Tomb of Columbus

The Glessners Visit Cuba, Part I

Port at Havana

In March 1889, John and Frances Glessner, accompanied by their daughter Fanny and her maid Emma, embarked on a month long journey encompassing several locations in Florida and Cuba, with additional stops at Jekyll Island, Georgia; Charleston, South Carolina; and Washington, D.C.   They travelled to Havana March 8th and 9th aboard the steamer Capt. J. McKey Olivette, boarding at Port Tampa with a brief stop at Key West, Florida.  This week, we reprint excerpts from Frances Glessner’s journal recounting their arrival and first day in Havana.

We found in Havana that we could not land at the dock from our steamer because if we touched at Havana we should be quarantined when we returned to our own harbor.  We were taken off the boat after examination by custom house officers and examiners of various kinds.  We went ashore in little yachts.


In Havana we stayed at the Hotel Pasaje, meaning passage or arcade and our hotel takes its name from the arcade that runs through it.  An interpreter was out from the Hotel Pasaje – John Repko – a Hungarian who lives during the summer in New York City.  The hotel was several blocks from the landing.  We went up in coaches – like a Victoria with two or four seats drawn by one miserable little tough mustang horse and Cuban driver.  The hotel is three stories high.  The ground floor is dining room, hall and office all in one – reading and bar rooms close by.  “Coffee” consisted of oranges peeled whole, muddy coffee poured out of a large tea kettle and hot milk from the same, with bread.  For breakfast we had delicious golden fish, fresh boiled eggs, beef, chops, fruit, etc.  The guava jelly was so nice but there was such awful doubt about the cleanliness of any of it that nothing could be relished.  All of the food tasted of tobacco smoke.  Everyone smoked.  We saw many women of the lower classes smoking and all men constantly.

We couldn’t have our rooms until twelve.  We had the same rooms the Billings vacated, they returned in our boat.  Our rooms were scrubbed before we went in to them.  All the floors of the hotel were tiled or marble – the ceilings immensely high.  Our staircase open; the parlor was on the third floor, no elevator – our rooms were near this parlor and also near most offensive and disgusting water closets.  A Cuban family dined privately right at the door of these closets and in the open hall and passage way.  The parlor had no furniture but Austrian bent wood chairs and a table – marble floor and a small rug upon which these large rocking chairs were placed in two rows facing each other – each chair had an immense crocheted tidy, very dirty.  The fresco painting in the hotel was very crude, water color, blue prevailed.

Our rooms had each two iron bedsteads, very high open timber ceiling, a wardrobe, three or four chairs, table, commode, washstand, on the commode stood a water jug with cover – porous and of good shape – this held the drinking water.  The beds were curtained with a coarse quality of imitation Nottingham lace – and a valance around the bottoms of them, nothing was clean or comfortable.  Pillows were small and made of hair or something like meal in some of them.  There were two small well worm common dirty velvet rugs by the beds.


After breakfast, the day we arrived at Havana, the American party went by train at the Concha station with John Repko as guide, for a sugar and a pineapple plantation.  We saw many interesting plants and trees, many of our hot house plants growing wild.  A lovely vine covered the station – it had a yellow flower like a morning glory and seed like one only very large – the leaf was like our woodbine.  We left the train at Lama and there took coaches and drove to the sugar plantation.  We went over the sugar mill – the superintendent went there from Brooklyn.  It was rather interesting.  The planter lives in a fine house in sight of it.

Then we drove to the pineapple plantation where we saw pineapple, bananas, bread fruit, and tobacco growing.  Fanny cut a pineapple from the stalk – they grow something like a screw pine or century plant, they bear when two years old and continue bearing about eight years yielding an apple every eight months.  They are started by planting the little shoots which grow at the base of the apple.  The owner, a Cuban, lived in a bark hut thatched with palmetto leaves in the midst of the plantation.  The floors were the ground – four or five miserable children, a brother, a wife with evidently a cancer in her nose, and a little black servant boy comprised the family.  They sliced a pineapple for us but I preferred to wait to cut our own in the hotel.  Vincas, hibiscus, oleanders, etc. grew in profusion.

We returned to the hotel and dined at about six.  We had a greasy watery soup, sweet potatoes, which were white, and which we should have greatly relished but that they were cut open before we got them.  We had a coconut preserves which was very nice.  In driving through the city we counted four entirely naked children in the streets playing.  The people wear very little clothing – men a linen shirt, trousers and belt – no suspenders and not often coats.  Many men, women and children were barefooted. 

The houses are all built of stone covered with stucco painted in water colors, artistic colors – pale blue, yellow, brown, red, yellow-green – blue prevails.  The houses are all right on the sidewalk with no yard in front, but a court and garden inside.  The door in front is large and one large grated window by it.  The front door usually opens into the stable where the horses and carriages are kept, then comes the court and stairway.  The living rooms are upstairs and around the court.  The windows have two sets of board shutters, one with slats outside, and one closed inside – no glass in any of the windows.  We found the very poorest living beside the wealthy, and business places in between.  


Obispo Street is the principal business street.  The hotel was on the prado or park.  This was something like Grand Boulevard in Chicago with rows of trees and driveways between.

Sunday we took a coach to drive to the church to see the tomb of Columbus.  Repko told the driver where to take us – but we got to the wrong church.  We found there an English speaking well-kept priest who took us in a little ante room to have a chat.  There was an excellent tall clock in part of the porch.  The priest came from Barcelona and wanted to hear all about the States.  He told our driver where to take us to see the tomb – and gave us a note.



We then drove to the Cathedral where the driver knocked again and again at the door which was after a long time opened and we went in a round about way to the tomb under the altar.  There is a table and effigy there.



NOTE:  The cathedral is officially known as the Cathedral of the Virgin Mary of the Immaculate Conception and was built by the Jesuits between 1748 and 1777.

It appears that in spite of Columbus’ significant travels during his life time he, in fact, travelled more after he died!  Columbus died in 1506 and was buried in Spain, but he had expressed a desire to be buried in the New World.  In 1509 his corpse was moved to a convent near Seville, and in 1537, his remains, and those of his son Diego, were sent from Spain to Santo Domingo on the island of Hispaniola for interment in the cathedral.  When Spain ceded all of Hispaniola, including Santo Domingo, to France in 1795, the remains were moved once again to the Cathedral in Havana.  His remains were sent back to Spain and placed in the Cathedral in Seville when Spain went to war with the United States in 1898. 

There is however, great controversy as to whether or not the sarcophagus actually contains the remains of Columbus.  In 1877, a lead coffin inscribed with Columbus’ name and containing human remains was found in Santo Domingo, and the Dominican Republic to this day claims those are the real remains of the explorer, and that someone else’s remains had been sent to Havana in 1795.  The issue is still unresolved to this day, with both Seville and Santo Domingo welcoming tourists to visit the real tomb of Columbus.