Hotel history: Remembering the Occidental on Front Street

Posted: Wednesday, March 26, 2003

The Occidental Hotel opened in Juneau's second decade with amenities rare for buildings in town during that period - each of its 25 rooms boasted hot and cold running water.

Built in 1892 on Front Street, across from where the Sealaska Plaza parking lot now sits, it was owned by John Olds and Morris Orton. In addition to the plumbing, hotel facilities included a billiard room, a reading room, a dining room, bar and kitchen.

In 1896, a 12-room addition was built, adding a ladies parlor and a sample room for traveling salesmen.

Olds was busy working his mining claims with his father-in-law, John Prior. Orton was busy planning the construction of another new hotel.

They hired Prior's wife, Elizabeth, to manage the hotel, bar and restaurant. While only 4 feet 7 inches tall, she was reputed to be feisty and very domineering. She operated the businesses with an iron hand in an era when it was extremely rare for women to be outspoken or in management positions.

During its first 20 years, the Occidental was the premiere hotel in Juneau. But as newer hotels were built, the Occidental became a second-rate establishment. Part of this decline was due to the closure of its dining room after Christmas dinner in 1912.

The hotel sold tokens at a discount for use in the bar and restaurant, a common practice up to the early 1940s. Most tokens were sold two or three for a quarter and were used to buy drinks and merchandise. This writer recalls seeing tokens sold by the Imperial Bar, the New York Tavern and the San Francisco Bakery.

A story was told about John Olds' grandson, also named John Olds, finding a bag of the hotel's tokens that were the exact size of a nickel. The 8-year-old boy noticed the tokens fit in the candy machines around town. He and his friends used them to acquire candy from several businesses. Since the hotel's name was imprinted on the tokens, several merchants complained to his father, who promptly reimbursed them.

He then threw the whole bag of tokens into Gastineau Channel.

The last Occidental Hotel guest was listed in the register in 1931. John Olds' wife Lila lived in the hotel until her death in 1937.

The Occidental remained empty after her death until it was razed sometime in the later 1940s.

John Olds, his wife and the Priors were charter members of the Pioneers' of Alaska.

As told by a descendant of John Olds and from the information gathered from the Juneau-Douglas City Museum.

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