Wednesday, August 22, 2018

The True History of the Ione Hotel

The True History of the Ione Hotel

What happens to a glass of Coca-Cola when it is put under a faucet and the water is then turned on? The Coca-Cola then becomes displaced, and while water dilutes it and continues to dilute it, eventually the glass of Coke is no longer there, but only water in its place.

Well, that is what happens when people decide that the true history of a person, place or even an object is not enough as it is, that they need to add more and more to it until the real history becomes invisible, or almost untraceable, and the fabricated legends and folklore take on a life of its own, often times becoming accepted as fact.

One such example of this is the Ione Hotel. Over the years a lot of misinformation has spread in regards to the hotel’s true history and now it seems almost impossible to find any accurate information about it to date. That will change starting with today. 

If you look up the history of this hotel online or in recent books, you will find a plethora of information. Unfortunately, most of the information is incorrect. So that was why I decided to dig through the archived newspapers, old history books and records to find the real history behind this hotel so that I could share it once and for all with you! 

The Ione Hotel has been called the Metropolitan, The Union Hotel, The Haller Hotel, The Golden Star Hotel, and even The Bedbug Inn, but the history of this hotel is much more interesting than even its various names over the years.

This blog took a while for me to research, and it is going to be long, but trust me, it will be worth the read. In this article I will go through not only the history of the hotel, backed up with factual information and documentation, but I will also address the local legends and lore.

To start off, I have always loved this hotel. I used to roam the halls on summer days when I was staying up at my dad’s on Sutter Lane back in the 1990’s.  A friend and I would often wander around Ione during the summer, and sometimes for kicks we would ask the owners of the hotel to let us explore the so-called “haunted” hotel.  Of course as teenagers, we would scare ourselves, which made it all the more fun! Afterwards we would head over and get a slice of pizza at Loretta’s or over to the diner to get a soft serve cone. This was the time of my teenage years I found interest in Preston Castle and its history as well.  It shouldn’t surprise anyone that I would eventually research Ione Hotel’s history, too.

Ione’s Early History

To begin with, Ione was not the typical town or city during the Gold Rush. In fact, Ione’s Main Street was not built up until the mid to late 1850’s to begin with. Yes, some people moved there around 1848 and 1849, but it was only a handful of miners and settlers who built their homes. Ione itself did not become a bustling place until at it’s earliest the mid 1850’s. You can verify this by reading The History of Amador County by Jesse D. Mason which is available on Google Play to read for FREE. So for the record, this particular hotel could not have existed in 1849 as some other articles have suggested.

The earliest hotels that I found in Ione were the Irena House, owned by Thomas Rickey, and the Ione Valley Hotel. Again, this was during the 1850’s. The Irena house was next door to where the City Hall sits today, and the Ione Valley Hotel’s location is unknown. I could find no records that state where it was located in town at all, but we know it existed and the book The History of Amador County mentions it to have been one of the oldest buildings erected in town. It also mentions that it burned during the Great Fire of Ione on October 8, 1865.  Could it have been at the location where the present day Ione Hotel sits? Possibly, but unlikely. Why?

Well, the late, great Amador County Historian Larry Cenotto pointed out in a fantastically written article back in 1995 that deed records indicated the original two lots (a small one and a larger one) where the hotel sits today were originally a butcher shop and a saddlery shop. Per Larry Cenotto’s research it wasn’t until later on in the 1870’s, (on the small lot), that the first hotel was erected and named the Metropolitan. It had only five rooms, a saloon and a dining area. The man who operated that hotel was Frederick Haas.

In 1876, there are only two hotels in Ione by this point, one of which was the Veranda Hotel and of course the Metropolitan. By the 1880’s the Glaze brothers owned the property. In 1880, Ione was flooded when the creek overflowed and backed up into Main Street. It was such a bad flood, that 1,300 feet of railroad track was washed away. No doubt all the businesses on Main Street suffered some serious water damage from this flood.

