I am starting a series on historic fires in United State History. It won't be every post, more like every third post or so. I thought it would be fun since, after all, I spent years as an arson investigator which meant I figured out how fires started and jailed those who set them. My arrest and conviction rate was over four times the national average, which is admittedly too low at 20%. Simply put, I was good at what I did. Being an arson investigator is tough because you need a fire service background, which I have, but you also need to be a bada$$ detective with excellent crime scene skills and interviewing skills since a confession is sometimes more important in an arson case than a homicide since you rarely, if ever, have a witness. I was all of those. I say this not to brag (okay, maybe a little) but my record speaks for itself. My background in the fire service and law enforcement gave me a healthy interest in historic fires as they are so often the root of the safety codes that exist today. Sadly, people had to die for those codes to come into existence, but that is how life (and death) often go. So on to the sad tale.
Houston during World War Two was a happening place. It was nowhere near as large a city as it is today, with a population of just under 400,000. The city added 100,000 people between 1930 and 1940 and would add another 200,000 by the end of the 40s, partially due to the growth brought about by the War. Americans were lucky in the sense that here in the Continental United States, we did not face bombing raids as did our allies and our enemies. Houston, with its port and oil, played an integral role in the allied war effort. The downtown area was booming as well with restaurants, movie theaters, and dancing at the Rice Hotel. But there was an underside too. Cheap hotels and boarding houses dotted the landscape filled to the brim with transient workers who traveled to Houston seeking employment. The Houston Fire Department was gutted by the War as well with many members enlisting after Pearl Harbor. The City of Houston created an Auxiliary Fire Department as well to supplement their missing manpower. This created the perfect storm which broke over the downtown skyline on the night of September 7, 1943.
The Gulf Hotel was located at 615 Preston which was the corner of Preston and Louisiana in the Downtown District. As you can see from the photo, it was probably a nice looking building when not on fire. As was often the case in downtown buildings at the time, the hotel only occupied the second and third floors. The Gulf Hotel would be happy to rent you a bed for forty cents a night. Or if you were down on your luck, you could get a cot for 20 cents! Though the hotel register listed 133 guests that night (all male), in reality there were probably many more than that. The 87 beds were often divided by thin wooden partitions and two men often shared a bed and split the price. Fifty cots were also crammed into the building. Every bed was occupied by at least one person and so were all of the cots. The hotel was located one block from the city's major bus depot which meant that many of the guests arrived and booked a "room" with little familiarity with the layout of the building or the surrounding area.
While making his rounds in the middle of the night, a clerk noticed a smoldering mattress on the second floor, most likely due to a carelessly discarded cigarette. This was the 1940s and non-smokers were a rarity and you could smoke just about anywhere. The clerk and some guests dumped water on the mattress and thought that the fire was out. Rather than tossing the mattress outside, they stuck it in a closet. Bad idea. A few minutes later, other guests noticed heavy smoke pouring out of the closet and you began to hear shouts of "Fire!" There were only two exits from the building, an interior stairwell which led to the street and another which was a rickety fire escape. The fire quickly moved to cut off most of the guests from the interior stairwell, fueled by the wooden partitions used to separate the rooms. This left the fire escape as the only option, but just days earlier a Fire Department Inspector cited the Gulf Hotel for not installing a red safety light to point the way to the fire escape.
Around 12:50 am, the officers and men at Houston's Central Fire Station received the alarm. The station was only six blocks away. After the fire, Deputy Chief Grover Cleveland Adams (what a name!) said "As we started out of the station, we could see the reflection of the fire against the sky." That always signifies a big job. As they pulled up, the sole fire escape was already crowded with men. Some of them were on crutches and making slow progress which backed up the rest of the men trying desperately to get out. Then people started jumping out of the third story windows as that was the only means of escape left. With bodies thudding on the sidewalk, the fire department tried to rescue as many men as possible while the flames continued to light the downtown sky. The body of one victim, unable to escape from the third floor, hung limply out the window for the duration of the fire as a gruesome reminder of a fire's deadly power.
Victims were transported to the two nearby hospitals, Saint Joseph and the old Jefferson Davis Hospital, many of them by private auto or police car. Doctors arrived and provided what first aid their could on the scene. Two victims died at the scene and another fifteen died after arrival at the hospital. The city was already dealing with a major tragedy. It took two hours for the fire department to battle their way inside and extinguish the fire. What they found was far worse. Thirty-eight bodies were inside the hotel, overcome by smoke and flames as they tried in vain to reach safety. The fifty-five men who died that night were victims of the deadliest fire in Houston history. Indeed, it is one of the five deadliest hotel fires in 20th Century American History. The 40s saw many deadly hotel fires, unfortunately, and this was just one.
Given that this happened during the midst of World War Two, it did not receive much coverage. Fire disasters like this were not unheard of at the time. Indeed, not even a year earlier, the City of Boston experienced the Cocoanut Grove Nightclub fire (subject of an upcoming post) which killed 492 people, the second deadliest fire in American History. Today, few Houstonians know anything about the Gulf Hotel tragedy. Part of this is because so many of the people who live in Houston today are part of the boom in population that happened after the War. Also, the City of Houston is partially to blame. They gleefully bulldoze any building more than thirty years old. The city has totally lost touch with its past, both good and bad. That is a tragedy of a different sort.
Twenty-three of the victims from this fire were never identified. They were buried in a mass grave at Houston's South Park Cemetery, where they remain just as forgotten today as they were in 1943. The Houston Chronicle summed it up best at the time when it said the following:
"Who were these men? What strange, pathetic, colorful,
or drab histories led to a fate that sent them unrecognized
to this tragic grave?
Histories that shall be forever unwritten, unknown.
Some of them had good jobs, as shipyard workers,
defense plant workers. Some perhaps were newspaper vendors
peddlers, or clerks in hideaway stores.
Or they were beggars and crippled derelicts wandering
in the city streets with nothing to do, no place to go but
their cots in the crowded hotel.
What kind of homes did they come from? Where?
No one will ever know?"
Perhaps the finest words ever written by the Houston Chronicle. Sadly, we still do not know.
My name is Lee Hutch and I am a Half A$$ Historian.
Source Notes: In my college years I wrote a paper about this tragedy and had the opportunity to speak with a few people who witnessed the fire. (None of them were inside the hotel at the time.) I also collected newspaper articles, etc, and had a pretty nice file on it. I also consulted a publication available at the Houston Fire Museum called Houston Fire Department: 2000 Traditions & Innovations. There is some debate as to the number of remains buried in the mass grave with some sources saying 23, 31, or even 38. Most of the sources say 23 and so that is what I am going with.