The Fire Walk Script, 3rd Stop: The Site of The Majestic Hotel
The fire had started about 3:40 in the afternoon of that fateful day. Within 5 hours the explosively violent fire had changed this city of wood to a mound of smoldering ash.
In 1910, fire was a constant. Chimneys were everywhere and wood or coat fires were necessary and most times the only way to prepare food, heat water, and generate power. Trash and garbage fires were normal and standard ways of disposing of burnable trash. Smoke was seen every day and everywhere and was a normal part of everyone's lives. It may have been difficult to judge when a major alarm needed to be sounded. It was nearly impossible to immediately judge the severity of the fire.
As the amount of generated smoke, flying embers, and flame grew, more and more people grew alarmed by the intensity. The ferries connecting the lakefront with the Westlake and the other communities halted on the opposite shore. More than a few had to take the treacherous railroad bridge back home from errands run on the Westlake side.
Fire whistles blew the alarm at the fire stations throughout town and at lumber mills and factories which skirted the lake. Church bells rang throughout the city to spread the alarm. Railroad bells and whistles shrilly proclaimed the conflagration throughout the city. By five o'clock, bells began to ring continuously city wide to sound the surprising growth of the fire.
Individuals and families who feared that their homes could be next evacuated with household goods and furnishings. Some families placed goods on the street in an effort to save them and there are family tales of the house being saved while the furnishings in the street caught fire and burned. The Christian Church which was located on Iris Street removed their cherished new organ and placed it on the street where it and the church were both lost in flames. Interestingly, had they kept the organ in the church, it would have been insured!
A gusting wind from the southwest blew embers and smoke across Ryan and towards the north and east. Shop owners and homeowners wet quilts and blankets and used them to smother ground flames. Using steam-powered pumps which drew water from the lake as well as from hydrants, firemen attempted to squelch flames on roofs and porches.
Horses were led out of burning stables and herded towards safety lakeside or across Pithon Coulee. Merchandise was carted away and residents emptied their houses to try to save family heirlooms. By late afternoon, the Courthouse, the Catholic Church and school, City Hall and the fire station were in flames. The Clerk of Court, the assessor, and courthouse staff attempted to save records and parish property, but the courthouse and the city hall was tinderbox infernos. The Jail was emptied and inmates were drafted to help fight the fire.
But the fire was immense and moved quickly in this densely packed wooden city. Within an hour fires were being fought on over 30 blocks of Lake Charles. The fire was raging all along Ryan as far north as Broad Street and along Kirby Street as far east as Common where a fire line had been established. Dynamite was used to help clear firebreaks.
At this site, the former location of the Majestic Hotel we tell one of the more unusual of the fire fighting stories.
The Majestic Hotel was built in 1906 to be the modern ultimate hotel for Lake Charles. The area had many lesser hotels and boarding houses in its day such as the Haskell House, the St. Claire Hotel, and the Lake House. The Majestic was bigger and grander. It had its own power plant and water system, and had ceiling fans in every guestroom. It had a popular restaurant and was alleged to have hosted every president from Theodore Roosevelt to John F. Kennedy, though not necessarily when they were president. At the time of the Louisiana Maneuvers just prior to World War II, the Majestic hosted General Bradley and General Eisenhower and the relationship bloomed between the Eisenhowers and general manager Emma Michie was legendary.
But this is the story of the much earlier Majestic.
The Pujo Street corridor between Bilbo and the Lake was perhaps the hospitality and financial main street of Southwest Louisiana. The Carnegie Library was located on the north east corner of Pujo and Bilbo, on the northwest corner the Majestic Hotel, on the north east corner of Pujo and Ryan, the magnificent dark red brick Calcasieu State Bank, on the southeast corner of Lake Charles Drug Store (later Gordon and Van Phul Drugs and now Pujo Street Cafe), and returning east to the site of the Trotti residence where the Pioneer Building/City Hall is located today.
In 1948, Mordello Vincent and Lee Welch would construct the 10-story Pioneer Building. Together the Majestic Hotel and the Pioneer Building shared the street for an additional 25 years or so until the hotel was demolished in 1965 to build a never-constructed 12 story bank building.
But in 1910, as the Great Fire leapt from building to building leaving ashes in its wake, the management of the Majestic, using the up-to-date and self-contained water system of the Hotel itself, sprayed water on the roofs and sides of the adjoining buildings and buildings across the street in a successful effort to protect lives and contents. The Majestic saved those structures and in doing so saved itself. Post fire, the Majestic provided housing for some of the displaced citizens and served as a temporary City and Parish headquarters, allowing business to be conducted until new facilities were constructed.
Unfortunately the original domed Carnegie Library was demolished in 1949 and reconstructed as a more modern Lake Charles Public Library on the same site, and the Calcasieu State Bank was demolished about the same time as the Majestic Hotel. But the commercial block on the south side of Pujo Street still exists as testimony to the generous and hospitable gesture of a long gone classic hotel.
Please follow our guide to the next stop.