After a fire at the Veranda Hotel (just down the street) on January 26, 1884, the Eaton family who had been running the Veranda Hotel, went over to work for the Glaze brothers.  The Metropolitan Hotel was then renamed the Union Hotel.

Veranda Hotel History (Location: City Hall)

The Daily Alta California dated January 27, 1884 mentions the fire at the Veranda Hotel. It also notes that a gentleman named Thomas Bennett lost his life in the fire. This is important to remember as we go further into this blog, because this is the ONLY hotel fire in Ione during that time period in which a death occurred.

It is noted in the Volcano Weekly Ledger that the Veranda House was built on the lot next door to where the Irena House once stood, which indicates or insinuates the latter was destroyed. I found an ad for the Veranda Hotel in the Volcano Weekly Ledger dating back to 1857. When the Veranda burned down in 1884, Mr. McCauley eventually purchased the land from Mrs. Kingsley and built his Commercial Hotel there. Of course later on it became the spot where City Hall is now situated.

Another Flood

The March 24, 1893 edition of the Amador Ledger tells of the creek once again backing up, which overflowed into businesses. The water caused damage to the lower level of the Union Hotel again, along with their stage barn. At this time period, the hotel had a stage stop there for passengers to rest in between stages and to obtain transportation to the railroad.

Renovations to the Hotel

The old Union Hotel has been refitted and renovated throughout by its new proprietor J.S. Amick. The house is well known for its clean, sunny rooms, white (as distinguished from Chinese) cooking and well set table.  The hotel has no bar, is situated in the central part of town and caters especially to families and ladies.”— Amador Record (April 1897) c/o Larry Cenotto’s research in the Amador Ledger 6/26/1995

By 1900, Joseph and Rosa Tonzi, natives of Switzerland, purchased the Union Hotel.  Sadly though, the hotel didn’t last very long.

Fire of 1900

Disastrous Fire in Ione – About 12 o’clock last Monday night the denizens of our sister town were aroused by the dread alarm of fire. The fire started in the Union Hotel’s bakery in the rear of the Union Hotel. It was soon fanned by the breeze into a devastating blaze. The Union Hotel and Robert Mayes’ saloon were soon in a blaze and for other food the fire fiend hit upon the old stage stables, devouring that also.

Hopper’s General merchandise store, a fireproof building, sustained a loss of $1,000. The loss to the hotel and saloon is estimated at $9,000, besides private losses to inmates, and the insurance amounts to $3200, $600 of which is on the saloon. The inmates of the hotel succeeded in escaping, though none of them were able to save anything beyond what they wore, and that was very little in most cases. No one was seriously injured, but several narrow escapes were reported. This is the most disastrous conflagration Ione has had in some years.”--- Amador Ledger, January 19, 1900.

After this fire, the Tonzi family chose to erect another hotel in its place, but their first one was poorly made and only lasted nine years before burning up in another fire in 1909.

Fire of 1909

“Fire in Ione – Of the fire which destroyed Haller’s Hotel in Ione last Thursday, the Echo says:
“Soon after the fire broke out Superintendent Randall of the Preston School, dispatched a number of his boys who have been drilled in the method of fighting fires, and they mounted to the roofs and handled the hose and fire axes in true fireman fashion, aiding very materially in saving George Woolsey’s building, and thereby the whole north side of Main Street, and they are deserving a great deal of credit.

The hotel was a flimsy constructed two-story frame building, owned by Mrs. Tonzi of Mt. Echo, and J.M. Haller the lessee. The building was insured in the Orient Insurance Company, J.W. Surface agent, for $1,000 which will go a long way toward covering the loss. Mr. Haller, the lessee, estimates his loss at $1,600 with $450 of insurance. Mr. Haller’s loss is nearly total, as much of the stuff moved out of the hotel was either destroyed or so badly damaged as to be worthless.

