Elia Peattie, an Uncommon Woman


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Hotel Orleans at Spirit Lake

Peattie often reported "on location." One such exotic spot was near Spirit Lake, Iowa, where she wrote a series of articles about the summer social life at the Hotel Orleans resort. Located at the south end of Big Spirit Lake near the Minnesota border, Hotel Orleans was north of the town of Spirit Lake, 181 miles northeast of Omaha, quite a journey for the 1890s traveler. A project of the Burlington, Cedar Rapids, and Northern railway, officials of the company built the magnificent hotel in 1883 to induce passengers to buy tickets on their train. Conveniently constructed parallel to the railroad tracks, guests could arrive and depart directly from a spacious addition on the hotel. Three stories high, the building was 350 feet long and surmounted by nine towers. Surrounded by a veranda, guests could stroll along a grand promenade 3,000 feet long and 16 feet wide. Each of the two hundred guest rooms had two doors, one leading to the corridor and the other to the veranda. Furnished with first-class décor, each room had all of the modern conveniences, such as a private bath, gas heating, and "annunciators," electrical devices that announced when telegraph messages or telephone calls had arrived.

To entertain their guests, the hotel offered a spacious, formal dining room, where banquets were reputed to have cost eighty dollars per person, a billiard hall, a bowling alley, and two of New York's best orchestras, one for the upper deck featuring gaiety and dancing and one for the lower deck supplying gaiety and drinking. On some occasions, empty champagne bottles where stacked like cordwood behind the hotel. It seems that the New York millionaire set had moved west when Saratoga Springs, the watering hole of the East Coast elite, had declared prohibition. Iowa, on the other hand, allowed for the sale of all types of liquor.

Boats, fishing tackle, and two steamboats, the larger, "Alpha," which could carry 150 passengers, provided nautical amusements for the guests. Of course, guests swam in the lake and sunned on the beaches, covered from shoulder to knee by bathing attire, and if they became bored, they could always visit friends at other resorts nearby. Typically, the wives, young women, and children would spend weeks, sometimes months at the resort, and the husbands and young men would work in the city during the week and travel to the lake to be with their families and friends on the weekends.

In "They Were From Missouri: A Section of That State's Population Discovered at Spirit Lake," published in the Omaha World-Herald on August 17, 1890, and in "Vale, The Departing Man: How He Is Mourned Over by the Women at the Summer Resorts," printed one week later, Peattie uses the experience to burlesque the social life and personality types of the rich and idle as well as stereotype the typical "American Girl" as seen from a European point of view, a parody, perhaps of Henry James' young Daisy Miller. The Gibson Girl, created in illustrations by Charles Dana Gibson, first began to be in vogue at this time, and fashionable women, young and old alike, emulated her in dress and manners. Elegant and adventurous, she personified the New Woman, and men clustered around her, fawning for her affection. Young women, in turn, with a new sexual boldness unknown to their Victorian mothers, proved charmingly attentive and receptive–within bounds, of course.

The magnificence of the Hotel Orleans only lasted about fifteen years. Too extravagant for most Midwesterners, especially when the Depression hit the nation in the mid-1890s, backers abandonded it because of competition from other resorts, controversy over the sale of liquor in the hotel, and storm damage in 1899. The hotel was rebuilt three more times, but it never achieved the glorified social status of the first resort. Although Peattie enjoyed her presumably "free" vacation at the ritzy Hotel Orleans for publicizing their resort, more often than not she upbraided the wealthy people of Omaha for their materialism and their superficiality.

Read Peattie's Writings


Buchan, Don. "Millionaires Spirit Lake." Des Moines Register 28 June 1970: n.p.

Ellston, Hattie P. White Men Follow After: A Collection of Stories about the Okoboji-Spirit Lake Region. Iowa City, IA: Athens Press, 1946.

Kennedy, Stephen. "The Grand Hotel Orleans on Spirit Lake." Unpublished manuscript.


"Hotel Orleans Post Card." Courtesy Dickinson County Historical Society (Spirit Lake, IA).

"Old Hotel Orleans." Courtesy Dickinson County Historical Society (Spirit Lake, IA).

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