Strange Brew

As the historic Cavalier undergoes a current $4 million renovation, perhaps it’s time for another look into the hotel’s most famous death.

Climbing out onto a sixth-story window ledge at the Cavalier Hotel, Adolph Coors felt cheated.

For the past two months, Coors, the founder of the Adolph Coors Company, had gazed out at the Atlantic Ocean, contemplating the 61 years that had passed since he’d first crossed it. His relationship with the water had always been a tumultuous one, taking away nearly as much as it gave.

Coors was 21 when he left home, a stowaway orphan immigrant without a penny to his name. America had beckoned with its promise of opportunity, and the waters had delivered.

He chose to brew beer in the mountains of Colorado because of its access to the pure water of Clear Creek. Seventeen years later, the same river nearly swallowed his brewery operation whole, stopping only after Coors bent it to his will.

Looking out at the Virginia Beach surf, Coors could only feel impotent rage at both the water and Prohibition, the latter of which had robbed him of the ability to craft his life’s work. Unhappy, lonely, and without anything to occupy his time, Coors leapt from the window to his death.

Or did he?

In the decades following Coors’ death, some have speculated that he may have actually been murdered, as his grandson Adolph III “Ad” would be three decades later in a botched kidnapping attempt. The fact that the coroner declined to conduct an autopsy has raised suspicions that he may have been murdered before his six-story fall.

Versions of the tale hold that the windows in his hotel room had been locked from the inside. Even the newspapers of the day give conflicting accounts of Coors’ death.

As the historic Cavalier undergoes a current $4 million renovation, perhaps it’s time for another look into the hotel’s most famous death.


The Beginnings of Brew and Virginia Beach

Born in the Kingdom of Prussia, Coors received his first job at the age of 14, working at the brewery across the street from his home. Within a year, both of his parents would be dead from tuberculosis.

The Coors children were placed in the care of a Catholic orphanage, and young Adolph continued to toil away in the brewery, learning the beer trade. With the ongoing unification wars in Germany, Coors decided to flee, stowing away on a ship headed for America. After stints in Baltimore and the suburbs of Chicago, he sought his fortune in the Wild West.

The Colorado that Coors found in 1872 was in its infancy. Statehood was four years away, and Denver wasn’t even a decade and a half old. But for Coors, the open playing field meant opportunity. Just five years after arriving in America with nothing lining his pockets but lint, Coors purchased a bottling plant in the city.

He began scouting for possible brewing locations and found what he considered the most important beer ingredient in the mountains just west of Denver: pure, delicious water. Coors convinced a local candy store owner to purchase an abandoned tannery on the banks of Clear Creek with him, and by the next year the brewery was in business.

Their timing couldn’t have been worse. Just as they opened their doors in Golden, Colo., the “Long Depression” hit the United States, the most severe financial crisis the country had experienced up to that point. Still, Coors and company pressed on.

He eventually bought out his partner, earned his first million and became an American citizen. At the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, his was the only beer west of the Missouri to win a medal. But the next year, Clear Creek, the body of water that had made his dreams come true, tried to rip it all away.

A flash flood tore off the recent addition to his brewery and two of its ice reservoirs. As the waters continued to rise, Coors knew he had to act fast to keep the creek from erasing his brewery from the Colorado landscape. He sent an assistant across the raging waters with a cash bribe for the four families who lived on the opposite bank. Quickly, workmen began tearing down the families’ houses to dig a new channel for the creek.

Though it tried to kill him, he had beat back the water that day.

Rural and remote, the Virginia Beach of a century ago couldn’t be more different than the metropolis it is today. The commonwealth’s most populous city began its life in 1883 as a small resort area in Princess Anne County.

Virginia Beach from Cavalier Hotel

As the county wouldn’t get its first hard-surfaced road until the 1920s, most accessed the beach town by the narrow gauge railroad that ran between it and the bustling port city of Norfolk. During the resort area’s second season, the railroad company opened the Virginia Beach Hotel, which expanded and reopened four years later as the Princess Anne Hotel.

