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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Nimitz Hotel

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
Ninety minutes out of Austin, the passenger bus slowed as it moved west along Fredericksburg's wide Main Street before lumbering up in front of the three-story Nimitz Hotel.

The Kerrville Bus Lines coach would be there only briefly, but the driver said we had time to stretch our legs if we wanted. Knowing the trip to Amarillo would take all night, I decided to go into the hotel for a quick cup of coffee. Air hissed from the hydraulics as I stepped off the bus into the chilly December night and walked into the lobby.

Back then, I didn't really know anything about the history of the Nimitz. To me, it was just an old hotel that had clearly seen its better days. I got the coffee I wanted, though I don't recall it being particularly fresh. At least it had caffeine, which interested me more than flavor. I was just an eighth grader, albeit somewhat older than my years due to family circumstances.

Still, this would be the longest ground trip I had ever taken by myself and I was both excited and a little apprehensive. I felt something else that early winter night in 1962, something it took me years to understand.

I realize now that in reaching the Nimitz I had come to the edge of my familiar territory. We had only traveled 80 miles from the bus station at 4th and Congress in Austin, but Fredericksburg was -- and in some ways still is -- the last stopping place before the geography and, to some extent the culture, begins to change from Central Texas to West Texas. When that bus pulled away from the Fredericksburg station that night, I was riding into new country, bound for Amarillo by morning to spend Christmas with my dad.

Of course, I was far from the first person to experience Fredericksburg as a landlocked port of last call. Indeed, from its founding in 1846, nearly another 40 years would pass before any significant settlement occurred between Gillespie County and far-distant El Paso. In mid-19th century Texas, the German settlement on Baron's Creek lay on the raw edge of the frontier. And for years the Nimitz, opened in 1852 with only four rooms to let, stood as the last traditional hotel between Texas and California -- assuming your stagecoach made it past the Comanches and Apaches.

Minus hostile Indians, bus travel in the early 1960s came about as close as you could get to knowing how it must have been to journey across Texas in a stagecoach. Sure, passenger buses had air-conditioning, relatively soft seats and a bathroom, but it still took forever -- at least compared with automobile travel and certainly with flying -- to get somewhere. The main reason was that back then, bus companies still served small town Texas. Later that night, and into the pre-dawn hours, our bus stopped at Brady, San Angelo, Big Spring, Lubbock, and Plainview before rolling into Amarillo around daybreak.

The man who would give the Nimitz its name, Charles H. Nimitz, knew a thing or two about travel. A former sea captain, he came to Fredericksburg in 1855 and purchased the three-year-old hotel. In addition to running and expanding the property, he operated a brewery, saloon and general store at the hotel. By the late 1880s, having made enough money to indulge in a bit of whimsy, Nimitz oversaw construction of a new three-story frame addition. The top of the hotel resembled the wheelhouse of a steamship, complete with a flag pole.
Old Nimitz Hotel , Fredericksburg TX
The Old Nimitz Hotel
Postcard courtesy www.rootsweb.com/ %7Etxpstcrd/

In its prime, the Nimitz saw numerous notable and a few infamous guests, including future Confederate general Robert E. Lee, his later nemesis Ulysses S. Grant, the outlaw Johnny Ringo, writer William Sydney Porter (O. Henry), sculptress Elisabet Ney and President Rutherford B. Hayes. In later years, future President Lyndon B. Johnson met with constituents there. Another person who spent a lot of time at the Nimitz was Charles Nimitz's grandson, Chester.

In 1906, the old ship captain deeded the property to his son -- Chester's father -- and 20 years later the hotel sold to a group of Fredericksburg businessmen. Meanwhile, having inherited his granddad's love of the sea, Chester Nimitz moved up the ranks after graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy.

The hotel's new owners scuttled its distinctive nautical architecture in favor of a three-story brick structure that looked about like most small town hotels of the era. In other words, unimaginative if functional.

I didn't know any of this when I made that long-ago trip to Amarillo. Nor did I know when I ventured inside for a cup of coffee that the place was on its last legs. Less than nine months later, on Sept. 16, 1963, Fredericksburg newspaper correspondent Emma Petmecky filed a story that began, "For the first time since 1852, there is no desk clerk at the historic Nimitz Hotel. It has ceased taking overnight guests."

The old hotel still had a few permanent guests, however. And, Mrs. Petmecky reported, "The lobby is still active because a bus station and cafe which operated in conjunction with the hotel are being maintained."

The article went on to note that "tentative plans" existed to reopen the hotel, but that never happened. At least, the Nimitz never again accommodated overnight guests. The permanent residents moved on, the bus station relocated and the cafe where I'd gotten that cup of joe closed.

Six years later, in 1968, I returned to the Nimitz as a young newspaper reporter. Thanks to a fund-raising effort that had begun in 1964, with then Gov. John Connally giving the first donation, the Nimitz had taken on a new life as a museum honoring the man who in World War Two oversaw the defeat of the Japanese empire -- Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz.

Now, the restored Nimitz and all the new square-footage built to house its many exhibits is daily visited by people from all across the United States and around the world. But, for those whose westward journey will continue from there, the Nimitz and Fredericksburg remain a way point.


Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" - January 14, 2016 Column

Related Topics: Rooms with a Past
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