The Life and Death of Lee Sinclair

Lee Sinclair and Rex
By Joy Neighbors

Dateline: September 7, 1916

Lee Wiley Sinclair was a successful Hoosier businessman who owned the Bank of Salem in Salem, Indiana for years before purchasing the West Baden Springs Hotel in 1888. Sinclair saw that it could be a money-maker if taken from a country inn and reshaped into a holiday resort. With his goals firmly in place, Sinclair began the rapid expansion of creating an American icon.

West Baden Springs Hotel 1901
In 1894, another 200 guest rooms were added, bringing the room count up to 350. Two years later construction began on the casino located directly across the street from the hotel. By 1898, Sinclair had added a two story natatorium and a full-sized baseball field. The hotel now boasted several amenities including hydraulic elevators, electric lights and steam heat - luxurious marvels for the day! Times were definitely looking up for West Baden Springs Hotel but on June 14, 1901 tragedy struck.

Devastating Fire
At 1 a.m. fire was discovered in the hotel kitchen. It took only 15 minutes to clear 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 with only the clothing on their backs. Sinclair helped evacuate guests 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.) 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 resort-style hotel.

Charles Rexford, Caddy Sinclair, Lillian Sinclair and Lee Sinclair
Sinclair was devastated. At his age he wasn’t sure that he wanted to rebuild; he believed that his dream was over. But Sinclair’s daughter Lillian convinced him to try again. This time to construct the hotel of his dreams; one that would be even more astounding than the structure just lost.

West Baden Springs Hotel 1902
By the following week Sinclair had made up his mind. He publicly announced he would rebuild and that this hotel would be not only fireproof but a one-of-a-kind marvel for all to see. True to his word Sinclair welcomed his first guests to the new West Baden Springs Hotel on June 14, 1902. (Although the public would not be able to stay there until September after finishing touches were completed.) In April, 1903, a formal reopening ceremony was held. Lee Sinclair had done the impossible.

Guests "Taking the Waters"
The new hotel was popular with the rich and famous, rivaling other U.S. and European health spas where “taking the waters” had become a favorite pastime. Around 1911, Sinclair decided to update and renovate certain sites on the grounds; Sprudel Spring Pavilion, a Yerkes musical system and the double arched entryway with a brick-paved boulevard were just some of the additions implemented. The future of the hotel and the Sinclair family was bright.

Lee Sinclair
Then on September 7, 1916, Lee Sinclair died at the age of 80. His wife Caroline and daughter Lillian were devastated. Funeral services for Sinclair were held in the atrium of his beloved West Baden Springs Hotel on Sunday September 10th. Thousands of family and friends attended, along with many of the rich and famous who had stayed at his hotel. Former and current employees, and most residents of the towns of West Baden and French Lick also turned out. Lee Sinclair was laid to rest in the family mausoleum located in Crown Hill Cemetery in Salem, Indiana. The end of an era had come.