At the time, most Americans didn’t know how to swim, and brave visitors waded into the surf by holding onto a line of rope threaded between poles in the water. Northerners hunted in Back Bay for duck and geese. The wealthy built “cottages” in Virginia Beach, substantial houses constructed for seasonal use. In the summers, Norfolk families would vacation at the Oceanfront, and husbands would visit on the weekends via train, the most popular way to travel.

“It was said at one point that the trains headed back west on Sunday evening were about a foot deep in chicken bones because people packed picnic lunches with fried chicken,” says Stephen Mansfield, archivist at Virginia Wesleyan College.

The resort grew slowly, and its isolation was part of its allure. Inspired by the recent success at Daytona Beach, Fla., early developers tested the idea of racing cars at the Oceanfront in 1904. The cars got up to 60 mph, but the developers concluded that the sand wasn’t hard-packed enough for racing.

In 1906, the General Assembly approved Virginia Beach as an official town inside of Princess Anne County. While Virginia Beach still relied on the county for utilities and schools, the town could issue bonds and create infrastructure on its own.

The resort area was gaining a name for itself, but progress was stifled when the Princess Anne Hotel burned to the ground during the Jamestown Exposition of 1907. Attempts to build a new hotel were unsuccessful until the mid-20s, when a campaign began to raise money by selling shares to locals.

Construction on the Cavalier began in 1926, and it opened for business the following year. The refined and exclusive establishment was the largest brick building in the state, and had hot, cold and salt water running in every suite. The novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald was among its first guests, and celebrities like Will Rogers, Jean Harlow and Mary Pickford would soon follow


In April 1929, Adolph Coors checked into the hotel with his wife, Louisa, daughter Augusta and granddaughter Louise. He was 82, and he and his wife had recently celebrated their golden anniversary. A few years earlier, Coors had suffered an attack of influenza, and he’d been advised to visit Virginia to build up his strength.


Rotten to the Core

Coors had never been the easygoing type. At formal Sunday night family dinners, barely a word was spoken. When two of his children died in infancy, he buried them in unmarked graves. He had no hobbies, didn’t enjoy sports, and until he reached his current level of wealth, pumped most of what he earned back into his brewery.

“He was just a cold, taciturn, deeply unpleasant, deeply unhappy guy, and he passed that down,” says Dan Baum, author of the book Citizen Coors, which chronicles the history of the family and its business. “It’s a very, very unhappy family.”

By the time he came to stay at the Cavalier, it had been more than 13 years since Prohibition had made brewing his beloved beer a crime. On the last day of 1915, with Colorado’s alcohol ban about to take effect, Coors ordered the dumping of 561 barrels of his beer into Clear Creek. As three months’ worth of work disappeared into the river, Coors knew his life would never be the same again.

The brewery was converted to manufacture malted milk, and produced a near beer named Mannah. Coors was worth $2 million, and had smartly diversified before Prohibition kicked in. But he still couldn’t brew, and handed over control of his business to Adolph Jr. in 1923.

Retirement meant traveling for Coors, and he’d recently visited the Bahamas, Key West and the West Coast before coming to Virginia. It was here that he would make an unlikely friend who was well acquainted with the water.

John Woodhouse Sparrow was a surfman whose valor had earned him the Silver Lifesaving Medal for Heroism. If a ship wrecked off the coast, it was the surfmen who would brave the treacherous water to save the crew. It was dangerous work, and though it was considered a blue-collar job, the surfmen were celebrated as first responders are today.

According to William Hazel, administrative director at the Old Coast Guard Station Museum in Virginia Beach, the two men bonded over their love of horses. Sparrow took care of the animals at the Cavalier, and Coors, like many wealthy men of his era, enjoyed them. Hazel says the friendship was surprising.

“You don’t think of such a prominent figure of 19th-century industrialism … befriending a surfman and having that friendship revolve around a love of horses,” Hazel says.

