Galveston, TX Beach Hotel Fire, July 1898




Heat Was So Great That Firemen Had to Work with Wet Cloths on Their Faces.

Galveston, Tex., July 23. - The Beach hotel burned this morning between 4:30 and 6 o'clock. All that is left of the magnificent structure is a tall smokestack, blackened by smoke and white-scaled from heat, which stands a mournful sentinel over an insignificant pile of ashes and debris. Twenty or thirty people saw the fire first and gave the alarm. Mose Harris, whose home is on Avenue Q, facing the rear of the big hotel, saw the blaze from his bedroom window and yelled fire. He has no telephone in his house, but stepped out on the gallery and fired several shots in the air with his pistol.

Louis Grelling lives at 2320 Avenue Q. His wife awakened him to ask what the blaze across the way meant. he jumped out of bed and ran to the window to get a better view and saw something that made the blood course quickly through his veins. A fire was burning through the boiler-room of the Beach the size of a barn door.

By the time he got outside the hot breath of the fire was already blistering his house and he turned his attention to the first law of nature, self-preservation. It seemed an interminable time before the whistle at the waterworks blew, and an age before the fire department came.

When the hose was attached to the fire plug the water came feebly and did not reach the first gallery of his residence.

William Rice, who lives about two blocks from the hotel, was returning home from The News office, where he works, and he saw flames coming from the boiler-room of the hotel, smelled kerosene oil and saw a man running.

Frank Lorenzo has been wwatchman at the hotel since the hotel clsed last summer. He sleeps in the office on the first floor and was awakened by smoke. He at once thought of the one guest in the house, Mr. L. Fass, and of the fifteen or sixteen employes sleeping downstairs and started the bells going all over the house. He then ran to the room of Mr. Fass, who was occupying the southeast corner room on the first floor, and awakened him, then made a tour of the living apartments of the help below.

"I was awakened by a ringing of the bells in my room," said Mr. Fass, "and smelled smoke. Only a short time ago I went through a fire at the Auditorium at Kansas City, and when I heard the bells and smelled the smoke I went to business at once. Frank, the watchman, came to my room and told me quietly that the boiler-room was on fire. He did not think that there was any danger, but thought that I had better get out as quickly as I could. After jumping into my clothes I hurriedly packed my trunk with what things I could reach. Before I could get to the wardrobe the smoke was coming in a stifling manner, so I slapped down the lid of my trunk and had it carried out. The posts on the gallery were burning when I stepped out through the widnow. I did not lose a great deal, having put my most important effects in my trunk, but I could not have stayed a minute longer in the room."

Mr. George E. Korst, the proprietor of the hotel, walked among the ruins of the hotel with a News reporter and took things calmly and in a matter of fact way.

"The hotel was set on fire," said he. "I have no doubt whatever about it. They tried to set it on fire two weeks ago, but made a fizzle out of it. At that time we found evidence of coal oil in the boiler-room. It was just about the same time in the morning, too. Several little things go to convince me that it was set on fire. The help had their supper last night at 5:30 o'clock and at 6 o'clock the fire was out and what little steam had been made had died out. The kitchen had been scrubbed after supper. This is done by throwing bucket after bucket of water on the floor. The water soaks through the floor and it could not possibly have caught on fire unaided. I was out to the hotel trying the lights as late as 10 o'clock last night and was all over the house. Lorenzo was up until 11. All was right in the kitchen.

"I have a bull dog which I keep at the hotel at night and they told me last night that the dog had been loosened and had disappeared. I understand that some people who were here early this morning after the fire started and they smelled kerosene about the boiler-room and kitchen. Mr. Janssen, who sleeps on one of the upper floors of the Tremont hotel, viewed the fire early in the game and said that he particularly noticed great black volumes of smoke coming from the smokestack. Kerosene causes just such a smoke. The doors of the furnace must have been opened up to create a draft and sucked the smoke up the chimney.

