron, and American Dream: The Story of the Atlantic and Great Western Railroad. University of Akron Press, Akron, OH. 2002
Reynolds, John Earle. In French Creek Valley. The Tribune Publishing Company, Meadville, PA. 1938
Miller, Ernest C. John Wilkes Booth, Oilman. Exposition Press, New York, NY. 1947

Cleveland Daily Leader, 1863 - 1866
The Crawford Democrat, 1863 - 1865
New York Tribune, 1864
Democrat and Chronicle, 1880
Pittsburgh Daily Post, 1879
Syracuse Daily Courier and Union, 1865
The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 1864
The Record Argus, 1876 - 1881
Western Reserve Chronicle, 1866

About the Author

Ron Mattocks was born and raised in Guys Mills, Pennsylvania. Following high school he joined the Army to see the world (which he did) before a career as a construction executive in Texas. Eventually Ron switched to Internet marketing, consulting for companies such as GMC, ConAgra, Mattel, and others. During this time he also began writing regularly for the Huffington Post, Disney's Babble, and the TODAY Show. On a summer visit to Conneaut Lake Park, Ron became suddenly fascinated with the park's origins, a fascination that lead to a passion for the county's extensive history. Today Ron is the VP of Digital Strategy Development with an agency in Indiana where he lives with his three sons. He graduated from St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas with a degree in English Literature, and is a member of both the Crawford County and Conneaut Lake Area Historical Societies.

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