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Popular hotel and tavern for over a century, ‘National’ landmark stands vacant today

January 18, 2008
By MATT CONNOR
If an old railroad lineman from circa 1870 was suddenly to arise from his grave and visit Lock Haven in 2008, there are a few places in town that he might instantly recognize, despite the passage of nearly 140 years. One of them is the National Hotel.

The National was one of four hotels built along the railroad tracks in the city soon after the first locomotives steamed their way through town in 1859. Today it is the only one which retains much of its exterior integrity.

Sadly, the earliest years of the hotel are largely lost to history. Several sources cite a “Mr. Hartranft” as being the original builder of the hotel, though little about Hartranft is known today, and the date of its construction varies from 1860 to 1869, depending on the source.

However in 1891 the National was purchased by John C. Shrank, who, according to an 1892 newspaper account, made “some decided improvement in the bar and office of this house. Among the other additions to the attractiveness of the place will be a complete new bar outfit, a casing of hardwood, handsomely carved, supplemented with brackets and surrounding large mirror of the finest quality.”

Not long after Shrank completed his renovations at the National, Rudolf Widman — distantly related to the Widman drugstore family — purchased the property. The Widman clan continued to operate the hotel and tavern for the next 50 years. Alex Zesinger, who was related to the Widmans by marriage, served as manager of the establishment.

“The National Hotel, located on Bald Eagle Street, is one of the old established hotels of the city and is provided with spacious office and writing rooms,” reported the International Magazine of Industry in December, 1909. “The bar is stocked with choice cigars, wines, beers and liquors, etc. In the service of cuisine of the dining room, the most fastidious can find no fault, the meals are first class and include all the delicacies of the season, prepared in the most appetizing manner by skilled cooks. There are 20 sleeping rooms, all neat and comfortable and the lighting and heating is perfect. He (Zesinger) is a model host and gives his time and attention to the comforts of guests, for whom nothing is too good.”

Born in Switzerland, Zesinger first came to Lock Haven at the age of 16 as a shoemaker, and opened a shoe repair and manufacturing shop at the Exchange Building on Vesper Street. His first venture in the hotel business was the management of what was then called the Railroad House, located just below the Bellefonte Avenue railroad crossing. He later operated a hotel on the corner of East Church and Henderson before taking over management of the National.

Zesinger was enormously popular, and when he died in a Philadelphia hospital in October of 1916, the Clinton Republican newspaper reported that “the community was shocked” to hear of Zesinger’s passing.

For the next nine years, the property continued under the ownership of various Widman family members, until Louis F. Widman, one of Rudolf Widman’s sons, ended up with sole ownership of the bar in 1925.

At that time, prohibition was the law of the land, and no tavern could operate freely without threat of closure by the authorities. It’s believed Louis continued operating the National Hotel tavern secretly, as a “speakeasy.”

However, since no one who owned a motor car in those days wanted it seen parked outside an illegal drinking establishment, Louis constructed a huge 15-car garage behind the hotel. Local lore has it that the garage — which remained standing at the site long after prohibition was ended but was eventually torn down — allowed patrons of the National a discreet parking option, out of site of the law during those dangerous prohibition years.

The legislation that criminalized alcohol manufacture and consumption was finally repealed in 1933, and Louis Widman and his wife, Maud, were able to operate in the open from that point through the final year of World War II, when the National was purchased by Paul Higgins Sr.

“My father bought the National Hotel in 1945, and in those days it was strictly a blue collar bar,” said Paul J. Higgins Jr., who still lives next door to the now-vacant property. “Coming off the third shift at seven o’clock in the morning, the bar would fill with workers from the companies in town.”

Those companies included the Hammermill, Piper, Sylvania, Woolrich, and the silk mill and dye works.

“We did a tremendous business there until some of those places started disappearing,” Higgins said of the major corporations that once called Lock Haven home. “Most of what kept the place going was the blue collar clientele.”

And so the National Hotel continued to thrive for the next 10 years, thanks to the robust business at area manufacturing plants and the close stewardship of the Higgins family, who at that time lived in one of the upper floors of the hotel. When Paul Higgins Sr. died in 1955, Paul Jr. and his sister, Agnes, took over operations. Paul Jr., now 75, was just 22 at the time. Agnes was not even of legal drinking age.

As the 50s gave way to the 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” programs provided government dollars for the handicapped, homeless and those in dire poverty. Paul Jr. — who had moved his family out of the hotel and into the house next door after his father’s death — said his hotel rooms were soon filled with the beneficiaries of President Johnson’s public assistance programs.

During the same period, some of the larger factories in town began to go into decline. Then, in 1968, Paul’s little son, Timmy, was killed by a passing train while riding his bicycle. It was the singular tragedy of the family during that period, but today Higgins is philosophical about it.

“It’s just one of those things that happens,” he said.

Before and after little Timmy’s death, the hotel’s location, just a few feet from the railroad tracks, had occasionally been the cause of concern, especially considering the inebriated state of some of the clientele at the 2 a.m. closing time. Indeed, current regulations would prohibit its construction on that same parcel of land today.

“Sometimes the building shook from the trains,” Higgins said. “You could almost reach out and touch the train when it went by.”

But in the 1960s, passenger train service ended in Lock Haven, and the National’s original reason for being was no more. At the same time, much of the community’s industrial base slowly began to fade away.

By the early 1990s almost every manufacturing plant in the city had relocated, downsized or ceased operations altogether. Luckily it was at just about that time that the National began to find a new clientele.

Jack Johnston, then Lock Haven University’s director of international studies, became a frequent visitor to the tavern, and soon other members of the university faculty and staff — as well as international visitors — began to patronize the establishment.

“It became a more cosmopolitan place,” Higgins said of that particular period of the National’s history.

Johnston often brought to the National individuals from foreign nations, who would mix with assorted locals and have spirited debates about American politics and culture.

But all of that came to an end on Friday, August 30, 1996. On that date fire swept the upper floors of the National, with damages estimated at $100,000. About 150 volunteer firefighters worked to extinguish the flames, which apparently were the result of a carelessly placed cigarette in one of the upper hotel rooms.

Jerry Daugenbaugh, a hotel resident, told an Express reporter covering the fire that the conflagration originated in his room when a lit cigarette he had placed on his dresser spilled hot ashes into a pile of dirty laundry on the floor, thus igniting the blaze.

Higgins described Daugenbaugh as a man on a government disability program who “had an indentation on his head where he had an operation for blood on the brain… all he did was drink beer, smoke cigarettes and watch TV. I was always worried that he’d end up burning the place down.”

Soon after the fire, Higgins sold the establishment to a Williamsport contractor, who replaced the roof and floors and installed steel supports to the basement and inner walls, according to Higgins.

But renovations to the National ceased sometime around 1997, and it has remained vacant ever since.

Today it stands as a neglected monument to the glorious past, a past that included the development of the railroads, the colorful era of the prohibition speakeasy and the industrial boom of the American Northeast.

Article Photos

This photo shows the National Hotel, which remained popular for over a century, is now vacant today.
NATE WILSON/THE EXPRESS

 
 

 

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