The Golden Hotel fire, April 3 1962


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


CarmineGhiaOK, I’ve been fooling around learning what I can do and what I can’t on this website that does all the work for me, so this column’s presence is about to get put onto my e-mail as a signature to attract a little crowd – as of this writing if you got here it was by accident. I am posting a photo (booking) of my research assistant, who has been with me for many years – his name is Carmine Ghia, which many find curious. They would find Carmine himself to be even more curious, but he’s an excellent researcher, as he has the time, about two-to-five. Photos of more members of my staff will follow, all from the old Blue Place Special days.

Our website RESEARCHER is Carmine Ghia, who matriculated at Julliard Institute in New York City and honed his research craft while with the New England Journal of Medicine. He became a household word in music while backing up, on steel guitar, the many appearances of the great Irish tenor Mary O’Lanza at Lincoln Center and Tanglewood, and later, while under contract to Buster Brown Shoes, adapting Mussorgsky’s Concerto in O Positive to the popular Teddy Bear’s Picnic used on the company’s Saturday morning radio program Big John & Sparky: No School Today!, a radio forerunner of TV’s 60 Minutes

Ghia (whose name appeared in our first Blue Plate Special in 1971) may frequently be found unearthing little-known nor cared-for facts about our valley, at the Nevada Historical Society (where we send particular greetings to senior librarian Mike Maher), the Sparks Heritage Museum, Sundance Bookstore where he goes to borrow information from the works of other local writers, the Reno Gazette-Journal’s morgue, the local fire departments, and just getting on the phone taking chances that someone who answers may know something about something. Often that works. Or, if Carmine’s totally stuck, we just run it on the website and see who disputes the story – that works like a charm (kidding. sort of.)

A pleasant letter from an old friend, with some old Reno geography…

EricHi Karl,
The cover story in the Food & Drink section of this morning’s RG-J reminded me of when my family first moved to Reno in spring 1950. For about four weeks or so we lived in the Suburban Motel on the north side of East Pueblo St. between South Virginia St. and Wells Avenue. Although the unit we stayed in had primitive kitchen facilities, my father and I had hamburgers a couple of times at Landrum’s. (My brother John was only two – too young for hamburgers.) I was duly enrolled in Veterans Memorial Elementary School, to which I could easily walk. I think I remember that Bob Blair was there, and possibly Marilyn Peterson. >Petie Anyway, my parents found a house to rent on Hood Avenue, off Valley Road, which was then in the far north of Reno. I transferred to Sierra Vista Elementary School, also within walking distance of our house, for the remainder of third grade and most of fourth grade. The house lease was for one year, and just before the lease expired my parents bought the house I grew up in on the southeast corner of Keele Drive and Von Way. California Avenue had not yet been extended past Hunter Lake Drive, so access by car was via Mayberry Drive to Keele Drive. I finished fourth grade at McKinley Park Elementary School, and was assigned the desk belonging to Judy Stratton > Stratton(who was not there, I believe, because of some medical problem). I could ride my bicycle to school because there was a footpath from about the bottom of Lyman Avenue northeast through a construction company yard to (what was then) the end of Idlewild Drive. Then, of course, it was on to Central for fifth grade, where we met.



Ronald Reagan, the broadcaster…


PS: That’s Ty Cobb with President Reagan

In the 1930s, Reagan was a sports broadcaster in Davenport, Iowa, and later at Des Moines station WHO. From the studio there, he recreated Chicago Cubs baseball games with “play-by-play” based on teletype reports.


Here’s something you should know about the early days of radio in baseball. There was a lot of resistance to it. Baseball owners thought that if games were broadcast on radio no one would actually come out to the ballpark to see the game. To give you an idea of how ambivalent baseball owners were about radio back then the broadcasters were not actually at the ballpark. Rather they would call the game from a remote location and rely on a ticker tape for the play by play. Color commentary was left to the imagination. Reagan was certainly no exception. He called Cubs games on WHO radio in Des Moines, Iowa.

Suffice it to say, the ticker tape didn’t always work as it should and Reagan had to rely on his wit as was the case one afternoon when the Cubs were playing the archrival St. Louis Cardinals who had Dizzy Dean pitching and a unusually long at bat by Cubs shortstop Billy Jurges. Well, I’ll let Reagan tell the story as he told it during a White House Luncheon for Members of the Baseball Hall of Fame on March 27, 1981:

What isn’t in the record book is Billy Jurges staying at the plate, I think, the longest of any ballplayer in the history of the game. I was doing the games by telegraphic report, and the fellow on the other side of the window wa a little slit underneath, the headphones on, getting the dot-and-dash Morse code from the ballpark, would type out the play. And the paper would come through to me – it would say,”S1C.” Well, you’re not going to sell any Wheaties yelling “S1C!” (Laughter) So, I’d say, “And so-and-so comes out of the wind-up, here’s the pitch, and it’s called a strike, breaking over the outside corner to so-and-so, who’d rather have a ball someplace else and so forth and backed out there.”

