In the early morning hours of July 8, 1977, a fire started in one of the rooms of the Cokato Hotel, located next to the railroad tracks. In an era before mandatory smoke alarms, fire spread through the wood and brick structure, claiming five lives and destroyed the entire building. The fire also brought down the only hotel remaining in the community, and one has not been built since.
But there was a time when Cokato had as many as three hotels that stood ready to serve weary travelers passing through town.
James N. Runions opened his hotel in 1883. Runions was an original settler in Cokato, an influential businessman, and street commissioner (which in that era meant making sure the mud did not get too deep in the streets during the spring). Runions hotel was, as Carlton Lee described it, "a showplace in its time."
One block away was the Western House, run by the brother and sister pair of Charles (C. M.) and Carrie Carlson, which opened in 1888. Later, this building was purchased and used by Johnson Produce, and now is owned by Reed Carlson (its current tenants include the MAWSECO offices).
Both hotels were a short walking distance from the railroad depot and featured all the amenities required of their patrons.
Traveling salesman were frequent residents of both hotels. Each featured "Sample Rooms," where merchants were free to inspect the products these travelers brought with them, often in large wood trunks.
Both hotels also served as temporary residences for people who were working on the railroad or hired for temporary jobs in town. Many new immigrants would spend their first few days under Runions or Carlson’s roofs. (Last summer a family from Sweden brought in a letter from one of their ancestors that was written on Western House stationery. The letter described the man’s journey to Cokato and his difficulty in finding work here.)
Competition between the two hotels was good-natured, but intense. Both Runions and Carlson would greet incoming passenger trains to solicit business. Runions was, as Frank Lamson described him, "a suave gentleman, well adapted to meeting the traveling public." Carlson, on the other hand, was not, and often found himself with no patrons to bring back with him.
Lamson also recalls a prank pulled on Runions by members of the Bachelor’s Club, with the intention of lifting Carlson’s sagging spirits.
One of the club’s members (Dr. Tate) dressed as a woman, using a veil to cover his face. When the train arrived he (she) was approached by Runions who escorted him (her) to his hotel. Upon arriving at the hotel, Dr. Tate expressed dismay and noted that he (she) was supposed to meet a business associate at the Western House. Runions, being the gentleman he was, escorted the impostor to Carlson’s hotel. Upon their arrival, Dr. Tate lifted his veil and exposed the ruse. Runions was reportedly angry, but did not retaliate against the pranksters.
Both hotels were also social centers in the community. Wedding receptions, New Years Balls, and extravagant parties were just some of the activities that took place there.
The advent of car traffic would eventually cut into the rail passenger business the hotels depended upon. The Western House eventually closed. Runions would later sell his hotel to A. M. Atwood, who changed the name to Merchants Hotel. Later, it became the Cokato Hotel, which it remained until the fire in 1977.
Over two decades have passed since the fire and no hotel or motel has been built since. This may make one take pause to wonder if Cokato ever will see a day when travelers will find sanctuary here.
C. M. (Charles) & Carrie Carlson’s Western House, corner of Millard Avenue & 2nd Street (across from the Great Northern Depot) , c1890.
James Runions hotel is at far left, partially obscured by the trees. This view was taken around 1910. The old village hall can be seen at the far right of the photo.
©Cokato Historical Society, 1998.