Checking in to Some Little-Known Hotel History in Bedford Springs, Pa.

Posted on: March 13th, 2013 by Gwendolyn Purdom 8 Comments

Bedford Springs Resort & Spa in 1930. Photo courtesy Mary Dorner
Bedford Springs Resort & Spa in 1930

When we spoke to George Takei for Preservation magazine’s winter issue, the actor shared his own harrowing experience of being interned in an Arkansas camp with his family and other Japanese-Americans during WWII. The article, along with an online follow-up about the courageous Japanese-American soldiers of the 442nd regimental unit, drew the attention of Mary Dorner, executive assistant at the historic Bedford Springs Resort & Spa in Bedford, Pa., who reached out to share the hotel’s own little-known connection to the same tense period in American history.

Already historic in its own right -- from having been visited by 11 U.S. presidents to its lobby being on the receiving end of the first transatlantic cable in 1858 -- the National Historic Landmark (now owned in part by Omni Hotels & Resorts, and one of our Historic Hotels of America) was also the surprising site of containment for nearly 200 Japanese diplomats, embassy staff, and their families in 1945.

“The history of this hotel is kind of like a book with a whole lot of different chapters,” says S. Lee Bowden, the hotel's general manager. “During that period of time when the war was going on we were an internment center. The Greenbriar [resort in West Virginia] was a medical hospital. The resort business was basically gone, so resorts were used for other things.”

Bedford Springs Resort & Spa today. Photo courtesy Mary Dorner
The resort today

As the war in Europe was coming to a close in the spring of 1945, Allied forces rounded up Japanese diplomatic personnel who had either fled to or were living in places like Sweden and Austria. Officials from the U.S. State Department felt the captured diplomats might come in handy for prisoner exchanges or other tactics and needed a place to house them.

Nestled in the Allegheny Mountains of south-central Pennsylvania, the Bedford Springs Resort was vacant (the owners had plans to renovate at the time), isolated, and less than three hours from Washington, D.C. The resort, founded in 1796, had previously served the war effort as a radio school for the navy. The first group of detainees, including General Hiroshi Oshima, Japanese ambassador to Germany, arrived in Bedford in August 1945.

News of the hotel’s new “guests” spread quickly and angered locals who saw the containment of an enemy nation's diplomats at a sprawling resort as a slap in the face. “Some of them had sons and daughters, mostly sons, who were interned in Japanese camps and they were treated very cruelly and here we’re putting up these Japanese ambassadors, representatives of their country, in a luxurious hotel,” Bill Defibaugh, the hotel’s resident historian, says.

A couple staying at the resort. Photo courtesy Mary Dorner
A couple staying at the resort, date unknown

Mounting tensions and protests led to a State Department-led meeting to calm residents’ tempers. As a local newspaper reported on the event, officials explained “that the swimming pool would not be available for the detainees, nor the golf course. Their recreation will be limited to walking up and down inside the stockade (a 7-ft. board fence which has been built around the south portion of the lawn). Their meals will be handled in cafeteria style and their rooms furnished as barely as possible.”

Though the Japanese surrendered in mid-August, the diplomats remained at the resort through November, when they were sent by train to California and eventually flown home to Japan. According to Defibaugh, some of the internees returned to the resort years later and recalled their time spent there, but otherwise this chapter in the resort’s history rarely gets the kind of attention some of its other past stories garner. Soon after the diplomats left, the hotel was renovated and reopened, quickly rising to luxury getaway status once again in the 1950s.

By the 1980s, the resort was worn down. The then-endangered property was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1984, but closed in 1986. But that wasn’t the end for the history-rich Bedford Springs Hotel: In 2007, it reopened once more after a more than $120 million restoration.

Hotel historian Bill Defibaugh pores over old guest ledgers in the hotel's archives. Photo courtesy Mary Dorner
Hotel historian Bill Defibaugh pores over guest ledgers in the hotel's archives.