The loss to Sibole & Gillum was by water and smoke and is fully covered by insurance, as is, also the damage to the building. Hammer’s store, a flimsy frame structure a few feet west of the hotel, was saved only by the greatest exertion, and that, in large part, by some of our women, who formed a bucket brigade and kept the premises thoroughly wet, at the expense of disheveled hair and bedraggled wearing apparel. Prominent among them was noticed Ida Williams, Mrs. Maddux, Mrs. Nichols, Mrs. Hammer, Mrs. Cotto, Mrs. Fissier, Mrs. Browning, Alice Greenhaigh, and Ethel Mack and there might have been others.

Soon after the fire started somebody telephoned the fact to Jackson and at once John Gabarini, Chief of the Fire Department there, hitched up a team, loaded in two fire extinguishers and 150 feet of fire hose, took in D.S. Mason, and made the drive twelve miles in forty-five minutes. He arrived too late to be of any assistance, but the neighborly act was highly appreciated by everybody in Ione.”----Amador Ledger, June 4, 1909

The Golden Star Hotel

At this point the Tonzi family was through with wooden structures, so they bought the larger lot next door and decided to expand and erect a much larger, beautiful stone hotel instead and renamed it the Golden Star Hotel. The Tonzi's would have different people run the hotel for them, such as Mrs. M.C. Jarvis, or E.F. Mueller, but the hotel always belonged to the Tonzi family.

The old well that once sat at the back of the lot obviously couldn’t be moved, so during the construction of their grand stone hotel, the Tonzi’s decided to build around the well, which in later years would stir up some controversy and superstitions about the well's origins. (We will discuss the well later on in this article.)

The property remained in the Tonzi family up until Dorothy Stacey purchased the hotel in 1971. It was during Dorothy’s ownership that she briefly named the hotel the Bedbug Inn. It didn’t stay that way for long and it eventually became the Ione Hotel (or Hotel Ione).

New History at the Hotel (1977- 1988)

In April of 1977, Bill and Milly Jones, of Walnut Creek purchased the hotel and dove headfirst into the hospitality industry. I was able to speak to Milly Jones over the phone and ask her some questions about what she remembered when she owned the hotel with her husband, as well as clearing up some misinformation about some of the legends and lore at the hotel.  At 90 years old, she is still very much a lively, kind and quick-witted gal and it was such a pleasure to speak with her.

According to Milly’s book "The Hotel Ione," and other various news clippings of the time, the hotel catered to the working man. Most of their residents worked all week in labor jobs and went home to their families on the weekends. Many of the men who worked on Rancho Seco, stayed at their hotel during the week as well.

It was around the time that Milly and Bill bought the hotel that the rumors of the hotel being haunted started to make their rounds about Amador County.  My parents lived on Marlette in town, and my mother remembers when the ghost stories started to pick up steam in the late 1970s.  A funny tidbit to add to this story is that while I spoke to Milly on the phone, I learned that it was my father (who owned a carpet store in Jackson) who laid the carpet at their hotel in the late 1970s. So I guess in a way I have some family history at this hotel, too!

It was while Milly and her husband were running the hotel that they discovered the covered well in the middle of the building. According to Milly, her husband was the first to inspect it, and discovered a very well-made stone well going all the way down. There is also a drain at the bottom that goes to the creek.  Bill noticed something was stuck at the bottom, so they called the Fire Department to come out. With the use of a grappling hook they were able to pull out an old antique hobby horse which more than likely dated back to the late 1800’s or early 1900’s. Milly claimed in the Amador Progress News (Ione Valley Echo) dated back in June 25, 1980 that shortly after opening the well, supernatural events started occurring.

ad for TV show featuring Ione Hotel, 1980
Because the well was at the ground level, Bill decided to add stones to build a traditional well from the ground level up equipped with a hanging bucket, wheel and rope. At that point the layout of the hotel was very much different than it is today. The big staircase going up to the second level was set further back inside the hotel and the well was situated just to the left of the stairs. If you visit the hotel today, you will notice the well is set back in the dining room, and the new staircase is way up front near the front door of the lobby. So unless you know how the hotel was back then, it might be hard for you to wrap your head around the old layout.

