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Looking west across the Grand River just north of Michigan Avenue, you can see the clock tower of the old Lansing City Hall. The white building is the Hayes Sample Room, a purveyor of Wine, Liquor and Cigars. That site would later become the Wentworth Hotel and just to the north would become the ill-fated Kerns Hotel. This area is now Wentworth Park, including a 9-11 memorial.
The 211 room hotel was built in 1909 on the 100 block of N. Grand Ave. In the early morning of December 11, 1934 the hotel burned down. Of the 215 guests that night, 32 people died and another 44, including fourteen firemen, had been injured. The site now called Wentworth Park, serves as a memorial to the fire, and the September 11th tragedy.
Built in 1909 by William G. Kerns, the hotel cost $50,000 to build and was the first hotel in the state of Michigan that had ice cold running water in every on of its 162 rooms. Located in the 100 block of North Grand Avenue, Kerns’ location and the amenities that it offered made it popular with legislators and community groups. In January of 1922, the women’s club Zonta held their first meeting at the Kerns. The Kerns also served as the bus station for the city of Lansing until 1932.
On December 11, 1934, a few minutes before 5:00 a.m., “Pop” Hayhoe, the night janitor of the State Journal, made his regular round through the editorial room of the newspaper’s second floor, now empty of editors and reporters. Suddenly he stopped. A curl of flame licked up along some second floor window curtains on the hotel’s north side, near the front. Before he could act the curl became a ravening sheet of flame. Hayhoe wasted not an instant turning in the alarm. The Central fire station was only a block south of the hotel. His call completed, Hayhoe turned back. Window after window was ablaze. Now he could hear the screams of men and women, wakening to red horror!
Hotel residents, forced out by the raging flames, leapt from the upper windows into the deployed fire nets, or were rescued by firemen who carried them down the ladders. For tow hours firemen battled to prevent the blaze from breaching the firewall of the Hotel Wentworth. One fireman who was struck by a falling body worked for eight hours with a broken back. By 7:30 a.m. the fire was contained. Thirty-four people were killed in the fire; five of the bodies were never identified. The popular belief that people leapt from the Kerns and into the Grand River was dispelled by Captain Hugh Fisher who was present at the fire, and who stated in 1959 that no bodies were ever found in the Grand River. What caused the fire? A carelessly discarded cigarette.
The series of bridges built for a single crossing – Michigan Avenue over the Grand River in Lansing – illustrates the evolution of American bridge design. The first bridge was a timber structure built in 1848 of unknown design. The second (1856) was a massive uncovered timber Town Lattice through truss, resting on a single pier at mid-span. The third structure was a single-span iron bowstring through truss (1871). During a flood of April 1, 1875, which swept away five of Lansing’s seven iron bridges, the bowstring truss span at Michigan Avenue survived unscathed, although the River Street bridge passed under it on its way downstream. The Wrought Iron Bridge Company of Canton, Ohio designed and built the fourth bridge at this crossing, a two-span steel-arch design built in 1894 and reputed to have been the widest bridge in the United States, at 116 feet. The city of Lansing moved the bowstring truss a short distance and reinstalled it to carry Kalamazoo Street across the Grand River.
Timber truss bridge (built in 1856). You can see the stairway on the center pier used for boarding the small steamships popularly used to taxi people between Upper Town (Benton House), Middle Town (Capitol Building), and Lower Town Seymour House.
Bowstring arch through truss bridge (1871), Michigan Avenue over the Grand River, Lansing. Survived a flood in 1875 that destroyed all but two of Lansing’s bridges.
Steel arch bridge (1894), Michigan Avenue over the Grand River, Lansing. Note the 1871 span visible through the left arch, in the process of being moved to its new location at Kalamazoo Street.