The Golden Hotel Fire


I sat in my school bus at a red light on the corner of East Second and Center Streets, a hair past seven o’clock on a Tuesday morning. It was 40 years ago this week. [The column appeared March 30, 2002]

Smoke – or maybe steam? – was coming out of a sidewalk freight elevator door in front of the Golden Hotel, on the west side of Center between Second and Commercial Row. It was smoke. I turned onto Center Street, parked and pulled the handle on the fire alarm pedestal in front of Parker’s Mens Store. I had no option than to leave for Stead airbase and collect my high school kids, and fearing the bus getting caught behind the fire lines they’d surely lay I drove north on Center Street. I saw one fire truck come around the corner off West Second Street from the old main station on Commercial Row at West Street, then another. A plume of smoke steadily grew in my mirrors by the time I reached the hill above the U of N, where I would normally be in class by 9 a.m.

But not on April 3rd, 1962…

• • •

Frank Golden – a Tonopah miner and banker – built the opulent four-story Golden Hotel in 1906. Golden died shortly after it was completed, and the hotel was operated by the Wingfield clan for two decades, then finally the Tomerlin brothers, who bought it in 1956. They remodeled it, including long rows of aluminum louvers on each row of windows facing the street; louvers that City Building Inspector Ronald Coleman would later say were in compliance with city code. The “New Golden” was a Reno icon of excellence.

• • •

On that fateful morning, a welder’s acetylene tank had exploded in the basement, while most of the 142 hotel guests were still asleep. The fire spread quickly, and ignited a Nash Metro – a little tiny car, for the younger readers – that was displayed as a prize and positioned on the ground floor above the acetylene tank in the basement. The heat from the tank and the car was intense, and traveled straight up in a matter of a very few minutes, filling all the hallways with dense smoke and exploding through the roof hard enough to blow roofing material all over the block.

Guests and hotel employees did a commendable job of running throughout the building spreading the word to evacuate, which many were able to do through stairwells. Others, however, were trapped in their rooms and the fire department was having one hell of a time trying to evacuate them through the aluminum trim that had been placed over the windows in the 1956 effort to modernize the hotel.

Fire Chief Wagner Sorensen recognized early on that this was a fire of major proportion and pulled out all the stops, mustering help from Sparks, who sent a pumper and fifteen men, Stead Air Force Base, another pumper; Washoe County Fire – later Truckee Meadows Fire Protection District, now incorporated into Reno – an engine, and Warren Engine Company from Carson City, who sent their brand new “Snorkel” unit. Reno even put their little 1926 American LaFrance, which had long been in reserve, into service and it performed Yeoman duty as a pumper. Bell Telephone and Sierra Pacific Power sent high-lift equipment, as did several contracting firms, and Reno Iron Works sent a crane that lifted a bucket carrying several firemen with hoses. Newspaper photos clearly show hoses playing water off the fire escapes of Harolds Club’s seven-story tower to cool them down.

Some horror stories of trapped hotel guests were beginning to hit the street – one of a dancer named Carol Maye, line captain of the Barry Ashton “Playmates of Paris Review” that was playing at the Golden. Carol was last seen overcome in a smoky corridor. Jimmy Nuzzo, one of Sam Butera’s Witnesses playing at the Mapes with Louis Prima and Keely Smith, was nowhere to be found. Reno police Lieutenant Ray Cavallo was credited with one of the brightest deeds of the day – entering the hotel at the outset of the fire and grabbing the hotel’s guest register, enabling rescue crews to account for guests, one-by-one, room-by-room. The register was already singed when Ray brought it out of the building.

But the smoke continued to billow relentlessly hours later, even with the incredible amount of water being dumped into the fire. (Sierra Pacific Power boosted their Idlewild Park and High Street pumps up to summer output.) In Carson City, State Forester George Zappettini offered the services of the state on behalf of Governor Grant Sawyer, who was enroute to Japan. State pilot Chuck Destree, a native Hawthorne boy, hopped the State’s Beechcraft C-45 – a D18 with two big radial engines to you civilians – from Carson City to the Reno airport and took on plain ol’ Truckee River H20, not Borate, as many people thought. Chuck made two passes over the carcass of the Golden, still churning out black smoke, and on each pass dumped half his cargo on the fire.

Playing hooky from class* – as was the rest of the campus and everyone else in Reno – I watched from the roof of Harolds Club’s tower as Chuck came in from the south and made the first dump, smack-into the cavity of the fire, and voila, the smoke abated considerably. He climbed and circled to the west and flew over again, dumping the second chamber, and the smoke turned white and let up even more. The will of the fire was broken and the firemen were then able to see where to best play their streams of water. Soon it was under control, if far from out. [*I got the word in my school bus that Reno schools were called off so I skipped that run all the way north to Bordertown.]

And I got pictures for the University’s Sagebrush newspaper of the top of a Twin Beech airplane – about 75 feet above the parapets of the Golden. I asked Chuck last week what he remembered the most about the mission, and he said it was looking back at the fire after the second drop, then turning forward again and seeing Morrill Hall at the University of Nevada looming up in front of him.

One victim was taken from the Golden that day, the only known fatality that day. It would be a full month before the sixth victim was found.

