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It was during my Bachelor’s degree in Cinema at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, I discovered the charm and lure of the Ohio River. I was looking for a subject to create a documentary film about. Thumbing through old books about southern Illinois history and attractions, I came upon a photo with the classic lines of the beautiful Rose Hotel.
The Rose Hotel
In the fall of 1983 when the research portion of my 16mm movie project began. I didn’t know where Elizabethtown, Illinois was, indeed I had not been to the Ohio River since my family use to cross it by ferry on their way to Kentucky Lake with my brothers and sisters. Still there was the photo in a book and I was intrigued by the beauty of the bluff this hotel sat on looking out over the Ohio River.
So I got into my Bobcat station wagon and made my way south on U.S. Highway 51 out of Carbondale down to Illinois 146, cutting across to Elizabethtown, the first of many trips through this scenic part of Southern Illinois. Elizabethtown was small town with one main four-way stop. One left turn and five seconds later you are at the Rose Hotel and the Ohio River.
I soon discovered that the Rose Hotel was not open and in fact appeared to have been closed for many years. I walked out to the beautiful old gazebo on the edge of the bluff overlooking the Ohio. The Gazebo was well built, but inside there was graffiti. I watched as a string of barges was pushed downstream and listened to the diesel of the tugboat.
Oh well, I thought, perhaps this wasn’t meant to be, but then as I walked out I a pick-up truck stopped at the corner where the road turned down to the water front. The gentleman inside introduced himself as the caretaker of the Hotel. He was very helpful and told me the person I needed to see was a Mr. James G. Gullet, the owner of the hotel at that time. He was 83 years old, but still a practicing lawyer in Elizabethtown. He had his own firm Gullet & Stunson, but it was a Saturday so I would have to call and make an appointment.
James G. Gullet
I met Mr. Gullet in his office on the second floor above the corner bank. He was excited to have someone make a documentary about the Rose Hotel, even if it was just 6-8 minute student film. The hotel had stopped operations in the mid 1970s and basically sat idle, waiting for someone with the energy, money and vision to bring it back to life. He talked about the history of the hotel. It was the oldest and longest in continuous operation in the State of Illinois, though apparently some debated him on this point.
He was also proud of the Rose hotel being on the State and National Historical Registers. He agreed to give me access to the hotel to photograph and film the interior and exterior when I needed to for the project. He also loaned me several old black and white photos of steamboats on the river.
River travel along with steam locomotives was one of the main ways of making the first leg of the journey west in the United States, well into the early 1900s. Many famous people and politicians stopped at the Rose Hotel through those years, including Mark Twain.
If the tattered rose wall paper in a second floor room could tell stories of those who had stayed there, what secrets could it tell? Inside were the remnants of these memories, an old portrait of Mr. Gullet Sr., father of James G. Gullet; a portrait of Abraham Lincoln; stacks of boxes; antique furniture, a rocking chair and old bed frames.
Outside was where time seemed to really stand still as the elegance of the veranda and white painted bricks seemed proud and defiant against time. Still there were signs of the times. The caretaker was forced to install barbed wire to prevent youth from going up the stairs to the upper veranda. Window panes needed to be replaced frequently due to rocks.
At first these problems seemed a shame, but as I spent time there I could imagine a time when they weren’t there. Mr. Gullet described how the big palace boats along with the daily packet lines landed at the wharf boat to unload their goods and passengers. All would have easily been visible from the upper veranda and rooms.
Who was Rose? The first portion of the hotel was built by James McFarlan in 1812 as a small tavern. Additions were made through the years with finishing touch of the beautiful veranda added in 1866. The name Rose did not enter the picture until the hotel was bought by Sarah Rose in 1884. River traffic kept the hotel viable past the turn of the century, but the golden age of river travel was being challenged by the steam locomotive well before this. Then in the 30s and 40s diesel tugboat barges replaced steamboats for shipping goods. The Rose Hotel had to turn to land based tourists, hunters, fisherman, etc, but the river travelers were gone.
In the late 1980s, Mr. Gullet’s longtime wish came true and the State of Illinois, Historic Preservation Agency acquired the Rose Hotel. While it took over a decade to see funding and restoration work completed, the wait was well worth it. The Rose Hotel was leased as a Bed and Breakfast, visit their website for room and rate information; you can call for reservations at
Photo Credit Daniel Schwen
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