Big hotel, small city: Inter-Ocean Hotel opened in 1882

Amorette Allison
Star History Columnist

The Inter-Ocean Hotel opened in Miles City in May of 1882. It was a huge hotel for the small town, with 110 rooms and construction was reported by the Yellowstone Journal as having cost a whopping $35,000. That’s probably close to $5 million by modern measurements.

The IO Hotel was located conveniently across the street from the Northern Pacific Depot. The train tracks themselves had only arrived in Miles City in November of 1881. There wasn’t even regular passenger service yet but Major McQueen, the hotel’s owner, was expecting business to grow. The dining room was 40 by 70 feet, which must have been impressive to be mentioned.

There was one bath. And it was off the barbershop, for men only. Ladies bathed in their rooms in a tin basin with hot water brought up from the kitchen. Bath meant bathing, not anything else.

What was especially notable, to the Yellowstone Journal, was the heating.

Each room had an individual heater. It doesn’t say what kind of heater, though. The dining room was heated by two large wood stoves so these may have been small wood or coal stoves.

In addition to the barber shop, there was a billiard room. The barbershop was a necessity, since many men did not shave themselves, but the billiard room was a luxury.

The hotel was successful.  It soon had a two story addition that added 30 sleeping rooms.

The owner also added a basement in 1885, moving the billiard room downstairs and the vacant room upstairs became a reading room. There was an electric bell in every room to call for service. The hotel itself possessed four electric lights, one outside to light travelers safely to the hotel and three “blazing” inside.

The hotel’s name was changed to the MacQueen Hotel in time for the first Montana Stockgrower’s Association ball. 

The basement itself was impressive. It took twelve men and five teams of horses to excavate the basement, according to the newspaper, which was lined with brick and had 10-foot tin ceilings. The basement also contained the new boiler for the entire hotel would soon have “steam heat.”

There were red velvet carpets in the halls and public spaces as well as most of the rooms. The dressers, tables and “commodes” had marble tops.

The “commode” was a round, bedside cabinet that contained the chamber pot. Yes, the MacQueen Hotel had steam heat and electric service bells but no toilets. Since there was no running water or sewer system in 1885 Miles City, it was hardly surprising.

In the parlor, there were framed mirrors that reached from ceiling to floor. Mirrors were very popular to reflect light since it was still lanterns and candles in most rooms.

By 1897, the MacQueen Hotel was a sprawling complex of additions and verandas and staircases at various angles.

 Early in the morning of October 4, between three or four o’clock, Verge Witt, who “acts in the dual role of bartender and watchman,” had just finished polishing the glasses and wiping down the back bar. He walked out on the front porch of the hotel, which faced South Fifth, then called Park Street. As soon as he stepped outside, he smelled smoke.

The Yellowstone Journal reported “Walking to the north side, he discovered the smoke was coming from the rear of the hotel. He preceded down the north side as far as the ladies entrance.” Hotels often had a separate entrance for ladies so they could avoid the bar or even just a lobby where men smoked cigars. 

The next sentences give an idea of what a maze the MacQueen had become in the fifteen years since its original construction.

“From a stairway that leads to the basement just across the building from the entrance, he discovered smoke coming up and saw some fire on the ladies part of the floor of the kitchen which is over the basement.”

When he saw this, he ran to the nearest fire alarm, which were boxes located conveniently on telephone poles throughout town and pulled the handle that alerted the fire department. 

The report continues. “Having done this, he got his gun and fired it.” The traditional fire alarm in Miles City was a series of rapidly fired shots, since you weren’t supposed to discharge a firearm in the city limits except in emergency. 

When the fire department swiftly arrived — 20 minutes later — the hotel had been evacuated although, the Yellowstone Journal noted, “there was not a guest at the hotel who did lose some part of his or her wardrobe.”

By the time the fire department arrived, “the southwestern part of the building was a mass of flames and dense smoke issued from every hallway and open door, making it nearly impossible to save any of the furniture in the rear part of the house. Large crews of volunteers did the best work possible, recovering all the property in the front of the building they could.”

“In just one hour,” mourned the reporter, “all semblance of our commodious transient house had disappeared, only brick chimneys and a roaring furnace in the basement devouring all that dropped its way.” The furnace in the basement wasn’t the hotel’s furnace but a poetic way to describe the fire that burned as the hotel collapsed into its nice, brick-lined basement.

The article goes on to list insurance held by the hotel, for building and furnishings, and noted that C. W. Savage, leasee for the kitchen, owned the linen, cutlery and kitchen utensils, held his own insurance.

The county attorney at the time had rented a space in the building for his office and law library and all those very expensive books went up in smoke. The desk clerk, who lived in the hotel, lost everything, “even his watch.”

The 67 guests and 23 employees were all accounted for, although two had been rescued after being found “semi-conscious and in dishabile.“

However, the city was pleased. “Last night was the first time a through test of our water supply had been made and the same proved adequate beyond any doubt. there being three feet of water in the big supply well after the pumping had ceased.”

I’m sure that was a great comfort to Major MacQeen.

(Amorette Allison is the Star’s history columnist.)