GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — On this day 88 years ago, Lansing’s Kerns Hotel caught fire, killing at least 34 people and injuring 44 more — including 14 firefighters.
The fire had ramifications far beyond the families who lost loved ones. Seven Michigan lawmakers were killed in the blaze, and special elections triggered by the fire took away one party’s control over the state House.
The Legislature also took action to make sure hotels were more prepared to handle a fire. And a volunteer group rose out of the ashes that is still alive today.
A CALL TO SESSION
Questions of election integrity in 2016 and 2020 were nothing new. In 1934, Gov. William Comstock called state lawmakers back to Lansing for a special session to discuss allegations of election fraud out of Wayne County. The Democratic candidate for attorney general accused clerks of wrongdoing in his lopsided loss.
“Under the Constitution of 1908, which was the law of the land at that time, the Governor set the agenda through a message to the Legislature, and that was the only thing they were supposed to act on,” Valerie Marvin, Michigan’s Capitol historian and curator, told News 8. “So basically, the Legislature came back because they had to, but then they spent the entire time explaining why they shouldn’t be there, that they didn’t understand how the recount system worked, what they could do versus what the counties could do and perhaps the departments and they basically did nothing at the end of the day.”
Lawmakers typically only spent a few months at a time in Lansing and many chose to stay in hotels instead of buying or renting a separate property. Situated along the banks of the Grand River just a couple of blocks away from the Capitol, the Kerns Hotel in Lansing was one of the most popular spots.
“Everybody stayed in hotels when they were (in Lansing). This is also the time when the whole traveling businessman, traveling salesman thing is definitely a part of the culture. So there was a lot more visitor traffic to downtown Lansing and it wasn’t a tourism thing, it was a business and a legal thing,” Marvin said.
The Senate opened the special session at 3 p.m. on Dec. 10 and argued about whether to meet separately or jointly with the state House. After a back-and-forth, the Senate agreed to put together a committee to agree to rules and protocols for the joint convention and wrapped for the day.
The Senate journal reads: “In pursuance of the order previously made, the President declared the Senate adjourned until tomorrow, Tuesday, December 11, 1934, at 10 a.m.” But by Tuesday morning, the Legislature’s focus had completely shifted:
‘MY GOD, THAT’S THE BOSS’ ROOM’
The Kerns Hotel was built in 1909. It was four stories of brick and was the first hotel in the state to offer running water in every room. With its on-site bar and cafeteria, the Kerns Hotel was a popular destination for lawmakers and locals alike in Lansing.
According to Harry Devine, the hotel was bustling even late into the night on Dec. 10. Devine, who was staying in Room 236, spoke with investigators from his hospital bed more than a week after the fire.
Devine said he had retired to his room between 8 and 9 p.m. He said the hotel was quite noisy throughout the night, waking him up several times. Eventually, after he heard someone “snooping around his door,” he got up and investigated. He encountered a hotel bellboy.
“I opened the door and said, ‘What do you want?’ or words to that effect. And he said, ‘Is there any smoke around here?’” Devine told investigators. “The smoke was coming out and he said, ‘My God, that’s the boss’s room. I better get down there and get him out of there.’”
The bellboy left and Devine ran to wake up his business partner in the room next door. He pulled a pair of pants over his pajamas and managed to make his way out of the building, running through some flames to a fire escape, where he was able to let himself down to the ground. According to his interview, Devine made his way to the Hotel Wentworth, which shared a wall with the Kerns Hotel, and begged a man to help him hail a cab and take him to the hospital.
Devine was one of the lucky ones.
Around 5 a.m., Lansing was jolted awake, unprepared for the chaos that was unfolding downtown. Historians say a janitor at the State Journal, headquartered across the street from the Kerns Hotel, first saw flames and ran to sound the alarm.
Fire crews rushed to the scene but the fire spread quicker, sending the hotel visitors into a panic. Several firefighters focused on battling the blaze while others used ladders to pull people to safety or held out nets to catch people forced to jump out of windows from the upper floors. Though it’s up for debate, some historians believe some people even jumped from the east side of the building into the river to escape the fire.
To rescuers it probably felt like minutes, but by 7:30 a.m., the outer walls of the Kerns Hotel had collapsed and crews finally got the fire under control.
In the coming days, crews searched the rubble for victims and any evidence they could tie to the cause of the fire. In all, 32 people were killed in the fire and two more died from their injuries days later. Five of the victims were burned beyond recognition and were buried in a mass grave at Lansing’s Mount Hope Cemetery.