But whatever feelings of friendship Coors experienced late in life, it wasn’t enough to keep a check on his internal demons. Early the morning of June 5, 1929, Coors fell or jumped from his hotel window. Coroner R.W. Woodhouse deemed an investigation unnecessary.

The body was shipped back to Denver for burial by train, and Coors’ will stipulated that his $1,876.51 bill at the Cavalier be paid in full

“It was probably a combination of not being able to make beer and being a miserable son of a bitch, which he was,” says Baum, who wrote of the death in his book. “He was just cold and unpleasant, and so was his son and grandson. … I can’t remember what it was that made me write it that way, but I came to be pretty convinced that it was in fact a suicide.”

But there are other versions of how Coors died. In his eighth decade of life, it’s possible he may have simply fallen out of the window. The New York Times obituary states that he died of heart disease while dressing for the day, though this may have been an attempt to disguise a suicide. An urban legend holds that Coors was pushed, and that the windows inside his room were found closed and locked from the inside.

“There was speculation that he might not have jumped, that he might have been pushed,” says Mansfield. “That was never to my knowledge confirmed, of course. As far as I know, he’s still officially treated as an accident or a suicide.”

After Coors’ death, the company continued to run as though he’d never left. The company logo is his signature, and at least until Coors merged with Molson Brewery in 2005, his portrait hung in the boardroom and all around the brewery.

The Coors men continued to produce quality beer and innovate, and are credited with pioneering the recyclable two-piece aluminum can. But they also inherited many of Coors’ old-fashioned ways.

“No women, no Blacks, no Hispanics,” says Baum of the company’s hiring practices into the 1970s. “You didn’t even have a woman’s restroom in the office. … They were really committed to the idea that they wouldn’t take part in the 20th century.”

The business practices of Coors weren’t the only legacy he left behind. In Alpheus Chewning’s book Haunted Virginia Beach, he explores the legends surrounding Coors’ death, including one that was told to him while he was giving a ghost tour.

During the tour, a woman told Chewning of a wedding she attended in the 1970s at the old Cavalier. After the pictures were developed, there was a faint image in some of the photos of what appeared to be a man.

“When I held up a picture of Adolph Coors she screamed, because that was the guy in the background of their pictures,” says Chewning, adding that the Cavalier is well-known for being spooky. “Everyone knows it’s haunted.”

Since Coors’ death, strange things have occurred on the sixth floor, he says. Though the hotel was closed up for the winter, lights on the floor would randomly turn on. Switchboard operators would receive phone calls from the sixth floor with no one on the other end. Sometimes jazz music played in the background.

The hotel’s former owners weren’t keen on advertising their ghostly guests, Chewning says.

“The Travel Channel came down here to do a segment called ‘Haunted Hotels,’” he explains. “They weren’t allowed on the property. They had to stand out on the sidewalk to film it. Staff was prohibited from talking about it.”

Michael Schaffer and his brother worked at the old Cavalier as busboys in the 1970s, and recalls standing in the room that Coors once occupied.

“We were always told that it was one of the rooms that overlooked the porch area, and that he fell down onto the bricks outside of the original hotel,” Schaffer says. Though he’s heard the ghost tales, he says he never had an encounter himself.

At present, the old Cavalier Hotel is undergoing a two-year renovation to become the Cavalier Grand Hotel. The hotel, which has been named to the National Register of Historic Places, will include on its grounds 85 new homes, a ballroom, restaurant, and ironically for Coors, a bourbon distillery. It’s set to open in 2016.

But there’s another sad chapter to the Coors story. On Aug. 5, 1983, Geraldine “Missy” Coors jumped to her death from a building in New York City. She was 40.

For Baum, it’s directly related to the actions of Adolph Coors.

“It was a terrible thing to be a member of the Coors family,” Baum says. “As one outside guy said, they all tiptoe around that place like he’s going to rise from the grave and kick their ass. They’re still afraid of him.”

Cavalier Hotel Coastal Virginia Magazine

Rich Griset

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