Sunday, May 19, 2024

The Home for the Traveling Man: Remembering Bellefonte’s Bush House

At 7 a.m. on a brisk February morning in 2006, the Bellefonte Fire Department was called to a structure fire at the historic Bush House in downtown Bellefonte. The 138-year-old building was ablaze with cause unknown, as firefighters attempted to quell the flames from the interior. Once the roof partially collapsed, however, safety became a grave concern and the fire was fought from the exterior. Fire companies from Centre, Mifflin, and Clinton counties battled the flames for eight hours, but it would be in vain. Daniel Bush’s “best known hotel in this part of the state” was a total loss.

Fighting the Bush House fire in February 2006 (Photo courtesy of Undine Fire Company)

The Bush House fire remains fresh in local hearts and minds, one of a string of disastrous fires that have claimed several historic buildings in Bellefonte. The story of the Bush House is so much more, from its ambitious beginnings to its dramatic end, and deserves a Local Historia deep dive.

The story of the Bush House begins with its namesake: Daniel Bush. Bush was already a prominent figure in Bellefonte by the late 1860s, when construction began on a new hotel near the railroad depot. Bush’s profession as a lawyer blessed him with an “enterprising and liberal spirit, sound judgment, and extensive means.” In 1864, Bush used those means to invest in real estate. He first constructed a $50,000 arcade, complete with six storefronts, office space, two rooms for societies, and a grand hall for balls and lectures. He then set his sights on the construction of a $20,000 mansion, as well as the construction of over 20 new buildings around Bellefonte. In 1868, Bush built his magnum opus, the Bush House. Opening in 1869, the four-story hotel measured 180 feet long by 120 feet deep, with elegant decor, top-of-the-line furnishings, and noteworthy storefronts. 

Throughout the latter half of the 1800s, the Bush House catered to travelers of all means from its corner on High Street, along Spring Creek. Frederick Douglass made a stay at the Bush House while traveling for a speaking tour, and when Thomas Edison came calling in the 1880s, Bellefonte would be changed forever.

Edison’s invention—the “electric light”—had made world headlines and become the talking point of every saloon across the country in 1879. By 1883, Edison looked to expand his young illumination empire and found a prime location in central Pennsylvania. Bellefonte, having the infrastructure to support such an endeavor, was a perfect candidate to establish the Bellefonte Electric Light Co. It was so important to the inventor that Edison came to Bellefonte to oversee the project personally. Naturally, with a figure of Edison’s celebrity coming to town, Bellefonte was buzzing. Hotels clamored to host the inventor, but one stood above all others in 1880s style and allure: the Bush House.

While lodging at the Bush House, Edison had lighting run to several businesses in town, including the Bush House. Much fanfare preceded lighting demonstrations, as well as a healthy distrust of the new technology. Edison would be interviewed several times by local papers, quipping that his new electric lights “were like the Bible—it should be in every family” and it can “act as a disinfectant” and “keeps away measles and chickenpox.” After a small demonstration in front of the courthouse on January 24, 1884, a major display was planned for Monday, February 4, 1884. The people of Bellefonte were amazed as the Bush House ballroom was, for the first time in history, lit with electric lights. 

As the world transitioned into a new century, the Bush House continued to be at the heart of major events in Bellefonte. To great local acclaim, Henry Ford made a stop at the hotel. Due to Bellefonte’s location as an airmail hub, famous aviators Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh also made overnight stays at the Bush House. The building changed hands several times in the 1900s, and additions were made to expand and update it. For a time, the hotel even changed its name to the Penn Belle. The Bush House would continue to serve the community until its untimely demise in 2006.

The Bush House is a topic that continues to tug at the heartstrings of those who knew it well. Today, the Bush House can only live on in photographs and memories as a testament to Bellefonte’s significant past. As the flames destroyed the iconic structure in Bellefonte on that chilly February morning, a prominent part of Bellefonte’s history went with it. 

Sources:

The Bellefonte Electric Light Co. (1883, November 22). The Centre Democrat, p. 8. 

Grand Banquet to Daniel G. Bush. (1869, June 5). The Philadelphia Inquirer, p. 3. 

Historic Building Destroyed in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania. Firehouse. (2006, March 14). Retrieved January 3, 2022, from https://www.firehouse.com/photo-story/article/10549771/historic-building-destroyed-in-bellefonte-pennsylvania

Local Department. (1884, January 24). The Centre Democrat, p. 8. 

A Virtual Walking Tour of Bellefonte, Pennsylvania: The Bush House (Penn Belle) Hotel. Bellefonte Hearts. (n.d.). Retrieved January 3, 2022, from http://www.bellefontearts.org/Virtual_walk/Bush_House.htm 

Local Historia is a passion for local history, community, and preservation. Its mission is to connect you with local history through engaging content and walking tours. Local Historia is owned by public historians Matt Maris and Dustin Elder, who co-author this column. For more, visit localhistoria.com.