Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thanksgiving Catastrophe - 1892

West End Hotel Zinzendorf
R.J. "Dick" Reynolds
In the chilly dawn, Thanksgiving day 1892, R. J. (Dick) Reynolds left his palatial fifth street home with his shotgun and his entourage hiking through the West End forest surrounding the new Hotel Zinzendorf. They were hunting for their Thanksgiving fowl. Dinner promised a festive affair at the Zinzendorf feasting on the results of their successful adventure. Little could they know, before noon, this day would become one of the foulest days in Salem’s history.

As they walked, pushing back brush, their conversations may have involved the July murder of Ellen Smith. Dick was related to the Smith family of Mount Airy and would later marry Katharine Smith, daughter of his cousin. Ellen, a young mulatto maid at the new hotel, was found in the forest thicket behind the Hotel Zinzendorf with a bullet through her heart. (This would be near where the YWCA’s tennis courts are now located). She was 17 and pregnant. Her convicted murderer, also a hotel employee, was in jail awaiting execution by hanging. This murder would, much later, be moralized in the song “Poor Ellen Smith” by the Kingston Trio.

Additional conversation may have centered on the recent visit to the hotel of Adlai Stevenson, Grove Cleveland’s running mate of the Democratic presidential ticket. Papers all over the country reported the gift to Stevenson of “the left hind foot of a graveyard rabbit, a fetish which is said to invariably bring good luck to the possessor.” Stevenson had recently secured all eleven of North Carolina’s electoral votes and defeated Benjamin Harrison and Whitelaw Reid in the national election. Doubtless due to the lucky rabbits foot!

Hotel Zinzendorf Under Construction
An advertisement in May and June of 1892 in the People’s Press of Salem tempted potential guests with “Pure, bracing air, animating and cheerful surroundings, wholesome food properly prepared and temptingly spread, and sweet downy beds that lull to complete bodily rest.” The ad also promised “elevators, electric lights, hot and cold public and private baths on every floor.” The new electric street cars stopped at the front entrance of the 100 room hotel, now the grandest in North Carolina. The Sauratown range and Pilot Mountain could be viewed as the breeze blew through the upper veranda. The ad further promised “the best ventilated, best drained and arranged … in the South” as well as “the most convenient.”

Historic Map (West End and Hotel Zinzendorf bottom center)
This was the “Gay Nineties” just before the financial panic and stock market crash of 1893. The goal of the Zinzendorf developer was to make the Winston area of Salem “one of the finest resort communities in the country”. The lavish hotel was completed in 1891 on a knoll at the head of Fourth Street (one of the highest elevations in Winston). The hotel was later intended to be surrounded by dramatically curving streets, terraced lawns around lavish homes and parks across the hilly terrain. A drawing was published in the October 9, 1890 People’s Press announcing the coming of “a beautiful large four story structure, with broken roofs, Queen Ann style, fitted and furnished in hardwoods, with every accommodation that can add to the comfort of its guests.” On completion in 1891 the grand, 100 room, four story 300 foot long structure was to have ten towers of various sizes and shapes. In addition to the panoramic view of the mountains, the hotel overlooked a huge forest where many of Salem’s leaders hunted wild game.

In the May 1892 People’s Press added another benefit to the list. “Trotting over the hills…you come to the Marienbad and Mystic Parks springs…Too great stress cannot be laid to the mineral waters. They are most valuable, and are daily effecting remarkable cures…On a single day not less than one hundred vehicles filled with people visited them to drink to new health.”

“It was a crisp autumn day with wind,” one of the hunters would recall years later. “We got some wild turkeys and a large number of quail.” The men brought the birds back to the hotel for perpetration as their evening feast. As guest’s made plans for a carriage ride along the elm lined streets of Belgian block the aroma of freshly baked bread filled the kitchen as cooks prepared vegetables and fruit from nearby farms. Milk arrived from the local dairy farm. Hotel manager, E.S. Boswell from the Manhattan Club in New York was known for presenting food “in the daintiest and most appetizing fashion.”

Anticipating the announcement that “Dinner is served” instead the shout rang from the laundry room of FIRE as flames escaped the rear of the innovative, freshly constructed, wood frame hotel covered in wood shingles and boards. The fire raced through the immense structure as the fire companies raced their teams of horses through the cobbled streets. The smoke intensifying in the distance confirmed that a massive fire was in progress.

Guests and people near rushed through the halls removing furniture and fixtures as they ran. Cadets from nearby Davis Military Academy (now the Methodist Children’s Home) plunged into the burning building to rescue guests and possessions. Strong winds whipped the flames helping them devour the wooden frame and cedar shingles. The People’s Press later reported: “Coming down from the center of the roof, in the shape of a V, was the glowing, seething fire. Then, with wonderful rapidity, the flames sped on with wild, fantastic leaps, and ever increasing heat.”

Hotel Zinzendorf Burning
A cheer rose up from the gathering onlookers as the Salem Fire Company’s highly praised “Rough and Ready” steam pumper, pulled by powerful gray horses, arrived on scene. Unfortunately, their enthusiastic effort was in vain as the pressure at the hotel hydrant on this high hill could not throw the water to adequate height. The heat became so intense that it cracked glass windows two blocks away. The whirling wind sucked up burning cinders, ashes, dust and other debris tossing those hundreds of feet. Large pieces of charred shingles were later discovered four and five miles away.

Ruins of the Hotel Zinzendorf
By 1 PM the grand new hotel lay in ruins as onlookers and firemen feasted on an impromptu “picnic on the grounds,” sharing food salvaged from the magnificent dinner-in-the-making rescued from the flames. They gave thanks that no life or adjacent home was lost to the wind driven flames. Col. William A. Blair, one of the early hunters stated that the feast did not include the turkey and quail they bagged. As he put it: “They were cooked all right, but never served.”

Winston-Salem's Historic West End (NC) (Images of America)Disasters and Heroic Rescues of North Carolina: True Stories of Tragedy and Survival (Disasters Series)The People’s Press summarized the cause and effect of the tragedy: “A building composed of most inflammable material, a gasoline stove, carelessness, no water, and there you go!” The loss was covered by insurance but no one stepped forward to rebuild the glorious Zinzendorf following the failing financial markets of 1893.

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