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Calcasieu Historical Preservation Society

The Fire Walk - Script for the Fourth 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.

On the north side, flames continued almost to Division Street and on the northeast, the strong southwest wind fanned the flames almost to Kirkman Street.  Over 30 blocks of the city were affected and seven whole city blocks were burned to the ground.  At least 5,000 people were dislocated, at the time about a third of the population of Lake Charles.  Many were housed in commodity warehouses along Railroad Avenue, in the homes of friends and relatives in other parts of the city, and in churches.  The rice mill provided cauldrons of boiled rice in an effort to allay hunger.

Early in the fire, emergency telegrams had been sent to neighboring cities for assistance, but by the time crews and equipment came from Jennings, Orange and Alexandria by rail, the fire was coming to a close.  Once the fire expanded beyond the relative densely constructed downtown where roofs and walls were made of wood, the lack of fuel literally killed the fire.

At this corner was the St. Claire Hotel which was totally destroyed. (Ave Maria Center)

Of particular concern to the Catholics of the parish was the loss of the wooden framed Church which was built in 1881 to replace the modest original church built in 1869.  By 1910, the congregation had added a rectory, a convent, and a school which provided education to day students and to boarders who lived at the convent.  The entire complex was leveled by the fire.

Ten Pin Alley separates the current church and rectory from the site of the original church.  The story goes that when the 1881 church was constructed, the land had to be mortgaged to pay for its construction.  When the Dutch bankers asked whether the land was "good land or hilly land" the response was that it was level enough for to play ten pins" hence the name.  Ten Pin Alley provided service access to the center of the block both before and after the great fire.  It is still in place today.

After the fire the nursing nuns of St. Patrick Sanitarium provided housing for the teaching nuns and for the boarders.  Other churches offered to host services but a new church of their own was viewed as essential to meet the church's mission in Southwest Louisiana.  It had been the only Catholic Church for an area of over 5,000 square miles.  The church met for a time at what was called the Auditorium building and the congregation discussed heatedly how to rebuild both the church and the school, given the immensity of their loss.  It was essential to their existence.

Essential to the general survival of the area was the return of order, the reconstruction of City Hall, the Courthouse and the jail, and reestablishment of the many businesses and homes which had been lost.  In addition, documented parish, business, and church records had to be reconstructed.  Total physical losses were pegged at $4,000,000 in 1910.  At that time, two thousand dollars bought and furnished a three bedroom home.

An effort to partially reconstruct parish land records took another 12 months, and many land abstracts to this day begin with the words "on the 23rd of April, 1910, a great conflagration" to explain some of the inconsistencies in tracking ownership.  While the staff of the Clerk of Court is generally helpful and conscientious, some requests for specific documents do get the response that "oh, dear, that was burned up in the fire".

And while there was a great loss of property and records there was no known loss of life reported as a result of the great fire, except for one unfortunate temporary guest of the parish sheriff.

The jail had been lost in the fire and the sheriff of Calcasieu Parish, D J Reid, son of a sheriff and part of the great Reid Dynasty of Calcasieu Sheriffs, determined that his prisoners would remain prisoners for the duration of their sentence.

Sheriff Reid transported the prisoners to his own home at Ford and Pine Streets where they resided as his guests for a year.  Local lore has it that during this time, one of the prisoners attempted an escape from the third floor attic where the temporary jail had been established.  The escape by crashing through the attic's window failed and, as the tale continues, the ghostly sounds of breaking glass and a last desperate cry are sometimes heard in the neighborhood.

Another casualty of the Great Fire may have been Imperial Calcasieu Parish itself.  In 1840 Calcasieu Parish had been created from the western half of St. Landry Parish.  Thirty years later, Cameron Parish was carved out of the coastal part of Calcasieu.  By 1900, communities in the east and north of Calcasieu Parish began petitioning for their own parishes and courts.

Residents of the Merryville and DeRidder areas had held at least two formal convocations to petition independence as early as 1900.  For property transfers, paying tax, performing jury duty, or conducting other court business residents had to make a two-to-three day trip to the parish seat of Lake Charles by horse and train.

It is speculated that the loss of records may have tipped the scales in the movement to establish new parishes.  Seven months after the fire, a special convention was called with the specific purpose of formally dividing Imperial Calcasieu Parish, and by 1912 the civil parishes of Jefferson Davis, Allen and Beauregard were carved out and established.

From this viewpoint, you can see three of the legacy structures from the recovery of the great fire:  The great domed Calcasieu Courthouse, the 1911 City Hall and the Church, now Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.

For concluding statements about the Architecture of Recovery and for a question and answer session, please follow me to the steps of the Historic Calcasieu Courthouse.