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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Lincoln Slept Here?

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

“Hotel Where Lincoln Stayed Still Operating,” reads the headline on the yellowed 1950 newspaper clipping.

That a hotel might be in business nearly a century after Abraham Lincoln spent the night in one of its rooms would not be particularly remarkable in Illinois – say Springfield – or Washington. But the “Lincoln slept here” assertion appeared in a Texas newspaper and referred to a historic hostelry in New Braunfels.

Honest Abe? Lincoln in Texas?

First some background. The hotel was the Plaza, so named because it stands across from New Braunfels’ town plaza at the corner of Seguin and San Antonio streets. Built of limestone and cedar in 1851 by Adolph Nauendorf, the at first two-story structure was offered to Comal County for use as a courthouse in 1852. Balking at the $3,000 asking price, county commissions said no thanks.

Jacob Schmitz, one of the German immigrants who had founded the town in 1845, bought the property in 1858. Since at least 1854, he had been operating a stagecoach stop nearby on Seguin Street he called the Guadalupe Hotel. Continuing under the same name at the new location, in 1873 he added a third floor and renamed the hotel for himself.

New Braunfels being a good day’s horseback ride from San Antonio, and two days by wagon or stagecoach, the hotel saw a lot of business.

In 1854, Frederick Law Olmsted, who would go on to design Central Park in New York, hit town on his tour of Texas.

“There was nothing wanting,” he wrote of Schmitz’s hotel when it was at its original location. After describing the pink-walled main room, he raved about the meal he had: “…Excellent soup, two courses of meat (neither of them pork and neither of them fried), two vegetables, compote of peaches, coffee with milk, wheat bread, and beautiful sweet butter.”

Eighteen years later, the poet Sidney Lanier spent a night at the hotel.

“We arrived just a night-fall,” he wrote, “found a large clean German town, with all manner of evidence of German thrift on every hand, through which we passed to the hotel, where mine host, a large-framed and seemingly larged-souled German, was ready with a chair for the ladies to step on [presumably as they alighted from the stagecoach that stopped at the hotel.]”

Like most inn keepers, Schmitz kept a guest register in a large bound book. Over the years, in addition to Olmsted and Lanier, numerous notables – from military officers to Sam Houston – lodged at the hotel. One of the guests was Jefferson Davis, U.S. Secretary of War before he became president of the Confederate States of America.

And, if the Schmitz-Plaza’s guest register is to be believed, the man who would be Jefferson’s polar opposite during the Civil War also enjoyed the hotel’s hospitality at some point between its opening and his election as 16th president.

But if Lincoln ever came to Texas, much less the Schimtz Hotel in New Braunfels, the trip is a part of his well-examined life yet to be explored. If he did visit Texas, it would have been at some point between the time the hotel opened and 1860, when he ran for the presidency. Had Lincoln come to Texas after then, we’d be reading distinctly different American history books, since he was persona non grata with most Texans even prior to his election.

Lincoln never had much money, and travel was hard back then. A review of his life’s story suggests the closet he ever got to Texas was New Orleans, which he visited in 1831 when Louisiana’s neighbor to the west was still a province of Mexico.

Not that the future Great Emancipator didn’t know about Texas, which by the time Lincoln got elected to Congress in 1847 had become the 28th state. As a freshman lawmaker, Lincoln was outspoken in his criticism of President James K. Polk and the war with Mexico that began in the spring of 1846.

More than likely, at some point in the late 1850s as the tall, thin lawyer from Illinois became better known as an eloquent opponent of slavery, some unknown traveler thought it funny to scribble Lincoln’s name in the Schimtz’ register. In later years, people more familiar with the president’s name than his background accepted it as fact that he had visited Texas before the Civil War.

By the summer of 1950, when the story claiming Lincoln had stayed in New Braunfels ran in the Austin American, the hotel was known as the Plaza. Its owners and operators were P.E. Short and his wife.

“I wish Abraham Lincoln could come back and see the changes time and people have made since…Jacob Schmitz build the hotel,” Mrs. Short told Comal County historian Oscar Haas, who wrote the story on the Plaza.

The Plaza stayed in business until 1961, closing after more than a century of operation. The New Braunfels Conservation Society bought the old building in 1969 to keep it from being razed, and more recently, it has been remodeled and opened as a vacation and short-term rental property. If you visit, ask for the Lincoln bedroom.

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" July 26, 2012 column

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