During the 1980’s “Ripley’s Believe it or Not!” came to film segments about the ghost stories swirling around town about the hotel, as well as local news crews. Even the television show “That’s Incredible!” hosted by Ted Bateman came to town to film for several days. It really wasn’t until the Jones’ came to the hotel that the property got so much exposure for its alleged hauntings, and the ghost stories have continued to spread since then as well.

After Bill suffered from a severe back injury in 1984, Milly hired a friend of theirs, Morgan to run the hotel and saloon for them. By July 1, 1984 they sold the hotel to Loretta Tillery.

While Loretta Tillery owned the hotel, another news crew with television journalist Jonathan  Mumm came to film a short segment about the hotel being haunted. You can watch the video here from Youtube.

As you can see the layout of the upstairs was also different, which means the room numbers were in different places as well. This is also an important thing to remember as we get further into the blog with the legends and lore.

In 1988, while Loretta Tillery and three other co-owners: Jay McCarthy, Jerry Cassesi and Bonnie Aparicio were in the middle of completely renovating the hotel, and were just about to sell the property to new owners the last week of June, the hotel caught fire.  The stone hotel built painstakingly by the Tonzi family in 1910, that stood for nearly 78 years was completely gutted on Father’s Day, June 19, 1988.

Fire of 1988

According to my interview with Milly, it was on Father’s Day, one of the families living in the hotel at the time decided to go across the street to get hot chocolate but they left their young child alone in the room along with a baby sleeping in a crib. Milly's recollection was that the young child had found a cigarette lighter and was playing with it. When the parents looked up at the hotel window they saw the curtains on fire. They rushed in and got their children, but the fire gutted the entire hotel. The newspapers claimed that a young child was playing with matches when the fire started. 

According to the Amador Dispatch dated June 22, 1988, it states the fire took place on Sunday at around 10 a.m. Not only did the hotel burn but also the offices of Ione Realty and the newly opened restaurant the Pasta House which had just celebrated their grand opening two nights earlier.
“It took us four years to get this far,” stated Loretta Tillery, mentioning her recent construction in the hotel. “All renovations were done except one room!”

Fire that gutted the Ione Hotel 1988.
According to Carole Perry at Century 21, the owners were in the process of selling the hotel for $350,000 to excited buyers. Once learning about the fire, the buyers were truly devastated.  The fire reached temperatures of up to 3000 degrees and crews from all over the county and other nearby areas came to help in the rescue effort, to no avail. Even some of the boys at Preston and volunteer firefighters from Mule Creek State Prison joined in the effort.  Out of 60 firefighters who fought the blaze, only two were injured. According to records, the struggle to extinguish the fire had to do with a lack of water available. A distribution valve was not operating properly thus not allowing the right volume of water to be accessible to the fire crews.

In all, 23 people who were living at the hotel were homeless (12 of which were children). After it was all said and done, the owners of the hotel expressed their deepest gratitude to everyone who helped fight the fire and published their letter in the Amador Dispatch on June 24, 1988. The hotel sat for years empty, lifeless and gutted.

A New Chapter

Then in the mid 1990’s new owners Dorothy and Tom Shone purchased the property and put all their blood, sweat and tears into completely reestablishing the Ione Hotel, and bringing it back to life again.

In later years, the hotel was sold again to Mahmood Ghani, and now it is ran by the new proprietors Steve and Cindy Burke. The Burke family has definitely done a fantastic job with bringing the Ione Hotel back to its original grandeur. It is so lovely that I am sure even the Tonzi family would be proud! It was a pleasure visiting the hotel recently and speaking to Cindy. She was very gracious and allowed me access to the upstairs to roam around and even let me peek down the well in the middle of her restaurant, while she entertained her patrons eating dinner! The hotel looks even more beautiful than I remembered from the 1990’s when I last visited.   The dark mahogany wood throughout the entire building is something dreamy, like a step back in time to another era. 