The shock of the fire made headlines across the country, with Michigan communities waiting to hear updates about their lawmakers. Within days, the dead were identified: State Sen. John Leidlein, D-Saginaw, State Rep. John Goodwine, R-Marlette, State Rep. D. Knox Hanna, R-Caro, State Rep. T. Henry Howlett, D-Gregory, State Rep. Charles D. Parker, D-Otisville, State Rep. Donald Sias, R-Midland, and State Rep. Vern Voorhees, D-Albion.
“It was definitely front-page news. You know, 2-inch big letter banners across the state. But what’s interesting is in a lot of the state newspapers from different places, there was always sort of a subheadline that said if their legislators were OK,” Marvin said. “There was a real sense that there was this tragedy in Lansing and we have just sent our people to Lansing. Are they OK? So I think at the time, people across the state probably felt a bigger stake in the news initially. But then once they figured out that their legislators hadn’t been affected, it became more of a Lansing tragedy than a state tragedy.”
Investigators were able to determine that the fire had started in the room of David Monroe, the hotel manager, likely by a cigarette that wasn’t properly put out. Monroe died in the fire, leaving many questions about the cause of the fire unanswered.
In the following days, the agenda for the special session in Lansing flipped. Instead of digging into the election claims, lawmakers spent most of their time talking about the fire, eulogizing their colleagues and again arguing about the need for a special session.
“They recess until the 17th, then they recess until the 20th when they spend most of the time arguing that they shouldn’t be there,” Marvin said. “Then they gavel in on the 22nd, the 24th and the 27th, but there’s no quorum in at least one of the chambers. So they finally just (adjourn) on the 31st and give up.”
When the Legislature reconvened in 1935, they worked with the governor, the treasurer and the auditor general to determine what compensation was owed to the lawmakers’ widows and family members.
“That was just the compensation they would have received for those days of session, which I think in this era, they’re still only earning $3 a day,” Marvin said. “So it wasn’t a ton of money. I think there were a few thousand dollars that were give out to widows of men who had died during that session, but that goes past the Kerns fire. That also goes to several other members who had passed between the start of the session in 33 and the end of this final session.”
Discussions also turned to fire codes and whether the hotel staff bared any responsibility for the chaotic response.
“A lot of initial blame was actually placed on the hotel staff because they met the legal requirements for equipment that they were supposed to have on site to fight fires, but (some people) argued that the staff did nothing,” Marvin told News 8. “And you can see from some people’s perspective, there was a sense that the staff at the hotel should actually be prepared to grab the gear and fight the fire in the building themselves.”
Investigators determined that the hotel staff made a reasonable effort to alert guests and no criminal charges were ever brought. In the wake of the fires, state lawmakers also signed new legislation forcing any building with 10 or more sleeping guests to register with the state fire marshal, have a safety plan in place and pass an inspection.
The other big change was the shift in power in the Legislature. Republicans and Democrats regularly traded power in the 1930s. Michigan, with heavy roots in the foundation of the Republican Party, held lots of GOP support, but President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a Democrat, garnered a lot of votes for his programs to help lift the country out of the Great Depression.
“The election of 1932 was significant in that this brought the Democrats back in control of the Legislature and the governor’s office, which they had not had in a long time,” Marvin said.
In November 1934, without FDR on the ballot, Republicans regained some seats, cutting the Democrat majority down to a razor-thin 51-49.
Howlett and Voorhees lost their elections and were wrapping up their time in the Legislature. That meant the House would have to hold four special elections to fill the seats vacated by Goodwine, Hanna, Parker and Sias.
In three of the districts, the Republican Party retained control. Alpheus Decker filled Goodwine’s seat, Audley Rawson took over Hanna’s seat and Aaron T. Bliss filled the vacancy left by Sias. However, Republican Maurice Matthews won the special election in Genesee County, replacing Democrat Charles Parker and drawing the House into an even 50-50 split.
The 50-50 split lasted for two years. In November 1936, with FDR back on the ballot, the Democrats surged back, winning back the governorship and a 60-40 split in the state House.
A silver lining of the Kerns Hotel fire is the Box 23 Club. From the start of the fire and through the search in the rubble, volunteers assisted Lansing’s firefighters, bringing them hot drinks and dry gloves to keep the work moving. That movement still lives today.
On Dec. 11, 1937, three years after the Kerns Hotel fire, the Box 23 Club formed, working to help Lansing firefighters on scene during emergencies and promote the interests of the Lansing Fire Department.
The club took its name from Alarm Box 23, situated at the corner of East Ottawa Street and North Grand Avenue, the alarm triggered to first notify crews of the Kerns Hotel fire. The exclusive club, which limits itself to 23 members, still responds to fires across the city, bringing extra supplies to help the firefighters unwind from the action.
The original Box 23 now sits at a memorial at Mount Hope Cemetery for Lansing’s firefighters who have died serving their community.