Remember When …When Fitzpatrick’s Hotel Burned Down …

March 17, 1947, was not a lucky day for the community of Clallam Bay. In March 1987, Vera Klock shared the story of that devastating event in the Forks Forum.

March 11, 1987

Remember When …

When Fitzpatrick’s Hotel

Burned Down …

By Vera Klock

At 2 a.m. that St. Patrick’s Day all of Clallam Bay’s population of nearly 200 was sleeping soundly. No, not all, because a 44-year-old logger was wandering around looking for a vacant building in which to spend the night.

He found it at the rear of Norman Mitchell’s Restaurant, a building facing the dock and containing large amounts of sawdust and excelsior used for insulation in the cold-storage lockers nearby, which Mitchell rented. True, it was a cold night but it’s unlikely what happened next ever would have taken place if his judgment hadn’t been impaired. It’s believed he touched a match to a pile of shavings in an attempt to warm himself and set his clothing on fire. Horribly burned the victim was eventually taken by ambulance to Port Angeles, where he died that afternoon.

The town slept on, but not for long. Two young Shelton boys driving a girlfriend home discovered flames leaping skyward. They routed the occupants of the hotel, who ran into the street, still in bedclothes, to help spread the alarm. Loretta Bingston, the town’s telephone operator, assisted by calling every household with a phone. As the town went into action, help arrived from Sekiu.

A lengthy account of the fire written by Gloria Olesen of Clallam Bay to her mother, and retrieved years later and the Monday, March 17, 1947 issue of the Port Angeles Evening News describe the event in vivid detail.

Front-page headlines summarized the fire’s destruction: “14 Clallam Bay Buildings Burn; Loss Well Over $100,000; Use Dynamite to Halt Spread of Fire”

Located on the north side of the main street, the 14 buildings comprised the major portion of Clallam Bay’s business district. Wiped out were a restaurant, cold storage lockers, cafe, hotel and tavern, theater, butcher shop, garage and drug store building, taxi garage, apartment building, barber shop, and a vacant house. Down by the river three abandoned bawdy houses (brothels) also went up in flames.

Bart Murray, a Clallam Bay businessman, remembered a similar disaster that occurred in 1906 when the town burned down. But memories dim and Clallam Bay and Sekiu had no more fire protection than they had the first time.

So the townsmen turned firefighters, faced the challenge of controlling a major fire in an isolated area with virtually no firefighting equipment, without power, insufficient water pressure, and finally without telephone service.

The only thing prevailing for them was a light wind that blew towards the bay, away from the town. But, they met the challenge head-on. Local logger, Howard Storm, and helpers leveled Borde’s drug store, the taxi garage, and a vacant house by setting off a box of dynamite in each. This action is credited with preventing the fire from crossing the street.

Even so, Murray’s Mercantile caught fire but roof-top firefighters quickly squelched the flames by dumping buckets of water down the front of the building. So intense was the heat that fat rendered out of the ham hanging in the store. Dynamite blasts shattered windows in the store and in Pete Lasich’s Last Chance Tavern next door.

When the fire finally started to die down, crowds edged closer to the ruins. Suddenly a fuel tank exploded, spouting flames high into the sky. The crowd retreated in panic, trampling Emma Maneval and breaking her wrist.

According to Mrs. Olesen’s letter, souvenir hunters were still encountering plenty of hot spots two days later.

It was a day of agonizing losses, years of work and effort reduced to ash and rubble, plans for the future gone up in smoke and flames, and the ultimate loss, a man’s life.

Phyllis Fitzpatrick, whose husband, Tom, was in Seattle, watched alone as the flaming Fitzpatrick’s Hotel and Tavern and other business buildings they owned lit up the sky. Another heavy loser was Albert Fernandes, owner of the town’s only theater.

Olesen’s letter mentioned that Harry Lefler, owner of the hardware store, had been in business for just one day. Burned out was the Borde family, who lived in the rear of the drugstore. Fortunately, they were planning a move into a new home. To make the losses more painful, the lack of fire protection made carrying sufficient insurance prohibitive. Some business owners had none.

But rarely is any event, however somber, all one thing. And the piano hauled out of the Wildcat Cafe to the other side of the street gave both Bob Bowlby and (Babe) Fernandes the chance to add a little background music to the unfolding drama. There are those who still remember first one, then another, banging out (what else?) “They’ll be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight.”