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The Burning of the Grand Central Hotel

Shared by Ali Abler on August 24, 2014



In 1871, the Grand Central Hotel was commenced by a company organized for the purpose, and after some delay, completed in 1873. It was a magnificent five story brick structure, 132 feet square, and cost $300,000. After serving its purpose five years, it went up in flames, as follows:

At four minutes past seven o'clock, on the evening of September 4, 1878, men passing down Farnam street, heard an explosion in the neighborhood of the Grand Central Hotel building. Several stopped and ventured surmises as to the cause, some believing it to be a fire alarm. A moment later fire was seen issuing from various parts of the upper floor, and the cry of "fire" rang out, the bells joining in the chorus. The engines came promptly to the scratch, and sparks and cinders were by this time raining down from the roof. At this moment the scenes in and about the burning building baffled description. Firemen, hose, and streams of water were indescribably mingled; the first floor was crowded with a vast throng of men, many of them bareheaded and in their shirt sleeves, all talking, shouting and offering advice, above which the hoarse calls of firemen could be heard, creating pandemonium of discord, no pen can describe. At 8 o'clock the fire had penetrated the mansard roof on the east side, and notwithstanding every exertion was made to obtain control of the elements, the building was an hour later an utter wreck. At that hour the entire roof had fallen in, and masses of tin roofing, burning wood, debris of every conceivable nature, etc., fell to the pavement, making the work of saving the surrounding property dangerous in the extreme. The fire had worked west, threatening the destruction of the Herald Building, and Farnam street presented a picture of destruction and ruin no human hand can trace, with men and women running hither and yon in vain efforts to save portable property.

At this point the Council Bluffs department arrived by special train, and horses were pressed into the service to bring their apparatus from the Union Depot. Upon reaching the conflagration the "boys" fell in with a will, bringing to the aid of their muscle, intelligence and a thorough knowledge of the work to be done, which inspired them as also the home force, to renewed efforts and deeds of daring of the most thrilling character. The flames at this time were particularly fierce at the southeast corner of the hotel building, and here half a dozen men were suddenly seen through the blinding smoke at the windows of the third floor. It was thought they were cut off from escape and would certainly meet with a terrible death. But soon the fact became apparent that they were there for a purpose; a ladder was elevated immediately beneath them, a flood of water turned in upon the floor and a mastery of the flames at once obtained. It was feared in this connection that the water supply would run out, but stationary engines at different cisterns in the vicinity kept up the streams and prevented this additional calamity.

At daylight on Thursday morning the fire had been extinguished, but not before it had done its work. The hotel was totally destroyed, hardly a fragment of woodwork in the entire building remaining unburned. Those of the firemen who were not too much exhausted remained to work the engines. The Herald Building remained intact, but none the less uninhabitable, and the adjoining premises were similarly left.

In addition to the horrors of the night, accidents were numerous, and in many instances proved fatal in their effects. Mr. A. S. Hartray fell from the fourth floor to the first, and was picked up in a dying condition; Joseph Sheeley was struck by a beam and seriously injured. Shortly after midnight, several members of Engine Company No. 3, were caught in the lower part of the building by a falling wall. Charles Whithnell and Charles Raph escaped, but John A. Lee, Alonzo Randall, and Lewis Wilson remained under the debris. The next morning work was commenced for the recovery of their bodies. A constant stream had been playing upon the spot under which they were buried, and when cool enough a company with pick axes and shovels entered upon it. A blackened trunk of one of the unfortunates was first found, and in close proximity to it another, and the hip bones and pelvis of still another. A crowd witnessed the operation and looked on with horror as these dreadful relics were removed to Jacob's undertaking rooms. The work was continued, and later another body was unearthed, and identified by the stud and collar button in his shirt to be that of William McNamara, engineer of the Grand Central. The first body taken out was that of John A. Lee, whose watch was found in his vest pocket uninjured; the next was that of Lewis Wilson, and the third was what remained of Alonzo Randall. The other injured firemen included Henry Lockfeldt, who died subsequently; Henry Galligan, Charles Florey, Albert Hestry, Louis Faas, Charles Joannes, and one or two others, all of whom recovered.

The losses at the hotel amounted to $100,000, fully insured; those outside of the Grand Central, were as follows: Frederick, the hatter, by water and theft, $1,000; The Herald, $1,000; Shirt factory, $100; Pomeroy, undertaker, $500; Goodrich, toy shop $3,000; D. T. Mount, $500; Brown & Bliss, and W. P. Long & Co., nominal. Most of these were insured.

The Grand Central was an object of veneration to citizens of Omaha. For many years the city had been in need of additional hotel arrangements, and in 1870, the project of building by means of stock subscriptions, which had been eloquently urged in the Herald, was carried into effect by leading capitalists, who took an active interest in the enterprise. In order that the hotel might be a public venture, it was decided that no subscription for more than $1,000 should be received from any individual. The total cost of the hotel to be $150,000. It was at first determined to secure this amount before commencing work, but when $130,000 had been raised, the leader in the scheme decided to begin work. The walls were erected and the roof on, when in 1871 the work was discontinued and so remained for two years. At the expiration of that period the sum of $50,000 was raised by five citizens, Edward Creighton, Thomas Wardell, Andrew J. Poppleton, Augustus Kountze, and Henry W. Yates, and the long delayed structure seemed likely to be completed at last, but estimates again proved too small, and an additional amount was found necessary. To this end, a syndicate composed of S. S. Caldwell, C. W. Hamilton, E. D. Pratt, Joseph Barker, Sylvester Wright, John I. Redick and Clinton Briggs, was organized, and a majority of the original stock was purchased at prices varying from ten to fifty cents on the dollar. After a controlling interest in the stock had been purchased, a new election of stockholders was had, the amount necessary to complete the building was put in, the edifice was finished at a cost of $300,000, and opened October 1, 1873, by George Thrall, who furnished it himself. He retained possession for a number of years, and immediately prior to its destruction the hotel was placed in order at a cost of $25,000, and would have been occupied within a fortnight had not the elements intervened and prevented the same.