LIMA — Sixteen years after the Allen County Courthouse burned, the block was again ablaze.
The Milner Hotel — diagonally across the intersection of North and Main streets — burned in a dramatic, life-claiming way in 1945.
The corner had long been home to a hotel, as the building was first called the Norval Hotel. Before that the Burnet House occupied that space. When it was the Norval, it struggled with a fire in the kitchen in 1917, but no one was hurt.
“The night clerk immediately pulled the electric switch which notified every guest of the fire, and for a few moments chaos reigned. Many ran into the lobby of the hotel clad only in their night clothes, while others stopped in their rooms just long enough to get enough clothes to cover their body,” a Dec. 20, 1917, newspaper story reported.
The Norval was started by oilman Charles Linneman, and he named it after one of his racehorses. The papers give the impression it was a nicely kept place, as an account in 1934 shares that it was about to open Lima’s first hotel cocktail room and buffet.
But with new owners came a new name — Milner, a chain hotel of the day.
The Lima News published an extra the day of the fire, Jan. 7, 1945. Coverage was extensive. The downtown fire was huge, and people flocked to see it. Flames consumed the hotel, Eckerd’s Drug Store, the Hudson Restaurant and threatened everything around it.
Two people died in the fire, and more than a dozen were originally listed as missing. The hotel registry was lost, so hotel management had some trouble figuring out who was even there. Everyone was accounted for in the end.
Norman Grape, 45, of Shanks, W.Va., died at a hospital from severe burns. Frances Huff, 50, died after jumping from the third floor to escape the flames. Scores more suffered smoke inhalation and burns. Fire Chief Harry Taflinger had a heart attack at the scene and had to be taken to a hospital as well.
The fire was believed to have started on the third floor. A Jan. 8, 1945, story shared this:
“’The blaze was discovered first around 2 p.m.,’ E.M. Pierce, manager of the hotel told reporters. He was eating dinner in his room at the hotel on the second floor at the time. ‘Mrs. Ethel Fultz was at the desk in the lobby,’ he said. ‘Suddenly, Mrs. Dennis came running down the steps and screaming that there was a fire on the third floor. Mrs. Fultz came to my room and when I saw the blaze she immediately called the fire department,’ the manager said.
“Every available piece of equipment in the city was rushed to the scene soon after Chief Taflinger saw the seriousness of the blaze. At the request of the chief, Amby Falk, city editor of The Lima News, called fire departments from Wapakoneta, Delphos and Kenton. The Findlay fire department was also called.”
R.H. McMillen, who lived in an apartment nearby, gave an account of hearing screaming. When he looked, he saw James Dennis hanging from a high-story window to escape the flames. He grabbed a ladder with the help of another man, but it was too short to reach Dennis, so they helped others who were lower to safety.
“Smoke was pouring from the building,” he told the reporter for that Jan. 8, 1945 story. “I could see heads poking from every window. People were coughing and screaming. The smoke was terrible. We put the ladder on the fire escape and managed to get two victims from the third floor before the flames became too intense. By this time, the building was blazing fiercely. People were running blindly through the hallways, screaming. They were obviously panic stricken and they just dashed madly through the heavy smoke.”
By this point, firemen arrived and extended a ladder truck to rescue Dennis. Bernadette Wood, a public relations director at Memorial Hospital, saw the rescue and shared her story:
“A few minutes after firemen arrived, an aerial ladder was raised and Dennis managed to leap and grab the ladder. He balanced unsteadily on one foot while the crowd gasped. He then managed to pull himself up over the ladder where he hung exhausted until firemen came to his rescue. He was burned severely about the hands, face and body.”
The fire burned for more than three hours, that story reported. The crowds were thick, with people trying to help as they were able. Some patrolled rooftops carrying fire extinguishers and putting out small fires.
“Almost every worker was a hero at the blaze, officials reported. Many worked unrecognized and at this writing still are unknown. An unidentified soldier in uniform handled a hose at several dangerous points all afternoon and left the blaze cold and drenched with no one getting his name,” the story continued.
The Lima chapter of the Red Cross set up at Hofeller, Hiatt and Clark with sandwiches, coffee and cigarettes.
“True spirit of Lima citizens was evidenced when at the height of the fire, now hard-to-find cigarettes were being passed out to those taking part in battling the blaze and those aiding them.”
To add to the craziness, firemen noticed the south side of the Metropolitan Block was seared and a smoldering fire was starting on its cupola. Tenants of that building and other surrounding buildings were evacuated.
Firemen had to smash out the display window at Richman’s clothing store to extinguish a suit of clothes that had caught fire, seemingly from the heat coming through the wall.
“An example of the intensity of the heat at the height of the blaze was seen when a 25-foot steel flagpole on the roof crashed to the street with its base white hot,” the 1945 story reported.
The fire was eventually extinguished, but the intersection was a mess for months. Bus service was rerouted to avoid the area.
Police Chief Kermit L. Westbay and Clarence G. Fisher, assistant prosecuting attorney and assistant director of civilian defense, questioned everyone involved. No definitive cause was ever found, although it was rumored cleaning supplies may have ignited.
Because of the terrible loss of life, City Council examined water supply problems in detail. Hydrants weren’t receiving enough pressure for the first half hour of the blaze to do much good, and the water supply dipped dangerously low for the city. In the end, this fire helped spur the digging of reservoirs for a more reliable water supply.
The property passed through several owners, some claiming to rebuild, but today the site is a parking lot.
The Milner Hotel burns