Off the Beaten Trail

A view from the Doyle shows the building’s proximity to the Appalachian Trail.

Harrisburg, due to its dual role as  state capital and transportation hub, has long been a town with a lot of hotels. At the turn of the 20th Century the downtown area offered a variety of lodging options, none of which exist to this day, and even later establishments have either been torn down or repurposed.

Probably the last holdouts from the downtown hotels of an earlier era were the Senate and the Warner hotels near Market Square. The Senate had a fortress-like exterior and was well-known by both residents and legislators for its famous Horseshoe Bar. The Warner, with a history dating back before the Civil War, was mentioned by Charles Dickens in 1842 in his American Notes. The Senate gave way to progress, despite being in excellent condition, when it was demolished to provide a site for the Penn National Insurance Plaza. The Warner just continued to deteriorate into the 1980s when it was finally demolished to create a parking lot for the Harrisburg Hilton. Another hotel visited by Dickens in his “swing through the states,” that resulted in his iconic travelogue, from January through June of 1842 still exists on its original site, but it’s not in Harrisburg.

To reach this throwback to an earlier era one must climb into the car (or, if you prefer, don hiking shoes) and make passage to Duncannon and the Doyle Hotel. If driving, traveling on Route 11/15 North is recommended. You’ll have the opportunity to pass through towns like Perdix and Cove and drive by sites like the Kinkora Pythian Home, a retirement facility that was built in 1902 as a private residence. The drive to Duncannon on this route is both scenic and unhurried.

Once you have passed Enola and Marysville the road is bordered for what seems like miles by a native-stone wall separating the road from the western shore of the Susquehanna; a welcome change from the ubiquitous and unprepossessing concrete Jersey barriers that now define area highways. After taking the Duncannon exit, and passing beneath the underpass, your destination is on the left. If hiking, just leave the Appalachian Trail and take the short walk to the porch of the Doyle.

The four-story brick structure looks serenely over its small community, a vestige of an earlier, more tranquil time, rarely encountered. Originally a three-story wooden building that traced its origins to the late 1700s, the Doyle has gone through a number of owners and name changes in nearly 250 years. It has been known as the National Hotel as well as the Johnston Hotel and has been owned by Adolphus Busch, the co-founder of the Anheuser-Busch brewing company.

Busch, not only a brewer of beer, but a marketing virtuoso, owned as many as 100 hotels to expand the distribution of his product in the late 1800s and the early 1900s, utilizing the first refrigerated rail cars to transport it, and establishing a series of icehouses along the rail lines to supply them. The Doyle was purchased by Busch in 1880. It burned in 1903 and was rebuilt in a grander manner in 1905 of brick, with an additional story and a ballroom on the second floor. It featured turret-style rooms on the corner of the upper floors with curved glass windows. When Busch died in 1913, the hotel soldiered on under the ownership of the Budweiser Company until it was sold off during Prohibition. The hotel passed through several owners until Jim “Doc” Doyle bought it in 1944 after winning, so the legend goes, the Irish Lottery. He renamed it the Doyle Hotel and operated it until the 1990s.

At one point, Duncannon possessed a steel mill that employed over 500 workers, many of whom patronized the Doyle bar and dining room. The hotel passed through two subsequent owners and developed the status of a neighborhood bar as well as the place where a person hiking the Appalachian Trail could get a meal and a room, although the hotel owners tended to eschew “dirty hikers” and often turned them away. However, unlike Charles Dickens, or even Adolphus Busch, a present-day warm-weather traveler will, most likely, be greeted by the sight of a person in hiking gear standing on the expansive porch, perhaps beneath the sign proclaiming “Welcome Hikers.”

Entering the hotel one is not greeted by a carpeted lobby flanked by counters occupied by staff in crisp uniforms with shiny brass name badges, but, rather, a plain hallway with a billiard room  on the right and a bar on the left. Entering the bar, which is crowned by a real pressed-tin ceiling, a visitor is likely greeted by Pat and Vickey Kelly the extant stewards of this return to a bygone era. Pat, who is 75 this year, retired from the cable TV industry and, after a period of time, he says, “I got a little bored with being retired and, since I like to cook, applied for a job at the Doyle, working three days a week in the kitchen.” He’s been there ever since.

“The owners of the hotel announced a week after I started working for them that they were closing the doors and going out of business. My wife, Vickey, and I decided to buy it even though we had absolutely zero experience in the hospitality industry. It was closed for about two and a half months until we got the paperwork squared away and then we reopened with the intent of serving the hiking public,” says Kelly. “Although it’s called a hotel, it’s really a hostel that serves approximately 1,300 hikers a year.” Across the street is Goodie’s Restaurant, that also declares its commitment to the denizens of the Appalachian Trail – but they’re not competitors of the Doyle. According to Pat Kelly, “Goodie’s is open for breakfast and closes at 11:00 a.m. when we open for lunch. It’s a relationship we have created and it seems to work.” If you strike up a conversation with Vickey or Pat, you’ll perhaps be offered a look at a binder chronicling the history of the hotel. It’s an amazing document that was created for the Kellys by a friend to commemorate the hotel’s 100th anniversary.

The Doyle is a work in progress for the couple and requires continual maintenance that sometimes has them operating in the red. A year ago, they were looking at a bleak future with mortgage and tax payments due with insufficient revenue to cover them. Social networking and a crowdfunding appeal delivered the necessary amount of money required to keep them in business until warmer weather and the return of the hikers of the Appalachian Trail.

With this husband and wife team it’s more than a business. “The folks on the Trail are our guests,” says Pat Kelly, “but more than that, many of them have become friends. The whole community has come to appreciate the hikers. The local grocery store even provides transportation for hikers that need to shop there. We have folks from all over the world – Germany, Japan, Australia come to mind immediately – that stay with us. And, yes, many of our friends from the Trail need, and are grateful for, a cold beer and a shower,” adding, “that’s what keeps us going.”
Dickens would have approved.