While no exhibits or plaques at the resort currently tell of the hotel’s episode as a wartime detainment center, a private storeroom filled with archival documents and photographs on site has plenty of material on that time period and others, and staff like Dorner, Bowden, and others are happy to share its stories with guests and visitors.

“As Mr. Takei pointed out in your article,” Dorner wrote in her initial email about the historic event, “there is a remarkable value in exploring these moments of our heritage -- and where they took place.”

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Gwendolyn Purdom

Gwendolyn Purdom

Gwendolyn Purdom is a former Preservation magazine editor and currently a writer, producer, and host at TouchVision TV in Chicago.


8 Responses

  1. Joseph McGill

    March 13, 2013

    Now that’s the kind of history of which I take pleasure in learning and knowing.

  2. ponte vedra tennis

    March 14, 2013

    I am quite interested always to read and know about the history of such resorts, its just fascinating. This resort seems so grand and lavish.

  3. Natalie Leonard

    March 14, 2013

    My first husband who is sadly dead was from Bedford County, PA and he assisted in getting this area declared historic. George washington commanded his troops from Bedford, PA during the whiskey rebellion. It was the only time in history that he did so in standing structure which stands today as a bakery called the Washington bakery. I have his papers from his historic writings of the area.

    His mother worked as the cook at the Bedford Springs during the time of the Japan’s diplomats were interned there. There actually is a love story behind this. His mother cherished a watch that one of the diplomats gave to her till the day she died.

    Our oldest daughter is trying to find out the names and ages of the diplomats. Who was this man her grandmother loved? She wants to write a novel based on this issue. My daughter has also talked to the White house historian and very little information is held in their archives about the Bedford Springs, which was the summer white house at one point and the supreme court held court there also. it is a very historic place. I am glad to see this site as I have always felt it was gem being overlooked. My husband all his short life tried to make the history of the area known and was quoted by president Reagan at one point.

    If anyone has an idea of how to find the names of thees Japanese diplomats please email me.

  4. National Trust for Historic Preservation

    March 15, 2013

    Hi Natalie,

    Yes, we’d be happy to put you in touch with Bill Defibaugh, the hotel historian at Bedford Springs. Please send your contact info to editorial (at) savingplaces (dot) org, and we’ll connect you via email with him.

    Julia Rocchi
    Managing Editor

  5. Dennis Paalhar, Walsworth Publishing Co.

    March 20, 2013

    Have you ever thought about doing a history book of you resort, including this fasinating era?

    We help people self publish there history. It would be a great product to sell at the resort’s gift shop while they are visiting.

    I would be glad to send more info anytime.
    thanks, Dennis

  6. Nancy Quinn

    March 21, 2013

    How great that this gorgeous old hotel has been preserved. I spent a week for several years in the 1970’s attending an annual convention there. While my husband was in meetings I explored the town. One day I wandered up to the top floor of the hotel. There I discovered a large open area which was crammed full of old furniture,lamps,and all sorts of outdated and broken items.It was dark and eerie but a little romantic being there and imagining what the hotel had been like in earlier times.(I was young then). I remember the outside of the building still looking like the picture in the 30’s. The big front porch was lined with white wooden rocking chairs and they were all occupied at any time of day. There was an elevated walk-way extending from the hotel across the road to the springs at the base of the mountain. Water from the spring was said to have some medicinal properties. I could go on and on – I loved it there. Memories–Memories—


    March 21, 2013

    The walkway that one of the responders mentioned has been rebuilt and there is a lovely little gazebo at the end. We were at the resort for a wedding shortly after it reopened and it is again spectacular. Even used the swimming pool because it is so gorgeous that we couldn’t resist it.

  8. Deborah Pierce

    March 24, 2013

    This is what I like to see and read. I enjoyed and found this very interesting. Please would love to see more historical info on others from the 8th Army, US Occupation of Japan from 1946-1949 from Birdsboro, Pa. US Soldiers . Training in Maryland . More memories. Surely the Legions in the area or from historical societies that would love to share on this subject. Newspaper articles, places and photos.