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Karen Newell Young
From the historical to the hysterical
National Hotel remains a towering presence in Nevada City
Tom Coleman, the kind-hearted curmudgeon who rules over Nevada City’s Broad Street from his perch at the National Hotel, is 79.

But he’s on the job every day, overseeing Rotary meetings, staff, customers and the many events unfolding outside his windows. For years customers booked rooms in the hotel to view the Mardi Gras parade, the Father’s Day bike race and Nevada City’s Summer Nights with a bird’s-eye view from the veranda.

The National, a historic landmark on the National Register of Historic Places, is the town’s best-known fount of history — a beloved holder of tales, romance, mystery, disaster and local narrative that helped give Nevada City its significance as a mining town. It is the most imposing structure in town and although in dire need of renovation is still where many townsfolk meet to wine and dine.

Coleman, a former real estate agent with an office in the building, purchased the property in 1979, hoping to just buy the land and building. But he couldn’t do that without buying the businesses, which included the restaurant, bar and hotel. He’s been running all three ever since.

“It’s been a lot of fun and a lot of challenges,” said Coleman, who has been trying to sell the property for many years. “Never a dull moment,” he added. “There is always something around the corner.”

Along with rumors of ghosts who visit guests in the middle of the night, there are tales of putting the hotel up for sale. It’s currently in escrow, but Coleman doesn’t think it will go through.

Despite rumors, he doesn’t attribute that challenge to ghosts, although it’s sometimes hard to convince ghost-seekers and ghost-busters that if there ever were spirits haunting the place, they packed up and left long ago.

When guests inquire or ask for a haunted room, he tells them, it’s next to Santa’s and the tooth fairy.

He once employed a server who would not enter the building until she was convinced it was cleared of spirits.

“She would stand across the street and not come in until she was told there were no ghosts. A blind desk clerk told her he had searched and that they had left.

“He had to say it was all clear,” Tom said.

Oddly enough, there is very little written about the National. Do a Google search and you get a thin entry about its significance as a national historic landmark. Nevertheless, the National is Nevada City in a building.

It captures the quirky tone of the town — from its karaoke nights to the 89-year-old accordionist to its ancient interior.

It seemingly hasn’t changed in 160 years. Walk through the saloon doors, and you’d swear you were stuck in the Gold Rush.

Marie Brower wrote a book in 2011, which includes a history of the 49ers and the surrounding area, focusing on Nevada City and its most famous building. But there is little else.

Built for a dentist in 1856, The hotel is the oldest continuously operated hotel in California, but it was best known in its early years as the site where wealthy miners and merchants converged to do business or entertain friends and clients.

Residents know its history and are proud of building. But maybe they take it for granted. What would Nevada City be without the National? It distinguishes the town.

Hinting at the hotel’s naughty past are many clues. The most obvious is the plaque in the hotel’s parking lot paying tribute to the town’s former red light district and its unique contribution to the Gold Rush:

The Ladies of the Evening
To commemorate that
ubiquitous segment of society who has been unacknowledged who though obscure made an essential contribution to the settlement of the West.
Dedicated October 7, 1972
by W.M. Bull – W.M. Morris
Stewart, Chapter No. 10
E Clumpus Vitus.

Photo by Tom Durkin
Tom Coleman has been overseeing the affairs of the National Hotel since 1979 when he bought the historic landmark in downtown Nevada City. “The hotel doesn’t belong to me,” he says. “It belongs to the community. I’m only taking care of it.”