The Riverview Hotel (Southeast Missourian archive)
One hundred years ago today, one of the worst fires in Cape Girardeau history destroyed three big buildings clustered near the corner of Broadway and Water Street.
The fire began In the L.B. Houck Building in the "newly furnished and equipped" Buckner-Ragsdale store at southeast corner of Broadway and Main Street, stretching to Water Street. It then traveled south to the adjoining Terminal Hotel. Flames also leaped Broadway from "quality corner" to the historic Riverview Hotel. Along with those buildings, the fire also destroyed Claud Speak's two saloons and a millinery store operated by Mrs. Florence Boone, and left several families homeless.
The end result of this fire that caused so much damage was the push that began immediately for a modern fire department. The editorial that day in The Daily Republican newspaper praised the efforts of the firefighters, while condemning the city fathers:
"Many citizens are now saying that Cape Girardeau should have a larger and better equipped fire department. Perhaps so, but we should remember that our under-paid and overworked firemen have never failed to do good work at a fire. They are not responsible for defective hose and the lack of material to fight fires with. The mayor and city council are solely responsible for any poor results on the part of the fire department. The present firemen, supplied with modern apparatus and a sufficient quantity of it and given living wages, can handle most any fire that may be expected here."
On May 23, 1916, Cape Girardeau voters approved a $15,000 bond issue which allowed the city to purchase two motorized fire engines.
Here is the main story from the March 15, 1916, edition of The Daily Republican.
RIVERVIEW AND TERMINAL HOTELS, BUCKNER-RAGSDALE STORE, TWO SALOONS, MILLINERY STORE BURNED
From blaze causing destruction of buildings and stock worth $200,000 at lowest estimate -- Mrs. Linton Jones and guests of hotels have narrow escapes.
INSURANCE RUNS ABOUT HALF VALUE
Fire believed to have started near furnace in basement of Houck Building -- flames had spread widely before discovered by outsiders -- glass fell over men at east end of building.
Fire starting at 6:30 o'clock this morning destroyed the L.B. Houck office and business building at the corner of Broadway and Main Street.
With the building went the newly furnished and equipped store of the Buckner-Ragsdale Co., which had a stock of $60,000 worth of men's and women's ready-to-wear clothing and shoes.
The flames swept into the Terminal Hotel building adjoining the Houck building and soon had it interiorless.
Reaching across Broadway to the Riverview Hotel, flames more slowly ate their way through that ancient and famous hostelry.
The two saloons of Claud Speak, one in the corner of the Houck Building and the other across the street in the corner of the Riverview Hotel building, were of course destroyed to the last bottle of whiskey and beer.
The millinery store of Mrs. Florence Boone, facing on Main Street just south of the Buckner-Ragsdale store, was totally destroyed.
It is the biggest fire Cape Girardeau has ever suffered. There have been several large fires taking single buildings, but never before have the flames been successful in reaching over as much territory as in the fire of today.
A low estimate on the value of the property destroyed is placed at $200,000. Insurance of one-half that amount was probably carried by the lowers.
The conflagration was attended with only slight inconvenience to those who lived or slept in the burned district.
Mrs. Linton Jones, lessee of the Terminal Hotel, escaped downstairs from the second floor with her fingers burned somewhat while reaching for clothing hanging in the closet of her room.
One sleeper in the building had his knees burned before he awakened and rushed over the roof of an adjoining building to safety. The knees of his trousers were burned through.
Three or four other guests in the building were nearly overcome by the dense smoke which swirled like a catapult into the hotel building. The night clerk. Robert Burgess, told a Republican reporter this morning that a second or two after he first noticed the smoke entering the building, a veritable cloud swept through the place. He made three attempts to go personally to the rooms upstairs to wake guests, but was driven back by the increasing density of smoke. He rang the bells until he could no longer stay in the place. He thought everybody got out to safety.
Hopp, man of the hour.
Louis Hopp, a well-known man about town who lived at the Terminal Hotel, told The Republican that he turned in the alarm of the fire at 6:25 o'clock. He said he got up early in order to go to Marble Hill with H.E. Alexander. As he left his room on the second floor, he said, he noticed the smoke. He told a (black) porter that some rags must be burning. At that time smoke could be noticed in the halls.
Hopp said he went on downstairs and to the Terminal saloon on the corner. He says he told the barkeeper of the smoke ad shortly after flames were seen in the Buckner-Ragsdale store above the saloon. It was at this time that Hopp says he rushed to the telephone and told the operator the Buckner-Ragsdale store was on fire.
Hopp said he noticed the time and then waited for the fire department to respond. He says it was 20 minutes after he gave the alarm to central until the department arrived.