"We were all ready for business to-day and would have opened with dinner this evening and I had everything in readiness and could have served breakfast this morning. I had the groceries in the storeroom and the liquor on hand for the bar. Just before the bank closed I had $80 in silver taken out and put in the safe in the office for change to begin business on. All told I think about $1200 will cover the amount put in the hotel preparatory to the opening. Of course that was in excess of what was already in the hotel.

"Col. Hughes, the owner of the hotel, who has been here several days making preparations for the opening, left last night for his ranch on the Colorado. I wired him en route at once and think I will catch him before he completes his journey.

"Of course this knocks in the head all my arrangements for taking care of the executive committee of the democratic convention and other delegations who had arranged to stop at the Beach."

Fire Chief Wagner and his men worked like Trojans. They were burned and blistered and worn out after it was all over.

"I handled the fire just as I had planned to do long ago. We have often talked over the possibility of the Beach burning. We knew that it would burn like tinder and that once a fire got a headway it would be all up with the structure. No power on earth could help it, once a fire got well under way. Our attention was turned to saving the surrounding buildings. A divine providence tempered the wind. The wind blew from the west with a slight inclination to the south and did not blow too strongly. What I have always been afraid of is a strong south wind, which would take the sparks over the closely-built residence portion of the city. Another thing that we can all be devoutly thankful for is that the fire was not a week later, or a day later, for that matter. There was only one guest in the hotel and he had to get out in a hurry. It is horrible to contemplate what might have happened had the hotel been full of guests.

"I had my men devote their energies to surrounding buildings just as soon as I saw that it was useless to attempt to save the hotel. Both fire plugs at the foot of Tremont and at the foot of Rosenberg avenues are 'dead' ends - that is there is no circuit. That accounts for the low pressure of the water until the waterworks got up more steam.

"If you do not think it was hot, look at that hose overe there across Tremont street. It caught fire from the heat. We lost 100 feet of hose this morning. The firemen had to keep their clothes wet."

The chief was under the gallery of the Beach directing some of his men when a portion of it fell and penned him in for a time. He was slightly hurt about the neck and shoulders, but kept at work. He was almost exhausted with the heat and his hurts when the danger to other buildings was over. His men went into the fiercest heat without apparently a thought of themselves and the saving of the surrounding property is a testimony of their brave and efficient work.

The police were on hand early with a good force and assisted in keeping order. Eight officers roped off the grounds to keep the people back and protect life and property. Many of the policemen helped the people of the surrounding buildings remove their goods and at the same time kept close watch for petty thieves.

The burning Beach hotel was a magnificant specacle. It seemed as though half the people in town turned out to witness the display. Shortly after the alarm was given Tremont street was alive with sounding fire enginges and clattering horses. People poured down the street in the direction of the cloud of smoke and tongues of flame in a disheveled stream. Some were on horseback, some in hacks, two-wheel carts and buggies, many on bikes and more on foot. All along the line heads were sticking from windows and partially dressed people were in huddled groups on the galleries. There was a tangled mass of hose carts, engines, buggies, bikes and people at Tremont and Avenue Q.

As the fire rose higher the heat grew stronger. People shaded their faces with their hands and gradually dropped back save the few who scurried along the south side of Q, stopping occasionally behind a salt cedar hedge to catch glimpses of the furious flames and ease their blistering faces.

The baking people working with garden hose and water buckets on the fronts of houses smoking under the influence of the hellish heat did not take note of the splendor of the spectacle, but it was a scene such as few will witness in a lifetime.

For a few minutes the entire structure from basement to flagstaff on the dome was on fire. It seemed as though every timber was a red coal fringed with flames. Timbers began dropping like shafts of fire from some huge Fourth of July fireworks. Then the dome fell in, but not with a crash, for the timbers are light. It simply dissolved into the main structure, while a choros of "Ohs" went up from the assembled thousands. Over to the east, under the stifling smoke and falling embers, were firemen fightling like mad to save what is known as the Klondike saloon. They saved it.

The little house at the corner of the ball park caught and went up in a jiffy. It was occupied by a poor family who had not much to lose, but what they had was their all.

