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Looking Back: The Tacoma Hotel, Once the Finest Hotel North
 of San Francisco, Reduced to Ash in 1935 Fire
By Pat McCoid, The News Tribune, Tacoma, Wash.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Oct. 19, 2008 - The Tacoma Hotel, once the finest crib north of San Francisco, left the world the way it thrived for half a century: in a blaze of glory.

On Oct. 17, 1935, fire destroyed the enormous English Tudor edifice whose five stories towered on a bluff above Commencement Bay on South A Street between Ninth and 10th streets.

Its splendor was a measure of the confidence men placed in the City of Destiny during the railroad boom of the 1880s.

The fire took everything but spared the lives of 128 sleeping guests scattered among 300 rooms when night engineer Robert Schultz sounded the alarm at 6:15 a.m. and ran shouting through the building.

Being across the street from a fire station proved little help in quelling the fast-moving conflagration, which started in an area suspiciously close to the hotel's enormous kitchen and 500-pie oven.

Heroes were forged in this Great Depression-era towering inferno as firemen, policemen and hotel workers risked their lives to carry 50 guests to safety. Saving lives took precedence over firefighting, and flames rose to 100 feet, their roaring audible two blocks away,

Seven were hurt, including firemen S.J. Lemm and Stuart Letterman, who were looking for a trapped guest on the top floor when a blast of smoke and fire blew Lemm out a window. As rescuers scrambled up a ladder, both men dangled from windowsills and endured flames that burned heads and legs. Letterman was back on the job within the hour.

Chief of Police Harold Bird arrived 11 minutes after the alarm, ordered all off-duty police to the scene and embarked on a series of thrilling rescues, including that of Edith Owens, a 65-year-old invalid found unconscious under her bed.

Mr. and Mrs. Max Clark of Olympia were awakened by a child screaming, "Mama, Mama, smoke, smoke!" and escaped out a window.

George Scofield, vice president of the Tacoma Hotel Co., swung his cane at police who restrained him from retrieving something from the burning lobby. It took two cops to hold back photographer Turner Richards, who made several runs at a smoke-filled doorway, desperate to save his costly equipment.

So much water was poured on the blaze by the 11 fire companies that responded that city engineers feared the steep clay bank behind the building would collapse, sending a sizzling mess and part of A Street to the railroad tracks below.

The next morning, people watched from the safety of the 11th Street Bridge as the skeletal remains of the hotel smoked and smoldered despite a drenching overnight rain and the continuing blast of fire hoses.

When the hot spots had subsided, "powder men" from DuPont safely blasted down the teetering remains of the hotel's red brick walls.

Owner J. Frank Hickey boldly announced that his hotel would be rebuilt, probably before discovering that his insurance coverage fell far short of the estimated $500,000 that would be required.

The hotel clung to life for another decade, operating across the street in the Tacoma Hotel Annex, its coffee shop a mere ghost of the glorious restaurant that had served diners from around the globe.

The Tacoma Hotel, dead at 51, earned a series of obituaries in The News Tribune.

Oldtimers recalled the first time the hotel had lit up the sky, at its Aug. 4, 1884, grand opening when Japanese lanterns in every window created a "blaze of light." Charles B. Wright and Gen. John Sprague, Tacoma's mayor, led a parade of bigwigs down the broad lobby staircase to the strains of Mendelssohn's "Wedding March."

Newspaper coverage included an entire column describing the dresses of ladies in attendance.

Wright, as head of the Northern Pacific Railroad-affiliated Tacoma Land Co., had been instructed to build a first-class hotel as a haven for travelers after Tacoma was selected as terminus for the railroad's cross-continental line.

The building was designed by prominent New York architect Stanford White, best remembered as the victim in a headline-grabbing love triangle murder 20 years later.

The hotel cost $267,000, including $40,000 for fine furniture from John Wannamaker's in New York. It required 700,000 bricks, all connected with red cement.

Of note were the largest billiards room in the West and a 250-square-foot refrigerator cooled by up to 40 tons of ice packed above its 9-foot ceiling. The basement, made of Wilkeson sandstone, housed a 2,000-gallon hot water tank and a 100-ton capacity coal house.

The hotel faced A Street, and rooms at the back treated visitors to views of Tacoma's bustling waterfront, passing trains, Commencement Bay and Mount Rainier.

A team of New York City waiters brought gracious service to the hotel restaurant, which became famous for properly prepared seafood purchased every morning at 5 a.m. Testaments to the kitchen's grandeur were a 10-foot-high plate warmer, 12-gallon coffee and tea urns, the 500-pie oven and a steam-powered potato peeler that could skin a barrel of spuds in 20 minutes.

A hole in the kitchen floor carried waste to a holding tank, where grease was strained and recycled into soap for hotel patrons.

With Tacoma's population swelling from 4,500 in 1884 to 36,006 in 1890, the hotel stayed busy, and it became the center of the city's social life. Additions by a series of ambitious owners swelled it to the size of city block.

In 1903, a totem pole billed as the tallest in the world was erected outside the hotel. It survived the fire and now resides in Fireman's Park, a block south of the hotel's original site. In 1925, a nine-hole golf-putting course was installed on the east lawn overlooking the bay.

A parade of the famous enjoyed the Tacoma Hotel's hospitality, including Rudyard Kipling, Mark Twain, Sarah Bernhardt, Jack Dempsey, Babe Ruth, William H. Taft, Theodore Roosevelt, Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Perhaps the most memorable guest was Jack, a black bear adopted after his mother was killed by a hunter. The orphan was sold to the hotel and kept in a pen out back, where he learned to open the latch on his cage with his tongue.

Jack, considered harmless, roamed in relative freedom and would send out-of-towners fleeing with unscheduled appearances in the restaurant. He was allowed to belly up to the bar for an occasional beer.

On St. Patrick's Day, 1893, Tacoma policeman John Kenna encountered the 700-pound bear lumbering down Ninth Street toward Pacific Avenue and shot him twice. The wounded bear would not allow anyone near him and had to be put down. Jack, stuffed, was given an honored place in the hotel lobby while Kenna was lambasted for shooting the nationally known hotel mascot.

A century later, Jack the Bear and the Tacoma Hotel rest peacefully in history as local legends whose like will not be seen again.

Pat McCoid: 253-597-8272 This is one of a series of stories appearing during The News Tribune's 125th year. Every Sunday we look at what happened during the same week sometime in the past 125 years. To suggest a week or an event for an upcoming story, e-mail your idea and any details to randy.mccarthy@thenewstribune.com">randy.mccarthy@thenewstribune.com.

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To see more of The News Tribune, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.TheNewsTribune.com.

Copyright (c) 2008, The News Tribune, Tacoma, Wash.

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