Treasures of the Valley » Mike lawler

The Crescenta Hotel Disaster of 1887

Mike Lawler is the  president of the Historical Society of the  Crescenta Valley. Reach him at
Mike Lawler is the
president of the Historical Society of the Crescenta Valley. Reach him at

In the late 1880s, La Crescenta founder Dr. Benjamin Brigg’s dreams of establishing a town were coming together. He had built a schoolhouse, and in spring of 1887 he convinced a couple of real estate investors to build a hotel on the corner of Foothill and Rosemont, where Fosters Donuts is today. It was two stories, built of wood and plaster on brick pillars, and offered 24 furnished rooms. It was a growing business as the curative powers of the valley’s clean air gained a reputation amongst Eastern health seekers. In December of 1887, Edwin Arnold, his wife and two daughters accepted the job of managing the Crescenta Hotel, and attended to the 15 guests staying there.

On Dec. 14, a fierce Santa Ana windstorm had been blowing for three days. It should be remembered that in those days the valley floor had few trees, and with no windbreaks the gusts were closer to the ground and more destructive. Many valley residents had abandoned their flimsy wood shacks and had sheltered in the schoolhouse that was made of cement.

Mr. Arnold was becoming increasingly worried about the stability of the hotel as it creaked and swayed with each gust. He went so far as to substitute candles for the kerosene lamps that were more likely to cause a fire if the building were to fall. At midnight he decided he’d be safer to seek shelter outside behind a big boulder, and got his wife and kids out of bed. He opened the front door just as a big gust came, and that open door was the tipping point for the building’s stability. There was a huge crash, the lights went out and Arnold was knocked unconscious. When he came to, he found himself trapped in a small opening in the rubble. Above the roar of the wind he could hear others crying for help.

Those sheltering in the schoolhouse (the site of the library today) could see that there was now blackness where the lit windows of the hotel had been a few moments before, and guessed the worst. They came running to the hotel with lanterns and were met with the sight of a confused pile of wood and the cries of those trapped inside.     They immediately began to dig into the rubble, following the sounds of voices. Arnold was freed and called out for his family, but only heard his still trapped 10-year-old daughter crying, “Where are you, Daddy?”

Another man was found still lying in his bed where timbers held him down. One gentleman had been blown or knocked out of a second story window as the building came down and had landed on the ground outside unhurt. Mrs. Arnold was finally found with a beam across her neck, choked to death. Her 3-year-old daughter was found crushed nearby.

The blame for the collapse fell squarely on the builder. The building had been built high but narrow, and the foundation was only thin brick pillars nine-inches square, spaced six-to-eight feet apart, unsuitable for strong wind. It’s said that locals weren’t surprised that it didn’t survive the storm.

A couple of other buildings were blown down as well, and the ferocity of the windstorm probably shocked some newcomers. It created somewhat of an exodus from the valley, with several families leaving.

The Crescenta Hotel was rebuilt almost immediately, on a grander scale, three stories and 32 rooms. There was still a demand for clean Crescenta Valley air for easterners suffering from lung diseases. Thanksgiving of 1888 hosted a party of 50, and all agreed that “the place must seem a restful home-like retreat to the lone invalid seeking health among strange faces in our pure mountain air.”

So some late night when there’s a Santa Ana blowing, if you’re outside Fosters Donuts and you hear a strangled cry of “Where is my baby?” it might be the ghost of Mrs. Arnold, still trapped under a beam of the collapsed Crescenta Hotel.

Thanks go out to local historians Jo Anne Sadler and Ellie Pipes for info for this column.

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