The American House

The American House, said to have been America's most elegant hotel in the 1830s, was ill-prepared for the oxen that Asa Sheldon brought as a registered guest.  (Courtesy photo)

Built in 1835, the Ameri­can House was Boston’s largest and most elegant hotel. A clerk there was shocked when he looked out the window. There in front of the hotel was a large herd of oxen.

Asa Sheldon (1788-1870) was probably the foremost contractor in the Boston area in the first half of the 19th century. He built railroads and many bridges. In 1835, he excavated Pem­berton Hill in Boston.

Boston originally had three prominent hills, that being the origin of the name of Tremont Street. Beacon Hill is still well-known, but there was also Pemberton Hill and Mt. Vernon. There were also two lesser hills, Copps Hill and Fort Hill.

Various property owners on the hillsides would cut into the hills to create lev­el sites. This work, however, left unstable overhangs. Excavating an over­hang only made it worse. The situation had but one remedy. The hills were all cut down in the early 1800s.

Sheldon had previously contracted for construction on the Boston & Low­ell Railroad. He built a section in Wilmington that engineers said was noticeably better that other sections. He also built some of the bridges along the railroad.

The railroad president, Patrick Jackson, purchas­ed the estate of Gardiner Greene, with about four acres on Pemberton Hill in Boston, between the State House and Scollay Square. Jackson hired Shel­don to excavate the hill.

Having determined that oxen were more economical than horses, Sheldon bought 30 span, then proceeded to hire many more teamsters with ox carts to haul the gravel. It was dumped into low land on the northerly side of Cause­way Street, allowing the tracks of the Boston & Lowell to be extended. He also built two barns and a blacksmith shop for the oxen.

At one point, Sheldon went to the hotel in his work clothes. He had miss­ed the last train home and needed a room. He had money, but he was re­fused, because of his clothes. The hotel had a dress code.

Sheldon knew that an innkeeper was obliged to take care of the horse or cattle of any guests. Shortly thereafter, he re­turned to the hotel wearing a suit that Jackson had purchased for him.

The clerk, failing to recognize Sheldon in his fine clothes, allowed him to re­gister. Sheldon paid for his room. He then asked if he was indeed a registered guest. The clerk con­firmed that he was.

Good, then would you please care for my animals, he said.

Sheldon had his revenge. The hotel, said to be the finest in the nation, was hardly able to care for the animals. He later had the oxen returned to the barns.

In his autobiography, Wil­mington Farmer, Sheldon told how he would go among the spectators in his work clothes. At one point, there was a large crowd watching.

One man commented, “This is a tremendous piece of work.”

“It looks to me to be so,” Sheldon replied.

“I understand that the man who has taken this job has agreed to do it in six months. Do you know if this is so?” said the spectator.

“I understand he has,” said Sheldon, not letting on that he was the subject.

“Then he is a fool, let him be who he will,” said the man. “He can’t complete it in three years, if he employs all the men and teams he can work on it.”

Sheldon finished the job in five months. He then moved the blacksmith shop to Woburn Street in Wilmington.

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