September 26, 2023
Oakland Hotel St. Clair

The Oakland Hotel: A Glimpse into St. Clair’s Luxurious Past

Once a luxurious haven in St. Clair, Michigan, the Oakland Hotel stood tall and proud along the St. Clair River. Opened in 1881, this magnificent hotel was the pride and joy of the Hopkins family. Join us as we take a trip back in time to explore the opulent features and amenities that made this hotel a popular destination in its day.

A Grand Structure: Architectural Wonders of the Oakland Hotel

Constructed from a timber frame, the Oakland Hotel was an impressive sight for travelers along the St. Clair River. A 465-foot veranda stretched along the hotel and bathhouse, providing a relaxing spot for guests to enjoy the view. The hotel’s central section soared five stories high, easily visible to steamers passing by on the river. An ornate balcony covered the second floor, offering a shady spot to watch the ships go by on sunny days. This iconic hotel has played a central role in the community since its inception in the late 19th century, hosting locals and travelers alike. In this article, we’ll explore the origins of the Oakland Hotel, its architectural features, and its impact on the community.

The Hopkins Legacy: Origins of the Oakland Hotel and Spa

While James H. Thomas is often credited with the establishment of the Oakland Hotel, the true origins of this grand establishment can be traced back to the Hopkins family. Samuel Hopkins and his sons Mark, William, and Orrin had the opulent Oakland Hotel and Spa built on 200 acres of property they purchased on the St. Clair River, south of the Pine River. This investment was made possible by the $5 million Samuel Hopkins had inherited from his brother Mark Hopkins’ estate.

The Explosion In Popularity of Mineral Baths and Spas

In the late 19th century, mineral baths and spas experienced a surge in popularity across the United States and Europe. This rise in demand was driven by several factors, including a growing awareness of the potential health benefits of bathing in mineral-rich waters and an increasingly affluent middle class seeking leisurely pursuits.

During this time, mineral baths were widely believed to alleviate various health issues and promote overall well-being. Many people suffering from arthritis, skin conditions, respiratory problems, and stress sought relief in these therapeutic waters. The minerals found in these springs were thought to possess healing properties, and bathing in these waters was considered a natural remedy for numerous ailments. As a result, mineral baths and spas became popular destinations for those seeking respite from the rigors of daily life and those searching for restorative treatments.

In addition to their purported health benefits, mineral baths and spas were seen as symbols of luxury and sophistication. Visiting such establishments was fashionable, and many spas became social hubs where the wealthy and influential could mingle and network. The opulent surroundings and lavish amenities these resorts provide add to their allure, making them attractive destinations for those seeking a luxurious escape from the hustle and bustle of urban life.

The late 19th century also marked the advent of improved transportation networks, making it easier for people to travel to these spa towns and resorts. The expansion of railroads, in particular, allowed for more convenient access to these destinations and contributed to their growing popularity.

Michigan’s History of Mineral Baths and Resorts

Michigan has a long history of mineral spas and resorts, some of which were quite popular during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Here are a few notable examples:

Mount Clemens Mineral Baths:

Known as the “Bath City of America,” Mount Clemens was a prominent mineral spa destination in Michigan. The city’s reputation grew rapidly after discovering its rich mineral waters, which were believed to have therapeutic properties. Many people visited Mount Clemens to bathe in its mineral waters and experience relief from various ailments.

Battle Creek Sanitarium: 

While not a traditional mineral spa, the Battle Creek Sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan, was an influential health and wellness center incorporating hydrotherapy and other water-based treatments. Founded by Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, the sanitarium attracted patients from across the country, including notable figures like Mary Todd Lincoln and Amelia Earhart.

Eaton Rapids Mineral Springs: 

Located in Eaton Rapids, Michigan, this mineral spa resort was a popular destination for those seeking restorative treatments. The mineral waters were believed to have high iron, magnesium, and sulfur content, contributing to their reputed healing properties.

Wequetonsing Resort: 

Situated near Harbor Springs, Michigan, the Wequetonsing Resort attracted many visitors looking for relaxation and rejuvenation. While not specifically a mineral spa, the resort’s location on the shores of Little Traverse Bay offered guests a serene environment for rest and recuperation.

