1901 West Baden Springs Hotel Fire


Which consumed the Springs Hotel Friday, June 13, 1901
Graphically Described by Amy Leslie Who was an
Eye Witness of the Big Conflagration
Springs Valley Herald (June 11, 1914)

At about fifteen minutes of 2 o'clock yesterday morning, for no perceptible reason, unless it might have been because of the deep crimson glare upon the walls of my room at West Baden, I awoke and listened for a minute to a singularly unpleasant and ominous crackling in the still night air. There was no outcry nor any movement in the hotel that I detected in the benumbed state into which uncertainty and total loss of judgment seemed to put me. I had a small charge, Dorthy West, who lay in rosy sleep, and though I cannot swear to any kind of fright, I was in a nervous shiver as I shook the child and said:
"Come on, Dot, there's a fire - let's go see it." Dot rebelled with both feet, but after she was well awake I said, "Follow me, honey; wake up," and after rubbing her eyes she climbed out of bed, said sleepily, "All right, wait till I get my gum," then dashing back and scooping a bunch of wax from a bedpost she calmly walked out after me, down the stairway and up to the road leading to Mount Arie.
The rocks and crags and cutting sands hurt her bare feet and we escaped just as the chimes were quietly tolling out the fifteen minute stroke to 2 o'clock. Carrying her and a small satchel, a red silk kimono and something else which proved to be a skirt after hours of tramping without any, I ran up the steep hillside. Nobody else came out the hill way with me, but an instant after the egresses all over the ugly, menacing sprawled out tinderbox of a hotel were suddenly jammed with half-stripped tolerable well-balanced files of struggling people fighting rather intelligently in spite of panic for exile without property of any rationally gathered sort. Most of the women were silent and haggard and most of the men rambling around in outlandish garb, dazed, helpless, occasionally howling and altogether ridiculous. The colored help who manage to be pretty bad waiters and porters were corking rescuers and went at their self-imposed task of assisting the collapsed and seeing to things with a vigor most inspiring.
George Hughes, the West Baden comedian, who is something of a celebrity, lost all of his own clothes, money and keepsakes, but saved hundreds of dollars worth for guest whom he did not know. Aaron Taylor proved another comforting hero and many darkies fought the flames as best they could with the perfectly absurd and primitive facilities at hand. One shot off a gun to awake the sleeping guest. It had been raining furiously earlier in the evening, but cleared fair and chill, with a lull in the breeze which amounted to oppression. When the stately belfry of the smart little undedicated church marked out 15 minutes to 2, I looked at the clock and by 2:30 the whole structure, with its rambling ells and gables, it bulges and draughty corridors was reduced to a fiendish little ring of fire, which bit savagely into the rich grass and licked up the bark of the big scorched trees. It was the most beautiful fire possible to dream about and came and went so harmlessly and gracefully that it seemed altogether a dream.
It burned exactly like a nice, encouraging hickory kindling wood bonfire, and the refugees huddled below where I had climbed on the hill, watched it hysterically, but not noisily, recounting their loss and experiences without expecting to be listened to. Having shuddered and enjoyed the huge blaze for half an hour and made a fine bluff to join in the baby's perfect delight at the whole show, which she took as a personal favor. I made my way to the greenhouse on the second terrace of the hill and found it tightly locked and emitting large rythmical snores.I beat on the door and then on the window and finally was rewarded by a sleepy "hello" and a shaggy head, upon which I poured astonishments as the door was partly opened.
Two men had slept there during the noisiest part of the commotion as lightly as their roses and white violets had in the hothouse. They gave me the house and one of them gallantly offered me a pair of the biggest shoes it had ever been my honor too attempt to fill. But I took them with grateful acknowledgments and likewise helped myself to their house when they rushed gawkily down the hill to the hotel's scintillating and romping skeleton. They sent other wanderers up there, and then the boys threw luggage all along the gravel paths and though the greater majority of the 165 guest assembled in humid and shivery platoons around the springs and pools, the hills had a percentage worth reckoning and everybody up there seemed to be laughing and ghastly jocular.
Then a melancholy figure, bent and shrunken, plodded wearily toward the church unattended and gray as the ashes of his palatial fire-trap disappearing. It was L. W. Sinclair, the proprietor, shorn of his clerical synicism and independence, his plain, farmer-like indifference and his caustic humors. Sinclair was probably about the worst hotelkeeper on earth, but he was liked not only for his impudence, which was of a ministerial, vinegary sort, bit his wit which always had a velvety sting in the heart of it. The old man dug in his heels in the turf and went into the church, where by the dim light of the broken kerosene lamp, with his daughter and wife he watched the whole hotel go, the one big hose play on the broad covered walk and the doctor's cottage dazzle the darkness a few minutes and sink without a sigh into a heap which followed the light breezes. He did not say much, but shook his head lamentably and wondered if everybody was safe over and over again.
