Wenonah Fire Lecture Featured at Museum
Second Saturday Lecture by Robert Davey Was Standing Room Only
January 15, 2012
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By: Stephen Kent
Could the fire have been prevented? Could the loss of ten lives and the injury to so many more been lessened? These were some of the questions raised at the Bay County Historical Society's "Second Saturday" lecture on the Wenonah Fire on December 10, 1977.
was not at the fire, but the 30 year veteran fire fighter and battalion chief knows about fires and has made a study of the Wenonah fire. Piecing together dispatch recordings, reports from firemen, local and state police and the news, he has become an expert on one of the most famous fires in recent Bay City history.
On the Second Saturday of each month the Museum presents a lecture about some event in Bay City or Michigan history. This Saturday's event was standing room only. People were even turned away at the door. "Since we're talking about a Fire, we should obey the Fire Marshall's rules" said volunteer Judy Jeffers in her introduction.
Announcing the lecture, the Museum's e-mailed newsletter said:
"Built in 1907 the Wenonah Hotel was the center of Bay City's business and social life. It boasted 400 rooms and such amenities as a barbershop, cigar store and writing room, and was regarded as a premier lodging place. In later years it became home to apartment dwellers and housed several downtown businesses." Prior to construction of the Wenonah, the Fraser House, which burned around 1908, stood on the property.
44 historic Bay City Times photos
illustrated Davey's talk
By the time of the fire the hotel has seen its best days. As Davey noted, there were many hazards in the building that was advertised on opening as "the only completely fire proof hotel west of New York". The structure was almost completely concrete and masonry, although the roof was made of wood. Additions, remodeling, and furnishing added over the years left the fireproof claim a fiction.
In 1968 the old hotel was purchased in a public auction for $285,000. The structure was converted to apartments and housed generally low income and subsidized residents.
The fire broke out on a cold December day. The temperature was nine degrees with a north wind. The roads were reported as extremely slippery and there had been seven inches of snow the night before.
People later reported that at 7:00 the lights in the hotel flickered.
By 7:15 people reported seeing a fire but nobody called it in.
At 7:44 someone called the police about a "disturbance" in the second floor hall. Two officers were dispatched in separate cars.
At this point Davey played the recording of the actual radio traffic as the fire was seen by the officers. The audience was riveted as they listened to the radio conversation and the words "You better send everything you got cause it's really going".
There were 23 firemen on duty that day. By comparison there are 9 men with less equipment in Bay City today. All equipment from Bay City was used. Bell Telephone bucket trucks, tree service bucket trucks and other equipment was pressed into service. Saginaw responded and manned Station 1 and even fought a house fire. Chiefs from Midland and Bangor were on the scene volunteering help.
Jim Smith was living at the Wenonah
on the day of the fire.
The first effort was to save as many lives as possible. Some people jumped from as high as the forth floor, others waited for help. Snow, frozen roads, and the structure itself, with open stairs, flammable floor covering, cheap paneling and easily burned contents complicated the historic fight.
"Saving human lives was exactly the right thing to do first", said Davey. But the result was that the fire just got that much ahead of the game. By the time the men were fighting the fire it was fully involved. A police helicopter reported the fire breaking through the roof and men were pulled out to fight the fire from the outside.
Attending the lecture were three former Bay City Fire Marshals, people who had been at the fire, one resident of the hotel at the time, and relatives of firefighters. These people injected a number of comments and identified people in the 44 historic photos that Davey used to illustrate the talk.
The Museum and Historical Society preserves the history of the Bay Area and has been doing so over 135 years. Members receive many benefits besides supporting the organization. For more information and to subscribe to the newsletter visit
A standing room only crowd listened to the Wenonah Hotel fire lecture.
History Article 06655
Steve Kent and his family have lived in Bay City for 30 years. He is VP of Technical Services at MMCC which produces MyBayCity.Com. Kent is active in many Bay City civic organizations.
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