Treasures of the Valley » Mike Lawler

The La Crescenta Hotel Disaster of 1887, Part 2

Mike Lawler is the former
president of the Historical Society
of the Crescenta Valley and loves local history. Reach him at

Last week we covered the setup for this terrible hotel collapse that happened in December 1887. The two-story hotel had just been built, dangerously tall and narrow, and with a flimsy foundation. A major Santa Ana had been blowing for three days, and many in the valley abandoned their fragile wooden houses for the safety of the cement schoolhouse. But the hotel guests stayed put in the hotel that swayed and shook with every wind gust. The manager of the hotel, Mr. Arnold, had only been on the job a week, lodging in a room at the rear of the hotel with his wife and two daughters, ages 3 and 10.

On the third night of the big windstorm, the wind seemed even stronger than before. As the hotel swayed with each gust, Mr. Arnold began to seriously consider that the building might collapse. The building’s owner had promised that the very next day he would have the building braced stronger. The structure just had to survive one more night. But still, Mr. Arnold took the step of extinguishing all the kerosene lamps and replacing them with candles. If there was a collapse, the candles would go out, but the kerosene could start a fire.

Though all the guests were in their rooms no one was sleeping as the building’s timbers creaked and screamed with the strain. Shaffer, a young man who drove the stagecoach, was in his bed around midnight. He had been asleep briefly, but now lay awake as the wind screamed outside. Between gusts, he could hear other guests moving about in their rooms, all fearfully awake from the noise of the gale and the shaking of the building. On the second story, Berry, a consumptive (suffering from tuberculosis), stood in his room by his window, gazing fretfully out into the black night.

Mr. Arnold wandered the hall while his family stayed back in their room. He moved to the front door and opened it just as a powerful gust hit the building. There was a great shake, a loud rending noise, and the building began its collapse. Arnold was struck on the head by a beam and was knocked out. Shaffer, still in bed, felt the unusual shaking and the noise and felt boards and beams landing on top of him. He struggled to get out of bed but he couldn’t move, and he began to yell for help. On the second floor, Berry, standing by his window, felt the floor drop. A great force pushed him out through his window and into the black of the night. He landed painfully in a heap on the rocky ground.

When Arnold came to, all was black. He was immediately aware of what had happened. He was trapped in a small opening in the wreckage, splintered wood all around him. Arnold could hear muffled cries, but couldn’t see a thing. Far away he could hear one cry he recognized, his 3-year-old daughter.

“Papa, Papa, where are you?”

Just a block away, Mr. Holly was awake in his sturdy house, on the northwest corner of La Crescenta and Foothill about a block from the hotel (where the library is today). Above the roar of the wind he heard a great crash and went to the window. Looking to the east he could no longer see the lights of the hotel. He was still dressed so he grabbed a lantern and headed outside to investigate. Mr. Cryer was hunkered down in the cement schoolhouse next door to Holly. He had been looking out the windows at the storm. When he looked toward the hotel, there was only blackness where seconds before he had seen the building’s lighted windows. He too grabbed a lantern and went out the door.

When the pair reached the site of the hotel, the light of their lanterns showed a confused pile of broken beams, splintered wood and scattered bricks. They could hear muffled yells coming from the wreckage, so they began to pull away the broken boards.

To be continued next week.