By Cecelia McKeig
One of Beltrami County’s tragic fires happened on Feb 4, 1914, when the Kelliher Hotel caught fire and quickly burned. The hotel, also known as the Grace Hotel, was regarded as one of the area’s finest. The modern forty-room building opened to the public two years earlier on February 12, 1912. It was designed by Thomas Johnson, who also built many of Bemidji’s finest buildings. The opening was celebrated with a dinner followed by a ball in the spacious dining room. Blackduck’s eight-piece orchestra furnished the music during the evening.
The hotel was located just one block from the Minnesota and International depot in the heart of Kelliher’s business district. It was a three-story frame building, 80 x 74 feet, with a concrete basement. The building was steam heated and lighted by electricity. The building and contents represented an investment of about $18,000. George Gunderson was the manager and was praised for making such a solid investment in Kelliher.
The flames spread so quickly that shouts were the only warning given to the sleeping lodgers.
Late on the night of February 4, 1914, flames started from the furnace room and swept upwards through the frame building. The flames spread so quickly that shouts were the only warning given to the sleeping lodgers. All means of escape by way of the stairs was completely cut off soon after the fire started; those who reached safety did so by jumping from the second and third floors. The fire department was powerless in fighting the flames and devoted its time to rescuing lodgers.
Most of the injured persons were employed at the hotel. Five traveling men were severely cut by broken glass when they escaped through windows. B. S. Dutcher, of Appleton, Wis., a traveling man was slightly cut on his arm. Other traveling men who made their headquarters In Bemidji and were stopping at the hotel at the time of the fire were Archie Campbell and Fred LaRoux. Both were forced to jump from the burning building.
"I retired shortly after 10 o'clock and near one this morning I heard yells of fire. I opened the door leading to the hall and found it to be full of smoke. There was no light, the electricity being turned off at 12...."
Only a few of the lodgers had an opportunity to dress. Most of them who jumped were clad only in their night clothes and outer garments. A. G. Wedge, vice-president of the First National Bank of this city, related his experience with the fire: "I retired shortly after 10 o'clock and near one this morning I heard yells of fire. I opened the door leading to the hall and found it to be full of smoke. There was no light, the electricity being turned off at 12. Realizing the seriousness of the situation and that I could not escape by way of the stairs, I put on my trousers and overcoat, broke the windows, both inside and storm, and threw my grip and shoes to the ground. Right below my window was an awning and this I grabbed, thereby lowering myself to the ground. I believe that I was the first to reach safety and at that time the building was entirely in flames. I could see and hear inmates of the building shouting for help and cry for ladders." The building was a total loss. Mr. Wedge lost his watch and many valuable papers.
George Gunderson, who saved the life of his wife and children by throwing them from the burning building, was not injured. Inez, the 13-year-old daughter, was brought to Bemidji. She was bruised by being thrown from a window. Harley Gunderson, the 16-year-old son of the landlord, was forced to jump from the third floor of the building as the flames gradually circled around him and he suffered internal injuries. It was first reported that Millie Abraham had suffered a broken back but fortunately, after further examination, it turned out that this was not the case. She was the proprietor of the cafe and she did suffer burns.
Perhaps the most seriously injured was Joe Barkinecht, porter, who was badly burned. Benjamin Herschfield, traveling representative of the St. Paul firm of Daniel Aberlee and Son, suffered a back injury while jumping from the second floor. W. T. Twohy, of St. Paul, who traveled for the Hackett, Gates and Hurty firm, was badly cut but soon left the hospital. Many thrilling stories of escape from the burning building were told by witnesses of the fire. The most amazing escape of any of the guests was that of a laborer who appeared at the third story window and let himself out grasping the windowsill. Then slowly he slid down the wall of the building. How he stuck to the wall no one could say, but he landed on the ground and walked away as if nothing had happened. Another narrow escape was that of a Kelliher school teacher who was saved by a man who broke into her room and tied sheets together,
making a lifeline down which the teacher safely descended.
The first reports of the fire reached Bemidji when Billy Betts reported that fourteen people had perished. However, the Bemidi Pioneer reported that five persons died, and seven others were seriously injured. The Blackduck American newspaper reported six deaths as O. B. Michelson, bookkeeper; T. Shoeberg, a stranger; Ernest Pratt, farmer from Eland Twp.; Charles Larson from Battle River; McGinn, bartender from Deer River; and E. L. Naro, a stranger.
The fire was very intense, and the debris was cleared in the winter. Rumors circulated that several traveling men had arrived late at the hotel and had not registered yet and that they also perished without anyone knowing their names.
"As we walked away, we heard and saw our brother, Harley, calling from the third story window for Dad to help him. It was not possible, and all Dad could say was for him to jump."
Mrs. Joe Jerome, the former Inez Gunderson, recalled the fire and wrote her memories for the Kelliher Diamond Jubilee. She wrote, “We were awakened to the smell of strong smoke coming (in the transom) above the door. Soon my father came, burning his hands in so doing – the fire was close. At once he smashed the window, then I and my father jumped out the window with my sister in his arms. As we walked away, we heard and saw our brother. Harley, calling from the third story window for Dad to help him. It was not possible, and all Dad could say was for him to jump. It was 23 degrees below zero, we were dressed only in night wear and barefooted, cut, burned and bruised, so we went on across the street. By then someone had pushed the side door in of the corner saloon. From here we were moved to
the Craig Hotel. Dr. Gunn checked us and as the train left around five a.m., my folks went down to the Bemidji Hospital. I had to go soon after, having severe hand and foot cuts.”
“Not until the next day did we learn our brother was safe. He was forced to jump by the fire; Also he was so black with soot nobody knew him at first.”
There are only three death certificates on file for the victims of the fire. Two are listed as unknown remains. The hotel clerk, Odin Nicholson is the only one who has a death certificate on file.
One of the victims, Ernest Pratt, had just proved up on his homestead in the town of Eland December first. However, the date on the patent is April 29, 1914, and the patent was not cancelled. Is it possible that he was not one of the victims whose bones were found in the hotel debris?
Inez Gunderson also explained, “There was no accurate account of how many lost their lives. There were many lumberjacks around ad if they could not afford to pay for a room, my father let them stay overnight in the basement.”