One of the most iconic brands in the world is Hilton Hotels. You would be hard pressed to travel to any city of any size in the world and not find a hotel that is part of the Hilton brand of families. Currently, there are almost 5,800 worldwide Hilton properties that encompass almost 1 million hotel rooms.
While the company headquarters is now located in Tysons Corner, Virginia, where it moved from Beverly Hills, California in 2009, Conrad N. Hilton, the chain’s founder, began the company and his hotel empire in Texas. Hilton withstood the dark days of the Great Depression, when he almost lost all his properties, and then emerged to build what at the time of his death in 1979 was the world’s most profitable hotel brand, and one of the largest operators of lodging locations in the world.
Conrad Nicholson Hilton was born in the New Mexico Territory (it was not yet a state) on December 25, 1887. He grew up in San Antonio, New Mexico, attended Goss Military Institute in Albuquerque, New Mexico Military Institute in Roswell, before finally matriculating at the New Mexico Institute of Mining in Socorro. Hilton’s father had operated a general store in San Antonio, but to help make ends meet he converted part of it into a hotel in 1901, and he placed 15-year-old Conrad in charge of the property. Conrad also worked as a clerk in the store, and during his time in Socorro, was a partner in a mercantile business. Conrad Hilton was learning his future trade.
Hilton enlisted in the Army when World War I began, and served as a lieutenant in the Quartermaster Corps in France until his discharge in 1919. Like many young men after the war he came back searching for a career. Hilton chose to come to Texas, where the oil boom had created opportunities for those willing to take the risk. The Ranger Boom in central West Texas was in full swing so Hilton came to the booming little town of Cisco with the intention of opening a bank, but he saw another need instead. The booming population had made hotel rooms a premium in Cisco; men were actually sleeping in “shifts” in city’s hostelries, so Conrad Hilton bought the forty-room Mobley Hotel instead of a bank. Such a purchase turned out to be a good choice.
Hilton, in his earliest days, was in the right place at the right time to begin a hotel empire. He also instituted a solid plan for building that empire. Over the next decade, Hilton would first lease and renovate old hotels, then began to build new hotels on leased land, and then, later, bought existing hotels to add to his chain. Between 1923 and 1930 Hilton opened a new Texas hotel every year. He built the high rise Dallas Hilton in 1925, opened a hotel in Abilene in 1927, and then moved into El Paso in 1930, and by that year he owned eight Texas establishments. He was poised to move out of Texas and begin a regional expansion when the Great Depression hit.
Almost overnight, Conrad Hilton faced bankruptcy. He closed his El Paso hotel in 1933, but that helped very little, and he faced the real possibility of losing everything. What he needed was a new cash infusion to keep his fledgling empire afloat, and that led him to seek out new investors. He found some salvation through a partnership with Galveston business titans Shearn and William L. Moody, along with some other partners in Houston and Galveston. Together, they formed the National Hotel Company. Hilton was the general manager and operations head with one-third ownership of the company. However, Hilton and his partners differed on the direction of the new company, and they mutually agreed to dissolve the partnership in 1934. Hilton walked away with five of his original hotels, including the ones in Dallas, Cisco, and Abilene.
Hilton precariously made his way through the Depression, and by 1939 he was ready to expand once again. He built his first hotel outside Texas in Albuquerque that year, by 1950 owned and operated hostelries in most of the large cities in the nation. He acquired the Stevens Hotel in Chicago—then the world’s largest single hotel—and rechristened it the Conrad Hilton; it remains part of the chain on Erie Street near Michigan Avenue. He also bought the Statler Hotel chain, and in 1945 made his splashiest purchase when he secured ownership of the famed Waldorf-Astoria in New York City.
Hilton reorganized his company in 1946, forming the new Hilton Hotels Corporation. He also moved from Texas that same year, relocating from Dallas to Santa Monica, California; he moved his headquarters to Beverly Hills. He restructured again in 1948 when he expanded overseas and renamed his company Hilton International. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s he expanded at a rapid pace so much so that by 1970 he owned and operated 188 hotels in the United States, and more than fifty in the rest of the world. He also purchased the Carte Blanche credit card company, and a controlling interest in the American Crystal Sugar Company. When he died in 1979, he left behind an almost three billion dollar fortune, most of which he donated to form the Conrad Hilton Foundation. It is quite a legacy for a man he began his career with a small hotel in little Cisco, Texas.
East Texas Historical Assn. provides this column. Scott Sosebee is executive director,email@example.com.