Cindy was more than hospitable and answered many questions. When asked about the haunted aspect of the hotel she explained that she herself has not had any supernatural experiences there and believes there is an explanation for most things and stated, “even if someone dies in a place it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s now haunted.” Alejandro, a member of staff who met us upstairs and let us in some of the rooms to photograph said he hasn’t had anything paranormal happen. However, he did say if there is anything other-worldly hanging out there, “if they want to party, let them party, just don’t bother me.”

All in all, I would say that the hotel is in great hands, and I can see that the Burke’s truly love the hotel and it shows. It is apparent that they are doing a fine job carrying on in the footsteps of their predecessors before them, including the founders of the stone hotel, the Tonzi family.

Urban Legends, Local Folklore & Ghost Stories

So now to the part some of you have been waiting for….the “other side” of the Ione Hotel. In the recent years there have been a lot of paranormal investigators and websites that mention the hotel's haunted history and well, let's just say, much of it isn't paranormal at all. Well, let’s go down the line and address some of the urban legends and lore (or ghost stories) of the hotel and then I will either confirm or debunk them for you. Ready? Let’s go!

·         The Black Rose

Said to have been a prostitute in the late 1800’s that committed suicide in her room. Stories include that there is a mark in one of the rooms that will not wash away or if painted it comes back. I could not find one single account in any of the old newspapers of the area mentioning any sort of incident at the hotel involving a prostitute who committed suicide, so it looks like this is just another fabricated story. According to the new owners, Cindy Burke, she knows nothing of this story. Even former owner, Milly Jones stated the only thing she had heard was that the door to George Williams’ room (which was at that time #4) had a dark knot in the wood grain that some people had mentioned, but it was not anything supernatural. For the record, there were NO prostitutes who killed themselves in the hotel at any time, so this legend is debunked!

·       Mary Phelps

This story is tricky, and the reason I say this is because I am not one to dismiss someone’s personal experiences. If Milly Jones claims that she had an encounter with an entity and the name Mary Phelps came up, I am not going to say she didn’t. As the story went, (and you can read it in Milly’s Book on Amazon) the entity identified herself as Mary Phelps and that her grandson died in a fire there.  Again, she claims a family member of the person came and confirmed it. However, there were no fires in this hotel that took the lives of anyone at any time. So again, I will not dismiss this experience, but I can say that no one died in a fire at this hotel at any time and you can feel free to search the Amador County Library’s newspaper archives too, for your own verification of this.

Room # 12 ( possibly where room #4 used to be)
·        George Williams

Now, George Williams is a chap that did exist, and he did die at the hotel. This is actually a true story. George lived in room # 4, which is not the same as the # 4 at the hotel today. Remember after the fire in 1988, the layout was changed dramatically when it was rebuilt on the inside. So walls are in places they weren’t before, and rooms have been renumbered. Remember earlier I mentioned that the staircase was set further back before? Well, according to my calculations where George’s room was (#4) I believe it is where or close to where Room # 12 sits now. Again, give or take a few feet. It is definitely on that side of the hotel though.

According to Milly, there were plenty of people back in the 1970’s who remembered George well, and confirmed he died of a heart attack in his room at the hotel. Bill Ketchum was quoted in the newspaper back in 1980 talking about this very thing. Also, Milly told me that one of her neighbors, an elderly lady, admitted that both she and another lady had helped George get up to his room on the night that he died. He was very drunk, so they guided him up the stairs, and plopped him down on his bed. They even went so far as to take his shoes off and cover him up with a blanket before shutting the door behind him.  Although he died of a heart attack it sounds to me like he passed in his sleep, and since he was so drunk, let’s hope he didn’t feel a thing!  George is buried at the old Catholic Cemetery in town.

George Williams' Grave  (J. Rubio)

·        The Well

Okay, so now we are onto the well. So there has been some misinformation about the origins of the well, so I wanted to clear this up with you first. I have heard from several people that the story going around for years was that this was an ancient Miwok Indian well, and that because of this the well could not be touched and the hotel had to be built around it. That is completely false!

