Howard Riley is known all over Saranac Lake: in his life he's been a village trustee, mayor, cab driver, and newspaper editor. One of his earliest — and most enjoyable — jobs was as a bellhop at the Alpine Hotel. Recently, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to chat with Howard about his memories, not only about his time working at the Alpine, but about some of the village’s other memorable hotels as well.
Howard began work early in life: one of his first jobs was as a tray boy, delivering meals three times a day to tubercular patients in the cure cottage at 1 Pine Street, even on school days. At the age of sixteen, Howard moved on to the newly opened Alpine Hotel, a position he describes as his “first real fun job.” Howard’s duties as a bellhop were varied: carrying bags to rooms, operating the hand-crank elevator, and even running errands for the staff. He laughingly remembers being sent to a nearby grocery store by Effie, the Alpine’s cook. She had run out of eggs during the breakfast rush and at her urging, Howard dashed to the nearest store to procure the much-needed supplies.
During Howard’s tenure as a bellhop, the Alpine Hotel was being used as a dormitory for Paul Smith’s College students, many of whom were World War II veterans. “They were our heroes...I couldn’t wait to see them.” The young bellhop was delighted to spend as much time as he could around the vets living at the Alpine, and when any of them happened to remember his name, Howard was delighted.
A lifelong Saranac Lake resident, Howard also has great memories of the other hotels that once filled downtown, including the Arlington, St. Regis, Berkeley and Hotel Saranac. Howard recalls the nightclub in the basement of the Arlington and the glass-enclosed radio station in the Berkeley Hotel, which offered a terrific view of everything that was going on downtown. The station featured local programming, including Howard’s sixth grade spelling bee, although we have no word on how well the future newspaper editor performed.
Of Saranac Lake’s many hotels, only Hotel Saranac remains. It was there that Howard, during his time as a newspaper delivery boy, used to spend cold winter evenings in the men’s lounge. Howard and a group of other newsboys made the men’s lounge their hangout: a great place to get warm and observe the goings on of life at the hotel. Back then, access to bathroom stalls cost five cents, and Howard now happily confesses that the boys bypassed the loss of a precious nickel by sliding on the floor, underneath the doors. Though Howard notes that the boys “were a wild bunch,” they were never thrown out of the hotel.
Hotel Saranac remained a destination for Howard throughout his life and he describes life at the hotel as “unbelievable,” noting that people were always coming and going, whether they were vaudeville stars, tourists, or residents attending the annual fireman’s ball. Looking forward to Hotel Saranac’s re-opening in the fall, Howard says, “it makes the downtown.” Hotels have long been an important part of life in Saranac Lake, and it looks like that will continue well into the future, if only to give Howard Riley more places to have adventures and stories to tell.
Historic Saranac Lake is developing the Cure Porch on Wheels, an exciting mobile exhibit space that will allow HSL to present mini exhibitions and oral history projects to audiences at locations throughout the area.