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One Family’s Travails in 1879

In 1856 William H. Norton, arrived in Mendocino City while in his early twenties. He worked as a sawyer and carpenter for the mill company on the flats just east and north of the mouth of Big River. In 1864 he married thirty-year-old Margaret Flanagan, from a family that included a dozen siblings in County Clare, western Ireland. She had emigrated with a great number of potato famine refugees in the late 1840s, landing first in Massachusetts then moving west to the northern California coastal town in her late twenties. Mr. Norton, like so many other Mendocino residents of the time, stemmed from the state of Maine.

Norton's Hotel, c.1885

By 1871 Mr. and Mrs. Norton had saved enough money to purchase the former John Chalfant home south and slightly west from Main and Lansing Streets. They built a considerable addition to the house and opened it as a hotel. Previously, Mendocino's hotels had been located at the western end of Main Street, to accommodate passengers disembarking ships, in a precarious wire cage, at the southwest tip of the town's headlands.

In 1875, Mr. Norton put in a full scale saloon as well. In the summer of 1878, the town dentist started renting a room to practice in. A year later, during the fog shrouded month of August, 1879, the Nortons expanded their barn into a full livery service. The hotel had added a pool table within its saloon. The North Coast Stage company hung a sign off the front wall, indicating the beginning or end of the line for stagecoach passengers.

William Norton with daughter, Mollie, c. 1882

As of that year the Norton family had grown to include twelve and a half year-old daughter Henrietta, who answered to “Etta,” ten-year-old Charlie, and Mary Elizabeth, known to all as “Mollie,” going on seven. Things looked promising for the Nortons, though a pain in Mr. Norton's chest prompted a couple of trips to San Francisco to see a heart specialist. They were anxious to solve any health issues because they were planning to leave the hotel in the hands of employees and enjoy a European vacation.

Summer had just turned to fall when Mrs. Norton and Charlie stayed behind in The City to shop for items to be used in the hotel. On Tuesday morning, September 23rd, they were readying for the trip home. On the third floor of the Brooklyn Hotel, Margaret Norton beckoned Charlie to follow her down the stairs. Instead, as boys are wont to do, he sprang upon the baluster of the winding staircase. He slid, tipped, and lost his balance, falling thirty-five feet to the first floor. His neck was broken more or less instantly.

Charles Norton, c. 1874

At 10 o'clock Mr. Norton received a telegram in Mendocino from his wife. He ordered up a buggy and team of horses from his livery then telegraphed ahead for fresh teams to be waiting along the stage line. He made it to San Francisco in less than twenty-four hours, but only to help determine the disposition of his son's body, which was placed in an air-tight metal coffin to ride home with his parents. The dead boy and his parents returned to Mendocino City Thursday evening. The funeral at the Catholic Church took place at two-thirty Friday afternoon, Rev. Father Sheridan presiding. The town's schools were closed so that Charlie's classmates and the other children who knew him could attend. Many of those children, with black bands around their arms marched two abreast at the forefront of the funeral procession to the Catholic cemetery for interment. Charlie died one month short of his eleventh birthday.

Less than two months later, in November, 1879, the Norton's friend, the town dentist had been arrested on a murder charge, hauled to Ukiah, and locked in the county jail, only to escape. In Mendocino, Mrs. Norton, perhaps driving the team a bit hurriedly so close to home, had her wagon, with her young girls also aboard, tip over on the curve at the banked corner of Lansing and Main Streets. Fortunately, no major injuries afflicted the children, though Mrs. Norton's legs were hurt so that she was off her feet for some time.

However, fate hadn't finished with the Nortons that year. In the wee hours of the morning of November 29th, the town watchman spotted smoke rising from the barroom of the Norton Hotel. He ran to the school and rang the alarm bell at 4:30 a.m. Soon after, the mill whistle blared to wake any who weren't already up.

According to the local newspaper, when the first people arrived at the scene the flames might have been extinguished, but the proper equipment proved lacking or utterly absent. Two tanks, filled with water, located within easy distance, lacked hoses. Thus water had to be carried by bucket from Spitzer & Boyd's livery. The timely warning allowed the employees and all the hotels guests to escape safely. Mrs. Norton was carried across the street by some of the first responders. Mr. Norton and the girls made it out unscathed. The hotel burned, save a few windows, doors and a few pieces of furniture rescued from the original Chalfant home. Men dug a break line between the hotel's outhouse and the barn and stable, standing some distance to the east (toward the Presbyterian Church). With the wind blowing away from it, the barn and stable survived along with its usual animal inhabitants.

Occidental Hotel, c.1900

Despite these hard blows, Mr. and Mrs. Norton rebuilt the hotel in less than a year. Those heart problems were real and William Norton perished from them in 1887, barely past age fifty. His wife ran the hotel for a time then sold it. By the twentieth century most folks knew the place as the Occidental Hotel. As luck or fate would have it, the Occidental burned to the ground in 1941, leaving a blank space on the south side of Main Street where it intersects Lansing.

All photographs courtesy Kelley House Museum.

(*The dentist, too, will eventually get his due at

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