This well does NOT date back to the Miwok Indians. I am not sure who started this rumor years ago, but they obviously didn’t look into the customs and living traditions of Native Americans.  The Miwok (coastal and inland) were not known for digging wells. Also, the well is only 50-100 yards from the creek. The creeks, rivers and streams were the water source they would use to begin with. Some tribes of Native Americans in the plains and especially desert areas like Arizona are known for digging aqueducts or trenches but not the type of well that we are talking about here.

Looking down the well
So for the record, this well, was hand built with stone all the way to the bottom, and even Milly Jones recalled her husband noticing the stonework all the way down when he first opened the cover of the well back in the late 1970's. She also mentioned to me that it has a drain at the bottom which flows out to the creek. This was a very well constructed well-water system for that time period and it mimics the wells found in Europe.

So now we know this was a “caucasian” hand-built well, probably constructed around the time the saddlery shop and barber shop were situated on those lots in mid 1800's. According to Milly, there were three original wells in Ione and one of the other wells is located in the basement of a business just across the street.

Another thing to mention is that I scoured through the archives of the newspapers in Amador County and found no trace of evidence that anyone fell down this well, or died in it at any point in time. (A lot of people try to insinuate a child fell in and died). 

·       Phantom Odor 

According to Milly’s book there was a strange odor that would appear in the lobby on Saturday mornings and would last about 15 minutes and then dissipate. Later on, it was quoted in an online article that later owner Mahmood Ghani complained of the same thing, and the article went so far as to claim he hired someone to perform an exorcism to rid the hotel of the stink, as funny as that sounds!

Well, the new proprietors have had no such issues whatsoever and Cindy told me when she moved in, the grease traps looked like they hadn’t been cleaned in years. The hotel was in such a poor state, they had a lot of cleaning and restoring to do, and have never had any issue with any phantom smells.  After speaking to Milly, I think I figured out the cause of the phantom smell that plagued the hotel at certain times.  

Well, back in the 1970’s the plumbing and the drainage systems in Ione weren’t always the best, plus on a Saturday, the busiest day of the week, there was a lot of showers running and toilets being flushed all at once, which Milly and I believe that could have caused a back-up in the sewer or drainage system and if the vents weren’t working right, a smell could have temporarily backed up into the hotel for a few minutes. That is the most likely scenario.

·       Haunted Room #13

In all my research I have not found any credible stories relating to room #13, only recent online articles mentioning it. I will say though it is in the same general area near where room #4 originally was (although I still think room #12 is more closely situated to the original room #4).  You must remember the layout of the hotel was much different back then, so the rooms are not in the exact spot they once were, and it is even possible that half of room #12 and half of room #13 are in the same spot where the original room #4 was due to the change of the construction plans and layout when new walls and doorways were put up after the fire in 1988. 

According to Jonathan Mumm, the same news reporter in the Youtube video above, he stated that Tom Shone had told him that he renumbered  room # 4 to room # 13 after they remodeled the hotel in 1995. He claimed that he changed the room to # 13 to be spookier. Again, George's room was originally very narrow (and you can see it by the Youtube video above), and some of the rooms you find there today seem a bit wider now, because of the construction and rebuild after the fire of 1988. 

If you would like to read more about the alleged hauntings at the hotel, you will have to read Milly Jones’ book "The Hotel Ione" on Amazon, as I don’t delve too deep into the paranormal, I prefer to dig for the factual history of a location and share that instead.

I hope that you enjoyed this step back into the past to learn the history of this beautiful hotel and I hope that the current owners continue to preserve, protect and share this history with the world. In ending, let me quote something that Amador County Historian Larry Cenotto once wrote back in 1995, when he was giving advice to the new owners Dorothy and Tom Shone, “The writer encourages them to ascertain and promote its real history –that is interesting enough for anyone.”

Thank you Larry, I couldn’t agree more.

Happy History Hunting!! 

(Copyright 2018- J'aime Rubio,

Photography by Roland Boulware.

All sources available upon request

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