The new building went first and five minutes after I, in a blind somnambulism, had walked out of my room and up the mountain, saving actually nothing by a chance gathering of chattles, which left the baby I had in charge and myself quite destitute that part of the house had tottered and shot a worldly milky way across the lower sky. When the imposing Gothic front began to melt there was a scramble of belated, unawakened people for the cylindrical escape which underwriters had ordered several years ago. It proved immensely useful, though one man stood on the roof above it and bawled for somebody to catch his baby, which he wanted to throw below, while he and his wife would risk the escape. A big athletic, blond man, sensibly clad, shouted to the demented father the horror of the proposal and offered to clamber up the outside rope and ladder for the baby if the father would hang on to his offspring long enough. Up swung the young giant, who was D. T. McArthur, a banker of Tracy, Minn. He went up the rope overhand, seized the baby and came down safely with the infant and helped the bewildered parents to make up their minds which way they wanted to expire; then when landed safely the man wanted to back after his trunk.
One greedy gentleman who had managed to climb out of the cinders fairly well attired dove back into the flames for his luggage and was rewarded by having a big Saratoga land him one on the skull and lay him out in a faint near enough the east entrance to be extricated and dragged away from the danger, where he recovered in time.
At the round-up there was a sensational report that Mr. Keith of Milwaukee and Dr. Copeland of Chicago were among the missing, but these steady-nerved gentlemen were afterward found gently slumbering in "Mammy" Faulkner's hospitable little green shanty, where everybody was fed and sheltered. It is still claimed that there were victims to the flames.
Col. Wing, an ex-police chieftain of Cincinnati and at present attache of the governor's staff, saved his handsome though bulky person and some insignificant, but useful funds, and Mrs. Harris, a sister-in-law of the composer of 'After the Ball', limped serenely about and told a colored lad that the fire had not reached her room and that there was a trunk of handsome clothes, some diamonds and considerable money ready to be lifted out and if he wanted to risk saving it he was welcome to it all. The lad rushed into the fire and paid it all.
At 4 o'clock we hunted up the village storekeeper and bought him out. Strange garbs of alarming contours and shoes that drove pegs both ways every step, hats the kind mother used to make and eloquent gloves were gladly donned and I arrived in Chicago grandily attired in a man's shirt (the cut of which garment is very mysterious and irritating), a straw hat, flounced in cambric and a skirt that I had carried over the mountain vales and bridges for two mortal hours, bewailing my undignified toilet of a nightgown and a pair of shoes weighing the best part of a ton. The infant under my care was fitted out by a sympathetic colored lady of the village, with an eye to the only chance and a good guesser at comparative sizes of children and pocketbooks. I bought covering for the baby which had adorned "Peachy Johnson". She looked very jaunty in her country clothes and very much felt her oats after she was rigged out in them.
When she first learned that the fire was not arranged for her special diversion, but had burned up every stitch of wardrobe she possessed, she opened her big eyes and said to me, shaking her small finger:
"Oh, you just wait: my mamma'll give it to you!" The fire was at its height then and we were at the greenhouse on the hill, I said:
"Hush, you mustn't talk about that which is lost - we ought to thank heavens that we are not burned." Having delivered myself of this much instruction I waited for its effect and to my astonishment and great edification, after weighing it over in her small mind, the child thoughtfully lifted up her trailing nightgown and pattered with bare feet to the rumpled bed of the gardener under the window, through which streamed a blood-red glow from the fire. She knelt down close to the bed, clasped her little hands and began praying so softly that I had to listen to hear what her charming oratory sent up among the sparks and sweet wood perfumes.
When everybody was trying to see how much unnecessary rushing they could do before coming to, a man in pink pajamas tore out of the house clutching a pair of suspenders and a curling iron; there was no particular noise anywhere, but this excited fellow fled, shrieking fire until his pink bedclothes ceased to flutter on Mt. Arie.
Bevers, the swimming coach and instructor at the natorium, was not awakened until the fire had been under way 40 minutes and barely escaped with his life.
Last week the proprietors of the hotel were offered $1,000,000 for the property, but refused holding it at $3,000,000. Mr. Sinclair was too prostrated to think what he might do, but his spirit is indomitable and he is mad as a March hare at buyers of property about him and will likely build again in a more substantial way.
They are drilling for old and Sinclair insists that if they strike a lead the development will ruin the springs. Yesterday all morning hot No. 7 was served to the guest, just as if nothing had happened and the oddly attired army tramped about in a methodical attempt at carrying out the usual regime of hydrotheraphy and hustle advised at West Baden. Amy Leslie.