The fence of the ball park caught fire time and again, but was put out by a stream from a writhing hose. Even some of this hose would not stand the heat and was burned. Telegraph, telephone and electric light poles caught fire and wires dropped to the ground. Little bunches of fire shot up from the wood of the pavement in the street. Tongues of flame sprang from the planks and ties of the railway. Around to the south and southwest some owners of booths and buildings along the midway and their employes were rushing here and there with buckets of water, drenching their frail structures and removing their goods to places of safety down the beach. A crowd of men on the bridge to the Pagoda bathhouse fought the flames eating up the steps and timbers leading to the pavilion. Wet towels were around their heads and axes and garden hose in their hands. They smashed away the timbers and drenched those left, along which the insidious red devils were crawling.

Everybody knows Krause, the man who has been selling shells and seaside mementoes at the beach for years. His son was sleeping in the place at the time of the fire, but managed to save only about one-third of the little stock. He had to be taken out by policemen, overcome with heat and smoke. The little house was burned to the ground timbers. Adjoining Krause, T. Pecillo had a restaurant. He was burned out. In broken English he told that he lost over $1000. Two hundred in money, so he said, was burned.

Otto Berger's Ferris wheel is a thing of the past. In [sic] originally cost $5000, but represented $1500 to him.

Across the narrow street is Julian's place, a "double decker" restaurant and saloon. Directly behind and close to the Beach hotel is the Lassaigne house. Streams of water kept constantly on those two places kept them intact.

The hotel that is now in ashes has had a checkered history, a life full of changes and vicissitudes. In 1882 the Beach Hotel and Seaside Improvement compnay, which was practically the Galveston City railway company, purchased the southeast quarter of outlot No. 117, and in the following January began the construction of the Beach hotel. July 4, 1883, the hotel was thrown open to the public.

The cost of the huge structure considerably exceeded the expectation of the builders and finally amounted to $263,623, of which the City Railway company had contributed $203,623, for which they held stock. The remaining $60,000 was represented by ten-year 5 per cent bonds, of which the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe railroad held $10,000, the International and Great Northern (subsequently acquired by the Missouri, Kansas and Texas) $10,000, and the remaining $40,000 was held by citzens [sic] of Galveston.

The bonds matured in July 1893, payment was defaulted and the bondholders foreclosed the mortgage. A.J. Walker and Geo. Sealy being trustees for the bondholders. It was bought in by Capt. J. P. Alvey at $20,000 for the bondholders on Sept. 4, 1894. This terminated the interest and connection of the City Railway company.

The bondholders then carried the property until May, 1896, when under suit and by judgment for taxes, the property was advertised and sold to W. E. Hughes of St. Louis for the Windsor and Tremont Hotel company. The price paid by Col. Hughes was the amount of state, county and city taxes, a sum between $25,000 and $27,000. The stockholders had lost their stock and the bondholders had lost their bonds. The property was operated by Col. Hughes until this season and was about to open for the summer season, and was burned on the morning of the very day of its opening.

The Beach hotel had been uninsured from May, 1897, until last Monday. Col. Hughes, who is practically the proprietor, though, to be exact, he represents the Windsor and Tremont Hotel company; has been in the city during the past week and the live insurance agents of this city were not slow to call his attention to the great risk he was carrying. Impressed with their arguements, last Monday he took out $25,000, just half of what he was urged to take, placing it with twelve companies through three local agencies. The $25,000 was on the building. The furniture was a total loss.

At one time during the history of the hotel the insurance companies canceled policies on the hotel on account of defective electric wiring. This was remedied by Col. Hughes when his company took it, and the hotel was as good a risk when it burned as when it was first erected.

Notwithstanding the burning of the Beach hotel the public comfort committee for the democratic convention is confident it can furnish accommodations for all who purpose attending the convention.

The damage done the Street Railway company by the fire was $500 according to Superintendent Travers. From thirty to forty feet of track was burned out, trolley poles were burned and wire put in bad shape. The three lines which pass the hotel, the Rosenberg avenue, Thirty-third and the Garten verein lines, ran up to the break this morning and then back to their station, passengers transferring on foot. The break was completed so that cars could run all the was around by noon.

Dallas Morning News, Dallas, TX 24 July 1898