Devastating Fire at West Baden Springs Hotel

By Joy Neighbors

Dateline: June 14, 1901
West Baden Springs Hotel Before the Fire
It was a quiet night in the West Baden Springs Hotel. The evening’s rain had stopped and the air was muggy. At 1 a.m. the hotel’s night watchman was making his hourly rounds when he smelled smoke. Pushing open the door to the first floor kitchen, he gasped. The room was ablaze with flames climbing up the walls. Realizing he could not contain the fire, the watchman ran back into the lobby and roused the night clerk. Both men ran through the halls shouting for guests to leave the building immediately – it was on fire! Some guests didn’t respond to their entreaty to leave the premise so the night clerk grabbed his revolver and fired a shot into the air. It was a last resort to notify guests that something was terribly amiss.

It took only 15 minutes to clear the 268 guests out of the hotel. Thanks, in part, to a new fire escape that had recently been attached to the east wing. But few guests escaped with their possessions, most had only the clothing on their backs.

Lee Sinclair
Owner Lee Sinclair helped evacuate people and then assisted in fighting the blaze. More than 450,000 gallons of water was pumped onto the building in an attempt to squelch the flames, but efforts proved useless. By 3 a.m. the hotel and several outer buildings had been destroyed.

It was later reported that the glow from the blaze could be seen as far as Louisville, Kentucky, more than 80 miles away.

Remains of the Hotel
Besides the hotel, the new swimming pool, bathhouse, dance hall, laundry, gymnasium, handball court, ice plant and the hotel’s power plant were destroyed, along with the employee’s quarters and several barns. Losses were estimated to be half-a-million dollars, but insurance would only cover $100,000; it appeared this was the end of the elegant hotel.

Newspaper Clipping of the Fire
Sinclair was devastated. He wasn’t sure that he wanted to rebuild the hotel. At the age of 65, he believed his dream was over. But Sinclair’s daughter, Lillian convinced him to build again. This time, it would be the hotel he had dreamed of; one even more astounding than the structure just lost.

By the following week, Sinclair had made up his mind. He publicly announced that he would rebuild, and that this hotel would be not only fireproof, but one-of-a-kind, a marvel for all to see. The hotel would be constructed in a circular style and topped with the largest dome in the world. If the public wasn’t startled by that announcement, they were shocked when Sinclair declared that this edifice would be completed one year from the date of the fire – June 14, 1902.

Lee Sinclair's Vision for West Baden Springs Hotel
True to his word, Sinclair welcomed his first guests to the new West Baden Springs Hotel in June of 1902. He had done the impossible; building what soon became known as the “Eighth Wonder of the World.”