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Calcasieu Historical Preservation Society

The Fire Walk Script , The Architecture of Recovery

Good afternoon.

One hundred years and one day ago a violent conflagration destroyed property and disrupted lives in our corner of Louisiana.  Certainly, there have been many other disasters:  floods, yellow fever and influenza epidemics, hurricanes in 1933 and 1957.  Only very recently, we experienced Rita and Ike.  So it can be said that the disasters are no strangers to us in Southwest Louisiana.

So what makes this particular disaster so unusual and why are we commemorating this particular recovery?  I would suggest that this disaster was relatively compact and relatively complete.  Not only did the fire clear out the early, in some cases original development in downtown Lake Charles, it also cleared out a particular nineteenth century notion of how cities work.  Recovery from the Great Fire created for Lake Charles a completely new, modern way of building and using downtown.

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The Fire Walk Script, 4th Stop: The Ashes Cool

The fire continued to burn eastward and southward to end the continuous destruction at the Catholic Cemetery at Iris and Common Streets.  However, wind-blown embers caused spot fires in many parts of the city.  Even a house located two full blocks away on Kirkman Street ignited and went up in flames.  Similarly, spot fires were reported throughout the city.

Pithon Coulee kept the fire from progressing any farther south along Ryan Street.  Pithon Coulee was graced with what amounted to a freshwater swamp at the foot of Front Street (now Lakeshore Drive).  The swamp kept the fire from progressing into the newly developed Margaret Place subdivision.  Before the construction of Shell Beach Road, a rickety boardwalk crossed the coulee onto the south shore of the lake.  The rickety boardwalk was known as a local "lover's lane" for its un-chaperoned use by young couples.

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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.

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The Fire Walk Script, 2nd Stop: 900 Block of Ryan Street

And back to the day, that fateful day, the 23rd of April.  It was a Saturday, a working day for most people.  Men worked at the mills or for the railroad, or toiled in shops and forges, warehouses, in the fields, or rarely, in offices.  Women maintained households, doing laundry, cleaning, sewing, or perhaps shopping for the Sunday dinner.  A few women operated their own shops and stores.  Children would help their families by harvesting vegetables, greens, and strawberries from family gardens, or they would perform other necessary chores both inside and outside.  For working children, and there were many, the day meant running errands and delivering messages, helping in a shop, or working for a blacksmith or a livery stable, or most dangerously at a sawmill or woodworking shop.

For the few who worked a half-day or indeed, had the entire day off, they might have taken one of the trolleys to Barbe's Pleasure Pier or to Walnut Grove to enjoy the day.  An electric railway ran right down Ryan Street and onto South Ryan, to end at Lake Street where one could fish or swim, or just hold hands at the water's edge.  They might have chosen to visit friends or family, or perhaps to pack a picnic to enjoy at Orange Grove Cemetery.  A lucky few might have chosen to take a short train excursion to Welsh or Jennings, or to Orange, Texas and marvel at trains that raced at up to 50 miles per hour.

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The Fire Walk Script, 1st First Stop: 1911 Memorial Plaza

The story starts like this.  It was a sunny, windy and hot April 23, in 1910 in Lake Charles.  On the lake, cypress and pine logs floated in corrals waiting for the log wranglers to skid them on land for processing in one of the several sawmills that still operated.  Although the height of the timber industry had been some years earlier, lumber was still a big employer in Calcasieu.  Indeed, Calcasieu had produced much of the lumber, millwork and shingles that rebuilt Galveston ten years earlier after a great storm devastated that coastal city.

This lakeshore town was also busy with the hustle and bustle of rail.  For the last 25 or so years, ever since Lake Charles linked up to New Orleans, Shreveport, Houston and the rest of the United States by rail, traveling to Southwest Louisiana had been much improved.  By 1910, three major rail companies operated passenger and freight service out of the city.  Prior to the coming of the train, travelers wrote of 8 and 12 day trips just to get to New Orleans.  Now by rail it was just a breezy five hours, with as many as twelve trains a day making runs to just New Orleans.

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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.

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