Next Saturday, the saga continues…

• • •

Mopping Up the Golden Hotel Fire

In the last column we gawked as the four-story downtown Golden Hotel burned to the ground in a spectacular inferno on April 3, 1962, a Tuesday. This Saturday morning, we have a few facts, reader questions, and anecdotes about the 40-year old fire, which defy being put into any particular order:

How many people died? Good question. While most assumed the count to be seven, I’m able to verify only six, that last one a hotel employee found in the basement debris a full month after the fire. Hospitalized? Forty people, give or take a few, mostly from smoke, a few with burns. Five firefighters hospitalized briefly were Leonard Howard, 27 at the time and William (OB) O’Brien, both still with us, and three late firemen, Bob Kerns, then 31, John Henderson, 39, and Garvel (Ace) Acres. Heroes? Hotel employee Paul Gallo and fireman Smokey (Lloyd) Davison, who carried, down two flights of stairs and out the front door, a woman – Margaret McCollum – self-described in an April 4th Nevada State Journal interview as weighing 200 pounds, by a Gazette reporter as “stout” and by fireman Davison as 300 pounds. No ballerina, by anybody’s account, but she sent them thank-you cards for many years to follow.

How much water did the airplane drop? Twelve hundred gallons, according to the Reno Evening Gazette, 200 gallons according to State Forestry pilot Chuck Destree (1,200 gallons – five tons – might slightly overgross a Twin Beech!) Did it help? The firefighters said not much, the Pacific Fire Rating Bureau (whose records I had access to in researching this piece) in their final report said yes. Either way it was cool to watch. From several readers: Didn’t the hotel burn once before? No, the Grand Hotel, to the south of the Golden (on the corner), burned on March 4th of 1959 and two floors had to be removed. And the Golden Eagle hotel, a block away, burned on May 6, 1929 (NSJ). How many people worked at the Golden? 513 on April 3, 1962. (And 143 guests on that day.)

Were there other alarms? According to the Reno Fire guys and the later PFRB after-action account the initial notice was a frantic phone call FIRE! From a person too excited to leave a location; right on top of that the Gamewell code from the box I pulled and almost immediately after another code from the pull box on Commercial Row and Center. The phone call got everybody awake; the box codes told them to head east and the smoke was apparent. There is no truth to the rumor that when the dispatcher said to the phone caller, “Wait, how do we get there?” that he answered, “Don’t you still have the big red trucks?”

OK, back to work: What did surrounding businesses do? Officials of First National Bank – now the Planet Hollywood [and now struggling] – doused their roof with a garden hose. Harrah’s and Harolds did finally close, briefly. Harold Smith Sr. walked around Harolds casino floor playing his violin, and no, I don’t know if he was fiddling Nearer My God to Thee.

From a reader: “What was the name of the malt shop in the basement?” The Malt Shop. And a dandy it was, right off of a Hot August Nights poster – white wrought-iron furniture, a checkerboard floor, candy-striped awnings and real malts. No one asked, but many will remember Art Conde and Joe De Rosa, who owned the hotel barbershop. They relocated to the Ryland Barber Shop on South Virginia and were clippin’ again by the next Saturday. Didn’t (Justice of the Peace) Bill Beemer pull one body out of the debris? That story’s another only-Bill Beemer local legend, but one best left unchronicled. I’ll leave it at “yes.”

What happened to the money and chips on the gaming tables when the fire broke out? My personal guess would be that at that midweek early hour (7 a.m.) in the off-season there probably weren’t too many tables open. The April 4th REG details Golden exec Phil Downey running around trying to salvage what he could until the heat of the fire drove him out onto the street. Grifall Construction ultimately took the Golden Hotel’s carcass to the Isbell pit – near the bluff by the Hilton Hotel’s [Grand Sierra Hotel] south main floor entrance – where the debris was rechecked for bodies. And, according to Don Stockwell, he of the photographic memory, guards finally had to be posted to keep treasure hunters from scavenging for souvenir chips and the silver melted into the slot machines.

Former Golden employee Susan Marler tells a couple of stories. First, a Thornton Wilder-like tale of a sixty-ish Golden Hotel resident, whose name was Lucia Pedlar according to both papers if it’s the same person Susan spoke of. Lucia was confined to a wheelchair following a surgery, and able, more each passing day, to leave her room for meals and remain on the ground floor for an ever-lengthening period of time. The whole Golden staff was pulling for her and sustaining her courage to pump up her rehabilitation. Lucia was doing well.

She died in the fire.

The second Susan Marler story is happier, of Marilyn Monroe, who resided in the Mapes, natch, during the filming of The Misfits a couple years before the fire. Following the completion of the movie, Marilyn moved into the Golden for a time, by one account. Susan recalls seeing her shopping for a magazine at the gift store one day, and watched to see what the starlet liked to read.

Marilyn left for the elevator and her room with the latest copy of Sunshine and Health – an aù naturel sunbathing magazine. OK, OK – a nudie mag. [The report that Marilyn ever stayed at the Golden was questioned by several readers.]

And off track from our fire topic, I’m compelled to report that the April 5th Gazette included a sports piece about pro rassler Don Manoukian’s State Building bout with twin midgets, named Lord Littlebrook and Little Beaver. Ask ‘Nouk about that night. I’d rather not.

I’m grateful to Janyce Bentley and Mary Florentz for offering me some old Reno Evening Gazettes and Nevada State Journals – coincidentally just as I was planning this piece for the fire’s 40th anniversary. I’m also indebted to the Nevada Historical Society, retired Reno Fire Captains Joe Granata and the late Jim Arlin, Reno Fire Department archives, and the Pacific Fire Rating Bureau (now Insurance Service Office/ISO) – and to you readers for your input.

photo credit Reno Evening Gazette
© Karl Breckenridge 2002