As one of the few remaining antebellum river hotels in the southeast and the only surviving hotel in Selma’s downtown historic district, the St. James Hotel has witnessed much of the dramatic history that has played out in this picturesque Southern city. Built in 1837-1838 atop the banks of the Alabama River, it was a home-away-from-home for visiting plantation owners, businessmen and even occasional travelers of less illustrious repute. (Notorious outlaws Frank and Jesse James reportedly spent time here in the 1880s.)
Prior to the Civil War, the hotel was managed by an enslaved man named Benjamin Sterling Turner. After slavery, Turner, succeeded in business and in politics and was eventually elected to Congress as the first African-American U.S. Representative from Alabama.
In 1865 following the Battle of Selma, the Union Army seized the city and set up its headquarters in the hotel. Due to Selma’s concentration of Confederate arsenals and factories, the occupying army burned much of the city. Fortunately, the St. James and a few other structures on Water Street were spared.
After the War, the hotel flourished until the completion of the magnificent Hotel Albert, (under construction prior to the War Between the States) which caused the St. James Hotel to close in 1892. After closing as a hotel, the building was used for commercial and industrial purposes for more than 100 years. Following the completion of a $6 million restoration/renovation in 1997, the building was again opened as the historic St. James Hotel.
This hotel is a contributing property to Selma’s Water Avenue Historic District that’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP). It is located on historic Water Avenue in downtown Selma (GPS coordinates 32.406944,-87.017972)
Sources: 1) NRHP “Water Avenue Historic District” Registration Form; 2) “St. James Hotel” Historical Marker; 3) civilwaralbum.com.