Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Fort William Henry Hotel Fire 100th Anniversary

This month marks the 100th anniversary of the destruction by fire of the Fort William Henry Hotel in Lake George. On June 24, 1909, the day before the hotel set to open for the season, it was destroyed in a blaze that started in the early morning hours.

According to Bryant Franklin Tolles’ Resort Hotels of the Adirondacks, “It was here that tourism in the Adirondack region originated and the first foundations of a substantive hospitality industry were firmly established.”

The hotel was built in 1854-55 beside the ruins of the old fort which were a significant attraction for visitors. It was organized and built by a stock company headed by New York architect Thomas Thomas. It was initially a three-story T-shaped building 235 feet wide with a large two-tiered veranda; within a year it was enlarged considerably adding 100 feet across the lakeside frontage to provide accommodation for more than 350 guests (it previously had a capacity of under 200). In the late 1860s (to coincide with Adirondack Murray’s Rush) it was enlarged again under the ownership of T. E. Roessle & Son of Albany to provide for 900 people and included fifth and sixth stories. In 1901 private bathrooms were installed and the the hotel was given a make-over to keep pace with more modern hotels and took on the name “The New Fort William Henry Hotel.”

At the time of the fire the hotel had just recently been purchased by the Delaware & Hudson Railroad. According to the Ticonderoga Sentinel report on the fire of 1909, “The destruction of the hotel was complete. The power house which stood some distance from the main building alone was saved.” When the fire was discovered (in the kitchen) it was already a raging inferno and it took just 45 minutes to destroy the historic landmark.

There were no guests at the time, but 80 workers living there narrowly escaped, most losing everything they owned. The hotel manager J. E. Wilson barely made his way from the burning building. There were some heated discussions within the upper echelons of the company as to whether the hotel should be rebuilt, but they were overcome by the fall of 1909. The plans were delayed again for a short time by the Public Service Commission’s initial refusal to allow the company to issue bonds for the rebuilding (it was a hotel after all, not a railroad).

The new hotel was designed by a Boston firm that included Charles S. Peabody, son of George Foster Peabody (of Peabody Award fame). The new Fort William Henry Hotel cost some $300,000 and was designed to be fireproof (made of steel, concrete, brick, and stucco) and was U-shaped, two to four stories high with a capacity of about 300. During construction of the new foundation a Colonial era swivel gun was found – it was given to Fort Ticonderoga in 1937.

1909 was a big year for the southern end of Lake George. In addition to the destruction of the Fort William Henry Hotel, the clearing of the then overgrown Lake George Battlefield occurred. The previous year the D & H Company had made plans to develop the land at the head of the lake (today’s Beach Road). That spring the company filled the wetland that stood in front of the hotel, they built two new roads (now Beach and West Brook roads), a bathhouse, and new docks (one of these collapsed with 25 people on it during a speedboat race in 1926). It was also announced that the Delaware and Hudson would build a new railroad station (still standing across from the Lake George Steamship Company’s pier and pictured here).

The most prominent new landmark was known as “the Pergola” a lakeside restaurant, dance hall casino which included retail shops, two observation towers, and a large concrete arch to carry visitors over the road. In the 1940s the facilities came under the ownership of Warren County. The Pergola was torn down in 1949 to make way for the current Beach Road which was rebuilt by the county to provide improved access to Million Dollar Beach which was proposed in 1946 and completed in 1951. At the same time the shoreline east of the railroad station was also filled.

In 1915 New York State sued the Fort William Henry Hotel. The state complaint alleges,” the Ticonderoga Sentinel reported, “that the company filled in the lake in front of the… hotel and adjoining lands and has erected a station, dock, restaurant, etc., thus curtailing the rights of the public.” The state also alleged that the hotel had closed what had been a public highway (now Beach Road) for their own use thus closing off access to the village from the east side of the lake. The state demanded that all the “improvements” made by the hotel be removed and the lake be restored. An agreement made at the Lake George court the following year provided for the company to be granted the land it had taken in exchange for opening the road to the east shore to the public.

Unfortunately, the rise of automobile travel meant that railroad resorts like the Fort William Henry Hotel would decline. Fewer visitors led to the cancellation of the hotel’s winter season in 1915 and in 1929 the company put the hotel on the market (along with the Hotel Champlain on Bluff Point near Plattsburgh). In the 1930s the hotel was turned over to the Warren County Railway Company and in 1940 Elizabethtown hotelier and railroad man Guy Davenport (owner of the Windsor Hotel) leased the hotel and grounds for 25 years.

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John Warren

John Warren has been exploring the woods and waters of the Adirondacks for almost 50 years. After a career as a print journalist and documentary television producer he founded Adirondack Almanack in 2005 and co-founded the geolocation services company Adirondack Atlas in 2015.

John remains active in traditional media. His Adirondack Outdoors Conditions Report can be heard Friday mornings across the region on the stations of North Country Public Radio and on 93.3 / 102.1 The Mix. Since 2008, John has been a media specialist on the staff of the New York State Writers Institute.

John is also a professional researcher and historian with a M.A. in Public History. He edits The New York History Blog and is the author of two books of regional history. As a Grant Consultant for the William G. Pomeroy Foundation, he has reviewed hundreds of historic roadside marker grant applications from around New York State for historical accuracy.




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