Petoskey Bath House:

 Located in the popular resort town of Petoskey, Michigan, the Petoskey Bath House provided visitors with access to mineral baths and steam and massage services. The establishment catered to vacationers visiting the picturesque town and the surrounding region.

These are just a few examples of the many mineral spas and resorts that once flourished in Michigan, offering visitors a chance to experience the reputed healing powers of mineral waters while enjoying the beauty and tranquility of the state’s natural landscapes.

Grand Opening: Oakland Hotel At St. Clair Springs

The original Oakland Hotel opened in 1881 and was a marvel of its time. The five-story, Swiss-style hotel, possibly the largest wooden structure in the United States at the time, entertained 1,000 guests in its 115 rooms during the first six weeks of operation. 

Luxurious Amenities: Fine Dining and Modern Conveniences

The hotel’s ground floor featured a lobby, operating office, post office, reading room, and telegraph station. North of the lobby was the dining room, adorned in pink and gold furnishings, accommodating 150 guests. Adjacent to the dining room was the ladies’ ordinary, a smaller, private dining area for parties and breakfasts.

The hotel boasted a range of luxurious amenities, including a 465-foot-long veranda, a lobby with a massive fireplace, hydraulic elevators, a barber shop, a billiards room, and a pink and gold dining room that could seat 150 people.  On hot summer evenings, guests could dine on the porch and savor the refreshing breeze.

The Oakland Hotel boasted 119 guest rooms, each with its own closet – a rarity for hotels of its time. The hotel also operated two hydraulic elevators and was fitted with gas and electric lights. Several fully furnished cottages were built across Oakland Avenue, and three of these charming dwellings still stand today.

Guests could also enjoy the hotel’s extensive outdoor facilities, such as its own steamship dock, boathouse, riding stables, and railroad depot. For those seeking more privacy, six “cottages” across South Riverside were available for rent at $250 for the summer season.

A Unique Attraction: St. Clair Mineral Springs Baths

One of the main attractions of the Oakland Hotel and Spa was the St. Clair Mineral Springs Baths. The bathhouse featured 35 rooms, each equipped with porcelain tubs, fresh water, and both hot and cold mineral water. Guests could indulge in Turkish and plunge baths, making their stay at the hotel a truly rejuvenating experience.

Some notable architectural features include:

  • Elaborate woodwork and moldings throughout the hotel
  • Stained glass windows depicting scenes of local flora and fauna
  • The grand staircase, with its hand-carved newel posts and balusters
  • An impressive fireplace in the main lobby showcasing intricate tilework

The Community’s Gathering Place: Events and Social Life

The Oakland Hotel has been more than just a place for travelers to rest their heads. As the town’s social and cultural hub, the hotel has hosted numerous events, from lavish balls and dances to political rallies and fundraisers. The hotel’s grand ballroom, with its ornate ceilings and chandeliers, has been the backdrop for countless memorable occasions.

The hotel has also hosted several notable figures, including President William McKinley, who reportedly dined at the hotel during a campaign stop in 1896. Another famous visitor was the esteemed American inventor Thomas Edison, who was known to visit the hotel while vacationing in nearby Port Huron.

Arriving in Style: Steamers and Rail Lines

Many hotel guests arrived on steamers like the City of Mackinac, the City of Erie, and the Tashmoo. In later years, guests also traveled to the hotel via rail lines, with the Detroit United Railway (DUR) even housing an office at the hotel for guests’ convenience. Both streamlines and railways were eager to develop and promote excursion travel for a newly affluent upper middle class. This story was the same for the Bay Port Hotel and the Pointe Aux Barques resort cottages.

Video: Interurban and the Oakland Hotel

A Lost Treasure: The Decline and Demise of the Oakland Hotel

By the 1900s, interest in spas and mineral baths began to wane, leading to the closing of the Oakland Hotel in 1911. In 1915, a severe fire damaged the building, and it was eventually torn down in the 1920s.

Though the St. Clair Oakland Hotel is no longer standing, its rich history and architectural grandeur continue to fascinate and captivate the imaginations of those who learn about this long-lost treasure from a bygone era.

Michael Hardy

Mike Hardy is the owner of Thumbwind Publications LLC. It started in 2009 as a fun-loving site covering Michigan's Upper Thumb. Since then, he has authored a vast range of content and established a loyal base of 60,000 visitors per month.

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