United States Hotel

The original United States Hotel appears in Ballarat newspapers from 1855 onwards. Located in Main Road, it was named by its two founders, Americans Albion Nicholls and John William Emery. Tragically, the hotel burnt down in the early hours of 1st December 1855, killing three people, including Nicholls.  Newspaper items of the day[1] report a ‘disastrous conflagration’, which began in or near the hotel, and spread to destroy between fifty and sixty businesses.[2]  Ballarat’s Main Road was notorious for its susceptibility to the ravages of both fire and flood. 

Hotels played an indispensable role on the Victorian goldfields in the 1850s. Rough taverns, hotels, and refreshment houses proliferated for the purpose of providing cheap and available food and accommodation for the itinerant mining population.  These offerings fulfilled a critical need for the thousands of itinerant goldminers who had flooded to Victoria’s rich goldfields.

A recreated United States Hotel, Main Street, Sovereign Hill

Amazingly, the new hotel was rebuilt and opened for business in just fifteen days.  The new owners (again Americans) were Rufus Smith and Henry Moody.  These young men were typical of the enterprising hoteliers on the diggings – men who spied an opportunity to advance themselves, and quickly seized the day. It is particularly notable that these men were from America: such experienced, entrepreneurial characters typically arrived from the Californian gold fields to play an important role in the formation of the new society.


The hotel and the Victoria Theatre were part of the same complex. They were described in a “For Sale” notice in 1857 as having a ‘grand imposing front’ with a full-length balcony.  The hotel had a ‘handsomely papered bar’, thirty-five feet long and twenty-one feet eight inches wide.  There was a private sitting room and a commercial room the same size as the bar.  The dining room could hold one hundred people and had a detached kitchen.  Upstairs there were rooms containing eighty beds said to be ‘nightly filled’.[4]  Full board at the hotel cost one pound five shillings per week. 

Lithograph showing the United States Hotel between the Victoria Theatre and Criterion Store by Francois Cogne, 1859 (Sovereign Hill Museums Association, accession no 78.2403)

The building’s construction at Sovereign Hill was firmly based on a detailed description provided in one of the Ballarat newspapers,[5] and the exterior was based on Francois Cogné’s lithograph of the same building in Main Road Ballarat in 1859.  Our building at Sovereign Hill [6] is scaled down, and considerably smaller than the original.

Original Function

The United States Hotel was more than a mere tavern.  It offered a wide variety of food,[7] and the menu in the 1850s was impressive.  The dining room served soups followed by entrees such as calf’s head and steak and kidney pie.  Main courses were roasts (veal, beef, mutton, fowl, turkey, and duck), boiled mutton, tongue, ham and corned beef.  For dessert, there was a choice of plum pudding, rice pudding, tarts, and fruits. 

Facilities for other leisure pastimes were also offered:  bagatelle and billiards were available.  We know that Rufus Smith obtained a billiard licence for the US Hotel in December 1858.[8]  Local social and political groups also held meetings on the premises of the United States Hotel.


Gin bottle (Sovereign Hill Museums Association, acc no 78.124)

The bar at the United States Hotel was well patronised. Almost any drink available today was sold in Ballarat’s hotels: ale, port, sherry, whisky, brandy, rum, hock, champagne, claret, burgundy and moselle. The Americans introduced cocktails, which became very fashionable.

Popular drinks included:

  • Old Tom: a dubious mixing of beer and gin
  • Spider:  lemonade and brandy
  • Thunder and Lightning; Brandy Smash
  • Blow Your Skull Off: a mixture of spirits of wine, Turkey opium, cayenne pepper, rum and five parts water

Alcohol was initially banned on the diggings by the Government, which believed that its presence would inflame the passions of the diggers and encourage lawlessness and disorder.  Unfortunately, this ban became responsible for the widespread emergence of sly grog shops on the diggings.These serviced the needs of the thirsty diggers, but were the focus of much police activity, as troopers attempted to shut down these suppliers of illicit alcohol.

Prohibition ended in mid-1853, but strict regulations regarding the licensing for the sale of alcohol were introduced and enforced. 

All drinks costed one shilling, except sherry cobblers, which were two and six because they contained ice – which came all the way from America.  It was cut in blocks from Lake Wenham, in Boston, Massachusetts; the blocks were cut very large, packed in sawdust, and shipped to Ballarat.  On arrival in Melbourne, some two to three months later, they were carted to Ballarat on open drays.  Forty percent of the block had melted by the time it reached Ballarat, but what remained was very welcome!


[1] Ballarat Star, 12 January 1861.

[2]Including parts of David Jones’ Criterion Store. ‘David Jones, Criterion Store; insured in the Victorian office for £1000, Colonial £2000, Australasian £2000, and Melbourne office £1000. Premises partly destroyed and partly gutted. There was a large amount of salvage.’

[4] Sovereign Hill does not represent this accommodation in its re-creation.

[5] Ballarat Star, 7 January 1857

[6] Opened on 19th September 1975.

[7] Its table was “regularly furnished with good substantial fare, and every kind of vegetable and delicacies the season affords.”  Ballarat Times, 15 March 1856, advertisement,

[8] Weekly Times, 17th December, 1858. [

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