He went back to the Terminal and gave the alarm, he said. All guests were immediately called ad the 15 persons were hustled out. Some became so excited that they left most of their belongings.
Hopp declares the flames were first noticed in the rear of the Buckner-Ragsdale store, and the porter at the Terminal saloon said the same. How the smoke could have reached the Terminal Hotel before the flames were seen in the store is a mystery and Hopp couldn't account for it.
Some men who were on the levee during the fire contended that the furnace in the basement of the Terminal hotel had been acting badly all winter, and they believed it caused the fire.
Drummer's close call.
W.J. Mathews, a drummer for an Eastern house, had a close call. He arrived on an early morning train and went across the street to the Terminal Hotel. He was assigned to a corner room on the second floor. He was awakened by excitement out in the hall, he said and when he looked up flames were bursting through his door. He grabbed his clothing and grip and rushed out just in time to save himself. After reaching the hall, he slipped on his trousers and in order to get to the first floor he had to crawl on his knees. The floor was so hot that the knees of his trousers were scorched.
News of the fire spread over the city rather slowly. In the west end people went to their work or were well on their way at 7 or 7:30 o'clock when they heard that the conflagration was threatening the entire downtown business district.
Then as the news got about, people made their way to the levee front and by 7:30 o'clock there were probably 2,000 people standing about watching the splendid spectacle. A half hour later and hundreds of school children and probably 2,000 or 3,000 more people lined Main Street and the water front.
By 7:30 o'clock the Houck Building was reduced to ashes and brick, and all had tumbled to the basement, which seemed full and level to the top with glowing embers and brick. At that time flames were sweeping through the tall Terminal Hotel building. They were only starting on the south side of the Riverview Hotel building.
The millinery store of Mrs. Boone had been swept clean of its contents by 8 o'clock, and the Terminal was then experiencing the collapse of the several floors, which fell with dense and muffled thuds. When now and then sections of the side walls fell, loud reports were heard. A barrel of whiskey in the Terminal bar frequently exploded with a clear, musket-like report.
Only after the Terminal Hotel had burned down and only the front and rear walls were standing like monuments, the Riverview Hotel began to blaze furiously The attack of the flames was much slower, as they started at the top of the hotel at the south end and ate their way across and down through the building. It was after 9 o'clock that the front side of the hotel facing the Frisco depot began to burn furiously The wind from the northeast sent swirling boards torn from the front and myriads of large embers down onto the street and caused the crowds to push back to the edge of the river.
Terminal Hotel (Southeast Missourian archive)
By 11 o'clock the Riverview's four floors had fallen in and there remained only the side walls standing.
After the Terminal Hotel had been burned out and the floors which held the walls in place had sunk to the basement, the front wall with a section of the south wall stood high and towering. The south wall swayed in the strong wind several times, and a great crowd gathered to watch until it should fall. A strong gust finally swept it over and several tons of brick fell on a narrow one-story building which stood between the Dempsey building and the Terminal Hotel. The little building was buried. Flames soon sprang up in the woodwork of the building, but were quenched by firemen who, by that time, were thick, being augmented by firemen of the Frisco sent from Chaffee with several reels of hose on a special train.
Four or five families living in the buildings south of the Terminal Hotel facing the river moved their belongings to the levee away from the buildings, which were then believed to be doomed.
At 7 o'clock and for an hour afterwards it appeared as if the entire block between Broadway and Themis Street was certain to be destroyed. John Vogelsanger rushed from the riverfront end of his store to the Main Street side, and he believed for an hour or so that he was doomed to see his big store destroyed.
The fire wall between the Houck Building and that owned by Clay Phelps in which N.S. Weiler has his jewelry store, withstood the terrific heat of the blaze, and the flames were held away from the rest of the block as a result. The space between the Terminal Hotel and the Dempsey buildings on the Water front side of the block prevented the Dempsey building from catching fire.
A panic nearly resulted at the Riverview Hotel, when the alarm of fire was sounded through the building by the night clerk, Conie Wise. Wise, when he heard of the fire across the street, ran up the steps of the hotel shouting, "Fire!"
The guests jumped from their beds and started out of their rooms in their night clothes, thinking that the hotel was afire, but Walter Schlueter, day clerk, followed Wise and calmed the guests. Schlueter told them they had plenty of time to get out, as the flames were across the street. The guests then returned to their rooms, dressed and left the hotel orderly. All of them saved their belongings.
Mrs. Allen near hysterics.
