Heart of Louisiana: Great Fire

HOL: Great Fire

NEW ORLEANS, La. (WVUE) - Many cities have a ‘great fire’ in their history, and that’s the case in the southwest Louisiana city of Lake Charles. Just as the 20th century was beginning, Lake Charles was a city of ashes.

There’s a reason that three of the major buildings in downtown Lake Charles were all built at about the same time starting in 1911. That’s because a year earlier, there was a catastrophic fire.

“It was an alarming shock for the community of Lake Charles on that fateful day April 23, 1910,” Adley Cormier of the Calcasieu Historical Preservation Society said.

Prior to that, Lake Charles was a sawmill town of about 15,000 residents but those sawmills that brought prosperity also added fuel to the fire.

“So the town was a city of wood, wooden sidewalks wouldn’t roofs, wooden buildings,” Cormier said.

It had been a dry year, to begin with, and a stiff wind from the south ignited a fire that was a trash fire behind the Old Williams Opera House.

Once the fire started, there was no stopping it for hours.

“The fire was explosive in nature. The Calcasieu pine was full of pitch and tar and when it burned, it burned hot and explosively and when buildings caught fire and exploded,” Cormier said. “Those embers fell quarter mile away and set those buildings ablaze.”

The fire department was overwhelmed by the massive inferno. It would take nine hours for the flames to subside and 7 city blocks and 109 buildings were destroyed, and a third of the population was homeless.

Buildings were gone, all of the courthouse, city, church and school records were destroyed. However, no lives were lost. and the city quickly rebuilt smarter.

Buildings had to be built of fireproof materials. so you now have tile roofs and metal roofs rather than wood shingles. You also had to have space between buildings and the common walls were not permitted.

There was a new sophistication in the architecture of these new Lake Charles landmarks that positioned this southwest Louisiana city for a new era of prosperity in the 20th century.

You can see an exhibit on the ‘great fire of lake Charles’ at the Imperial Calcasieu Museum. For more information visit the museum website here.

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