Newspaper Article Commemorating The Great Fire of 1910
Swift recovery, Debris removal, rebuilding started quickly
On the night of April 23, 1910, hundreds of newly homeless people gathered in Lake Charles homes, hotels and camps to contemplate what had just happened to them and how they would have to rebuild from scratch. Photos of the Firewalk.
The city of nearly 15,000 had just been ravaged by a fire that encompassed most of the business district, government buildings and one of its finest residential sections.
In all, 109 buildings were destroyed, including the Calcasieu Parish Courthouse, Lake Charles City Hall, Immaculate Conception Church, dozens of commercial buildings, several hotels and dozens of houses. No lives were lost.
That chilly night, hundreds were reported to be gathered in makeshift camps on the outskirts of the city and eating rice being boiled in big cauldrons. The Sisters Marionites of the Holy Cross and their boarding pupils took refuge in St. Patrick Sanitarium after their convent school burned. The Roy Brown family of 13, including 11 children, from Iris Street were given shelter by various friends.
An eyewitness to the fire, Alfred Curtis, who was 15 at the time, was an employee of the Lakeside Steam Laundry. He was particularly sad to see the Lake Charles/William Opera House destroyed. He had spent many hours watching the shows there.
The fire started in a trash pile behind the opera house at 3:40 p.m. that day and raged for three hours after that. He said tickets prices at the opera house, where he once saw magician Harry Houdini, were $2 for the lower level, $1.50 for the balcony and 25 cents for the “buzzards roost,” where he sat. At the time, Curtis was making 50-cents a day.
Another eyewitness, S.O. Tilley, a plumber from Kinder, just happened to be in Lake Charles that day 100 years ago. That night he sat up at the Rigmaiden Hotel with 150 people who had been made homeless by the fire. Capt. Bret Eddy, commander of the local state militia unit, Company K, called out the unit to guard the burned-out district. He had about 50 soldiers to do the patrolling.
Victims of the fire
The American Press reported that there were 100 homeless families and called upon all residents who had not lost their homes to come immediately to the aid of those who lost everything and had to rebuild their lives from scratch.
A few examples of the people who were affected can be gleaned from the 1910 Census which, on April 18, five days before the fire, recorded families living on and around the part of Ryan Street where the fire started.
Ina Lehr, a 33-year-old native of England, lived with her two sons, William and Raynor, at 1019 Ryan St. She gave her occupation as actress and her place of work as the opera house, which was at 916 Ryan St. After the fire, Mrs. Lehr received $500 from her insurance company for her furniture.
Right after her on the same page of the census was Elias Nagem, a 29-year-old native of Syria; his 25-year-old wife, also from Syria; and their 4-yearold son. Nagem ran a grocery business that was among the first to reopen after the fire.
Nearby on Iris Street lived Dan Goodman, 45, with his wife and four children. Goodman had $2,500 in fire losses.
The city rallies
Getting to the homeless shelter and assistance was the first order of business for everyone.
Mayor C. Brent Richard was spending the weekend at his ranch in Gum Cove. Mayor Pro-Tem John H. Poe was out of town on business, but returned that Saturday night. Poe immediately called an emergency meeting of the City Council for 10 a.m. Sunday, April 24, at the Majestic Hotel, which survived the fire because its roof was watered down with its own firefighting equipment. He asked the Police Jury to join them. Both the Elks Lodge and Masonic Lodge offered their buildings to the city and parish as temporary places to conduct their business.
The council prohibited buildings of flimsy construction in the fire zone while rebuilding was going on. It also prohibited shingle roofs in the disaster area. Fire Chief Luther J. Sudduth announced in the newspaper that he was giving remaining businesses 24 hours to clean up trash piles behind their buildings and after that he would start issuing citations.
Mayor Richard, in a followup meeting, said the new City Hall and fire station could be built with insurance money supplemented by a one-mill tax for five or 10 years. The burned city hall was covered by a $10,000 insurance policy.
The Police Jury secured two stories of old Eddy building on Pujo Street, space in the Calcasieu National Bank and in the Von Phul and Gordon building for temporary offices.
Clerk of Court James W. Gardiner said he was in the process of replacing land records that were destroyed. He said many such documents could be found in local abstract offices.
Tax Assessor C.M. Richard said some records of his office were saved, but all the furniture lost.
Registrar of Voters P.D. LeBleu said he had lost all voter registration records and all voters would have to reregister.
Debris removal began the day after the fire, and by that evening Ryan Street was open to traffic. Within a week after the fire, the streets and sidewalks throughout the disaster area were cleared by a large force of laborers and the street commissioner. Most utilities were up and running within a week.
On Monday, April 24, insurance adjusters had converged on the stricken city and within a few days had paid out more than $200,000 in claims. The estimates of insured damages ranged up to $1 million.
Father Hubert Cramers, the 34-year-old pastor of Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, was also taking swift action. The First Baptist Church offered to allow Catholic services in its new church, but Father Cramers gratefully declined since Catholic services would require almost constant use of the facility. Instead, he leased an auditorium on Pujo Street and was making plans for a temporary structure.
Clerk of Court Gardiner offered the sisters of St. Charles Academy, whose facility was destroyed along with other church property, the use of his large house on Elstner Street. The sisters accepted. Father Cramers also appointed a building committee to plan a new church and almost immediately raised $5,000. It was expected that the temporary church would be ready by Sunday, May 8.
Within one week of the fire, rebuilding was already in progress. By then, Edward Escoubas had hired the carpenters and laborers to start rebuilding his home on Cole Street.
Elias Nagem, the grocer who had previously operated a store in the courthouse, secured a building for his new store and was putting in fixtures and stock. It just took John Khoury just a few days to secure a brick building for his grocery business and for Frederic B. Rothkamm’s meat market. Bigger and better The larger projects, rebuilding the parish Courthouse, City Hall and the Catholic church complex, took a little longer.
Within a year of the fire, on April 4, 1911, the Police Jury made the decision to rebuild the courthouse on the same property and enlarge the public square and eliminate South Court Street to make the new building more secure from fires. The panel then accepted the renowned New Orleans architect firm of Favrot and Livaudais to plan the structure.
The courthouse was built by the Texas Building Company of Fort Worth at a cost of $184,237. Its construction was completed on July 2, 1912. Work on the $60,000 City Hall, also planned by Favrot and Livaudais, began Aug. 22, 1911. With improvements to the grounds, it was estimated project would cost $75,000.
The City Council moved into its new home in August of 1912. Local Catholics were ready to start building their grand new church within a year of the fire, as well. They also secured the services of Favrot and Livaudais. Dedication of the new Immaculate Conception Church was on Dec. 18, 1913. The building cost nearly $100,000.
The Sisters rebuilt their school in Margaret Place. Today, those three structures anchor Lake Charles’ public square at Ryan and Kirby streets. All three are on the National Register of Historic Places.
One year after the fire, in 1911, Lake Charles hosted the Louisiana Press Association convention and was praised for the rapidity of its recovery and, especially, for rebuilding bigger and better than before.