Those community leaders who so recently “crashed and burned” trying to turn The Cambridge into a “world class hotel”, weren’t the first to experience the curse of the Heartbreak Hotel. And likely they won’t be the last.
The motives of those community leaders and the dozens of others who bought into the effort were clear from the beginning. They saw the community in an economic nose-dive and believed that a healthy Cambridge Hotel could help turn that around.
When H.G. Clark built The Cambridge in 1885, it had several things going for it that simply aren’t there anymore. For one thing, the Village was not yet feeling the impact of the completion of the Hoosac Tunnel.
I date the beginning of the slide of Cambridge Village from the year 1875, when the Hoosac Tunnel, carved beneath the Berkshires, opened a direct rail line between Troy and Albany and Boston. No longer did rail traffic between those great cities have to travel circuitously up the Cambridge Valley to Rutland, Vt. and on east. Even so, in 1885 Cambridge was still on a busy railroad. Salesmen traveled to the Village by rail. Excursionists and other visitors arrived by rail. All manner of freight and goods traveled to and from the Village by rail.
In those days, the Cambridge Valley was at the height of its agricultural prowess. Tons of crops --- milk, potatoes, wool, fresh produce --- left the village by rail, bound for the nearby Big City markets. Cattle and sheep were driven on the hoof up Main St. to pens at the Depot for loading and shipment by rail.
The Warner-Lovejoy foundry, the remains of which can still be seen east of the Village astride the Ash Grove brook, was still producing farm implements and shipping them to the developing western U.S.
And Rice’s Seeds were well on their way to becoming a nationally- known brand.
No hostelry was handier for business and travel, in those days, than what we today know as “The Cambridge Hotel”.
When H.G. Clark and B.P. Crocker conceived and constructed The Cambridge they likely never for a moment thought in terms of a “world class hotel”. But as “savvy” businessmen in an era of raw capitalism, they saw a good chance to make a few bucks. And they did.
Another motivating factor was to pull together two communities; which at the time were divided by a great, stinking swamp. While the village had been incorporated shortly after the conclusion of the Civil War, there still existed two distinct communities, Cambridge Corners (Union and Main) on the west and North White Creek (Park and Main) on the east.
Far-sighted businessmen, like Clark, Crocker, Martin Hubbard, J.B. Rice, Edwin McClellan and James S. Smart sought to bridge that physical gulf. From Robert Coulter they bought, drained and filled the swamp, then built upon it modern offices, storehouses and the Union School. In this their motives were little different from those investors in the latest Cambridge Hotel make-over.
H. G. Clark was an experienced hotel man, operating the Union House before building The Cambridge. And there is ample evidence in the columns of the old Washington County Post to support the hypothesis that the hotel was initially quite successful. But there was trouble ahead.
As rail traffic declined, auto, bus and truck traffic increased. And with Rte. 22 replacing the Great Northern Turnpike, as well as the railroad, as the route of choice through the Village, The Cambridge lost business. The change becomes apparent after Clark’s death.
By Sept. 1899, Harry Clark's health had failed so that his wife was listed as in charge of The Cambridge. When the wife died, the hotel passed to one surviving daughter.
This daughter married Charles O. Pratt, the leading young attorney of the Village. Pratt was extremely popular. He was elected Washington County Attorney. He served for a time as an assistant State Attorney General. In those days, before a Fort Edward couple challenged the law and forced the “one man, one vote issue”, Cambridge always had a seat in the State Legislature. From time immemorable, the Village’s leading attornies ---including C.O. Pratt --- filled the seat. When Mrs. Charles O. Pratt died January 18, 1920, the hotel passed to C.O.
Pratt, of course, did not have time to manage a hotel. He was an attorney and state legislator. He hired a couple to run The Cambridge House. The most recent CH Directors know well what can result when you hire someone else to run your business.
In April, 1921, Hon. Charles O. Pratt quietly married Miss Lillian Barkley of Hudson Falls. She had the distinction of being the first woman village president in Washington County, having served as president of Argyle (at this time, all NY villages, including Cambridge, had “presidents”, rather than “mayors”).
Pratt and his new wife lived in the Cambridge Hotel for awhile, before moving to a manse on West Main St. that was in 2006 the abode of Sarah Jane Wilbur Boyd.
But somehow, the life of C.O. Pratt took a bad turn. Years before, Martin Hubbard had died. Hubbard was best known for leaving us Hubbard’s Hall, but mainly he was a very successful investor and businessman. He left to his wife, Mary a huge estate.
In the late 19th century, women were hardly allowed to vote, much less manage estates and property. Mary Hubbard did her bit to change that by fighting for and winning control of the vast, Hubbard estate.
When Mary Hubbard died, she left the bulk of that estate to the community, in the form bequests to many local individuals, but primarily to the school district and to Woodlands Cemetery. Woodlands was to build a chapel with their share, but the directors fiddled around until the stock market crash of 1929 claimed the gift. The school board, however, did not wait --- not even for a vote by the tax-payers! They immediately began the Hubbard Addition, adding to the over-crowded Union School new classrooms and --- what every kid in the community seemed to want --- a proper gymnasium --- the first in the region.
What residents today enter when they go on business to the “old school” is in fact the Hubbard Addition. All else burned in a suspicious fire in 1947.
And C.O. Pratt’s involvement? He was executor of Mary Hubbard’s estate. All went well until he submitted his fee of $75,000. In modern money, the fee would exceed a million dollars.
It perhaps would not have caused so much of a ripple if the fee hadn’t taken such a big bite out of money Mary (known to friends and neighbors as “Aunt Mary”) had willed to the community. The fee was eventually adjusted, but the scandal was a major hit against the reputation of the aging attorney.
In April came the announcement that Pratt had sold the Cambridge Hotel to T.A. Peel of Albany, an experienced hotel man. He was to take over May 1st. However, the deal fell through.
The business was evidently going steeply down hill, for in September, 1922, the WCP announced that the Cambridge House had closed. This proved temporary, a “hiccup” perhaps similar to what the modern CH experienced before it went into foreclosure.
That October, Leon Rockwell assumed management of the Cambridge Hotel. In January, 1923, the American Legion held its third annual dinner at its rooms in the Cambridge Hotel.
Pratt was in poor health at this time. He had recently suffered a second nervous breakdown. His financial difficulties, a major part of which must have been caused by the failing hotel, would shortly drive him into bankruptcy. It was simply too much for so proud a man!
TO END IT ALL
In mid-March, 1923, the Hon. C. O. Pratt, on a Wednesday morning about 10 a.m. was seen walking on Main St. back and forth by the Seed House brook
He crossed the bridge near the H.M. Hedges residence, put down his hat and took off his coat, then let himself down in the brook, apparently to drown, as it was swollen by the spring run-off.
He floated on his back down to the little covered footbridge on the Seed House grounds, where William Noteman and Ernest Beattie, who had observed it all from the Seed House windows, grabbed him and pulled him out. Pratt was taken home in a Seed House wagon and put to bed.
Pratt had been out of health for some time and despondent. Wrote the Old WCP, "The condition of his mind is plainly revealed by his choosing so public a spot for the attempt". He survived, but it was a sad ending for one of the most successful lawyers in local history.There was no official announcement in the news columns, but shortly after the incident in the Seed House brook, an ad for the Central Cash Grocery appeared in the WCP, in which Edward Ellis was congratulated as "the new manager and owner" of the Cambridge House.