Well, I saw him start to type, and I started-Dizzy Dean was on the mound – and I started the ball on the way to the plate — or him in the wind-up and he, Curly, the fellow on the other side, was shaking his head, and I thought he just – maybe it was a miraculous play or something. But when the slip came through it said, “The wire’s gone dead.” Well, I had the ball on the way to the plate. (Laughter) And I figured out real quick, I could say we’ll tell them what had happened and then play transcribed music. But in those days there were at least seven or eight other fellows that were doing the same ball game. I didn’t want to lose the audience.

So, I thought real quick. “There’s one thing that doesn’t get in the score book,” so I had Billy foul one off. And I looked at Curly, and Curly went just like this; so I had him foul another one. And I had foul one back third base and described the fight between the two kids that were trying to get the ball. (Laughter) Then I had him foul one that just missed being a home run, about a foot and a half. And I did set a world record for successive fouls or for someone standing there, except that no one keeps records of that kind. And I was beginning to sweat, when Curly sat up straight and started typing, and he was nodding his head, “Yes.” And the slip came through the window, and I could hardly talk for laughing, because it said, “Jurges popped out on the first ball pitch.” (Laughter)

Bill & Effie’s: Take a good last look at Garson Road

BillIf you like the new moniker of “Arrowcreek” that replaced our favored old Zolezzi Lane intersection on South Virginia Street, or if you’re comfortable with renaming “Del Monte Lane” to “Neil Road” to keep it from getting tangled up with the Damonte Ranch off-ramp on the I-580 freeway, then you’re going to love what you’re about to read this morning. (I should say that the Damontes are legends in our valley and that Neil Brooks from Model Dairy is a great friend and an old column reader – the squawk herein is not for those people but of renaming streets whose names were part of our landscape for many years, all to accommodate progress.)
Out a few miles west of town there once was a little roadhouse called Bill & Effie’s – good food, some lodging, diesel fuel – and a beacon for every over-the-road trucker on Highway 40. To access it you turned off the old 40, and later off the new Interstate 80, on Garson Road.
While many thought that Bill and Effie’s last name was Garson, the fact was that the road, later an off-ramp, took its name from Chris and Ruth Garson, two Danes who had ranched the area for many years. Bill & Effie’s would one day become Boomtown in what was originally a modest change-of-name and ownership. As we know, Boomtown grew, and grew into its present size. But the Garson Road designation, happily, remained.
About 15 years ago a name-change request went before the Washoe County Commission, requesting that the off-ramp be designated “Boomtown Road”. The Garson family, who had earlier donated land to NDOT to enhance the road system, appeared at the meeting and a deal was struck to rename the cloverleaf as “Boomtown/Garson Road,” and that bit of our local heritage was able to live on.
But times change. Dirt is being moved on a grand scale on the old Garson Ranch at the boundaries of mighty Boomtown. Soon stuffed critters will climb the slopes of a mock mountainside inside a huge building, a sporting goods and clothing outlet that’s a-buildin’ next to Boomtown. They sell good stuff; I buy it liberally off the web but will do so less often when the store opens, because then I will have to pay Nevada sales tax on their clothes. So then, I’ll probably drive there and shop right at their new retail store to save the shipping charge.
It’s just a short trip from my lonely writer’s den, out Mayberry a hoot-and-a-holler, onto the freeway, then off again quickly at the Cabela’s Road off-ramp.
I’ll miss the old Garson Road – now scheduled to go away – a portent for us all that we were home from a trip to the Bay Area. But, if we’re going to grow as a community, we absolutely have to put some of these rural traditions aside.
This column was founded 18 years ago upon street names and the way we all hammer them up sometimes. One such that I never thought about until I received an e-mail from a newer resident a couple of weeks ago: “I keep seeing a Cashill Drive; isn’t our mayor’s name Cashell?” Bob Cashell is indeed our mayor, probably one of the most popular public officers Reno’s ever known, while attorney and state legislator Bill Cashill, who died, too young many years ago, was an equally popular guy in his time. And I’ll bet there’ll be a Cashell Boulevard someday; the two similar names driving motorists, UPS drivers and firemen nuts.
I typoed iconic schoolteacher Virginia Palmer out of five years in the classroom two weeks ago; she retired from Mount Rose School in 1977, not in 1972 as you read here.
And if the paper had left “Reno’s Finest” capitalized as I wrote it in the Babcock Building yarn, it would have made a lot more sense. An old nickname for any town’s cops is its “Finest,” and, well, I’m showing my age. Have a good week anyway, and God bless America.

© RGJ May 2007 ~ Photo credit KTVN