E.C. Allen, manager of the Riverview Hotel and proprietor of the Riverview lunch room, lost very little in the flames. Allen had only a small investment in the hotel and, beyond some bed clothes and several pictures, his loss amounted to little. He saved all the fixtures in the dining room by carrying them out of the building before the flames got that far. Allen had just recently completed the lunch room, which was one of the finest to be found in this part of the state.
Mrs. Hattie Allen, mother of the manager of the Riverview Hotel, nearly went into hysterics when the alarm of fire was sounded through the building, and she had to be carried away. Her son and Walter Schlueter, day clerk, took her to the St. Charles Hotel on Main Street. She is pretty far advanced in age, and the shock affected her seriously.
The guests registered at the Riverview Hotel and who left the hotel before the blaze got to it were:
Dorothy Mickey of Chicago, an advance agent for a show troupe; W.A. Wells, a traveling man from Chicago; W.S. Winley, a newcomer to Cape Girardeau; J.H. Smith, H.R. Carle, F.E. Martin of Cairo; a Mr. McCann of Johnson City, Ill.; T.F. Vossmeyer of St. Louis, Nick Tuttle, E.F. Wilson and H. Martin of Chaffee; T.H. Carroll of Parkersburg, Va.; and W.R. Cooley, Robert Ruehmann and Jack Hobbs.
Six families burned out.
Six families living over the Houser & Caruthers store, corner of Main and Broadway, gathered their household goods as soon as the flames spread from the Buckner-Ragsdale store to the Riverview Hotel and with the aid of friends moved them to a vacant lot just across the street, at the rear of a grocery.
Those who lived in the building were:
Mr. and Mrs. George Hulvey and son Roy; Mrs. Barbara Watkins and daughter, Mrs. Maud Holt; Mr. and Mrs. Dennis Simmons and baby; Mrs. Hanna Whitener and two sons; Mr. and Mrs. Everett Dunn and baby and J.H. Clore and his family of five. Most of them moved back into the building later in the day when the flames were finally subdued.
The occupants of the Houck building were all heavy losers by the fire. Attorney Harry E. Alexander lost his fine library, valued at $8,000 and all his office fixtures. Alexander was not in the city, having gone to Marble Hill at an early hour on legal business, and a statement could not be secured from him, but others in the building said they knew Alexander carried but $2,500 insurance on his office fixtures and library.
Wilson Bain, an attorney in the building and manager of the Southeast Adjustment Bureau, lost all his office fixtures, files, law books and business books in the blaze. Bain carried no insurance at all.
Several offices swept clean.
The Southwest Realty Company, Dr. Moses Rosenthal, Ben Vinyard, Dr. J.V. Braham, Attorney R.H. Whitelaw, and Holmon S. Dean lost all of their fixtures in the blaze. Rosenthal, Vinyard, Dean and the Southwest Realty Company had their office fixtures pretty well covered by insurance, it was reported. Braham had only a small amount of insurance and Whitelaw had none at all. His loss was total.
Mrs. O. Henry, who lived over the Weiler jewelry store, got all of her household goods out barely in time to save them being scorched and water soaked. The flames got into the upstairs part of the building occupied by the Weiler store, but were subdued before they spread any farther or got down into the store.
It was feared several times that the blaze would spread across Water Street from the Riverview Hotel to the Frisco passenger station, but good work by the firemen prevented it from spreading that far. All the telegraph instruments, fixtures, ____ cabinets and other things in the depot were taken into a box car and were sent up the Frisco tracks to a safe point.
Every Frisco wire leading south of Cape Girardeau was put out of commission by the blaze, but a force of workmen were brought up from Chaffee on a special train and put to work getting the wires back.
Dispatcher W.T. Donnelly was transferred from Chaffee to Cape Girardeau to work the train orders on the north end and a temporary office was established north of the depot.
For a time it seemed that possibly a man or two might have lost their lives in the Terminal Hotel, but the clerk and others said they thought the guests had gotten out.
Wake Jones, the day clerk, fled when awakened by the noise. He grabbed the register as he left the place with his mother. The register showed the following persons assigned to rooms for the night:
C.B. Maxwell, St. Louis, room 6; M.E.S. Walker, Illmo, room 26; C.J. Meek, St. Louis, room ____; J.R. Smith, Canalou, room 18; Charles Storks, Allenville, room 29; J.T. Johnston, Vienna, room 16; Glen Klingen, Elsinore, room 28; Joseph Love, Brazeau, room 10; John Smith, room 23; E.J. Reynolds, St. Joseph, room 3; B.J. Brown, room 9; Wal Hendrix, St. Louis, room 10; Frank Berry, known as Happy Anderson, Louis Hopp, and Alvin Albert were permanent residents at the hotel and all got out safely.