PARK TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — Nothing man-made can be added to the Lake Michigan shoreline and outshine the natural beauty of the lakeshore, but Hotel Ottawa arguably came the closest.
For its time, the luxury hotel — sandwiched between Lake Michigan and Lake Macatawa (then known as Black Lake) — was one of the state’s premiere tourist draws, attracting people from all across Michigan and the Midwest.
Unfortunately, the hotel met an untimely end. The beautiful building burned to the ground 100 years ago Monday.
The story of Hotel Ottawa starts years before crews ever broke ground. According to local historian Valerie van Heest, the hotel was part of a plan to build a cottage and resort park. A group of businessmen associated with the Chicago & West Michigan Railway Company mapped out a large plat of land on the northern shore of Black Lake, including several small cottage communities surrounded by preserved greenspace. The hotel served as a focal point for the area, not only to draw in tourists using their railroads, but also to provide an ideal gathering space for its residents.
The group, named the West Michigan Park Association, started construction on the hotel in 1886. The Historic Ottawa Beach Society says it cost $20,000 — approximately $650,000 in value today. Half of the funding came from selling lots for cottages within the neighborhood. The other half came from bond sales.
Construction took a little over a month and the hotel opened around July 1, 1886. In its early days, according to van Heest, the hotel was a little rough around the edges, but it still had the charm and beauty that is captured in photos.
“(It started off as) a very stylish yet rather primitive hotel, not terribly upscale,” van Heest said in a 2021 presentation with Hope College.
The hotel served as a boon for the up-and-coming Ottawa Beach community, pushing new development. According to the Historic Ottawa Beach Society, 20 summer homes were built within the hotel’s first year and most of the cottages still standing in that area were built between 1887 and 1900 — all in spite of the transportation challenges. The first railway to connect Holland to the lakeshore wasn’t built until 1900, meaning residents relied on steamships to bring them and their building materials from Holland.
As Ottawa Beach grew, the hotel owners continued to develop their property. The hotel underwent several changes. Even the original building was picked up and moved closer to the water.
“They jacked it up, put it on logs, carefully rolled it down the hill, and then put it down (near the waterfront) where it stood,” Dan Aument, president of the Historic Ottawa Beach Society, told News 8. “Then, about four years later, they thought, ‘It’s doing so well, let’s expand it.’ So they put on the addition.”
With the final additions, the Hotel Ottawa could accommodate more than 1,000 paying visitors each night, making it the king of shoreline inns around Black Lake.
A NEW AGE OF LUXURY
Hotel Ottawa came at just the right time to take advantage of a growing tourism industry. Van Heest credits the growing technological advances of the time.
“This was a period of technological revolution, a second industrial revolution where machinery was minimizing the laborious work in factories and workers were actually having shorter workdays, higher salaries, and with that, more free time,” she explained. “So that technology revolution really created a new industry: the leisure industry.”
Holland, with its beautiful lake views and shoreline breeze, was a natural draw for tourists. By the 1870s, it proved to be a popular place for campers and eventually beachside resorts. The Hotel Ottawa was the jewel of them all.
A guest registry from the hotel was gifted to the Pump House Museum. It shows the list of visitors from 1893 through 1895. Van Heest’s analysis found approximately 82% of total visitors from that span were from Michigan, while 18% were from outside the state. Some visitors traveled from as far as Texas, Colorado, New York and even England.
But it wasn’t just the lake that drew people to Ottawa Beach. Hotel Ottawa and the other inns offered a lot of entertainment. Visitors could regularly take in a concert or a baseball game. The hotel also had separate buildings that housed a dance hall, a bowling alley and billiard tables.
Just like the technological innovations that fueled the new age of leisure, Hotel Ottawa had to adapt to the changing times and provide new accommodations.
When the hotel opened in 1886, visitors traveled by steamer to get to Ottawa Beach and the hotel was lit by kerosene lamps. By the time it burned down in 1923, transportation shifted to new railroads, and then paved roads as the automobile took over. The hotel also eventually added electricity — thanks to the pump house that is now the Pump House Museum.
Those electrical upgrades, unfortunately, likely led to the hotel’s downfall.
UP IN SMOKE
The fateful fire started around 5:15 p.m. on Nov. 6, 1923, minutes after the last of the renovation crew had clocked out for the day, wrapping up finishing touches on the remodeled dance hall. Hotel clerk Edwin Antisdel was the first one to notice the small fire coming from the center of the main building, starting either in the barber shop or manicure parlor.
Antisdel ran to get help, reaching the wife of the hotel custodian who lived in a cottage nearby. She called for help, but by the time firefighters could get on scene, it was quickly apparent that the hotel was lost.
Local historian Donald van Reken noted in his book “Ottawa Beach & Waukazoo: A History” that the hotel had fire contingency plans in place, including hundreds of feet of hose and a tank “constructed to provide sufficient pressure to send water to every part of the hotel grounds.” But the contingency plan didn’t account for the calendar.
“The water tank was drained a few days (earlier) when the custodian left on a deer hunting trip to northern Michigan, and in consequence water, which might have saved the annex and some of the smaller buildings from destruction, was lacking,” van Reken wrote. “Usually, the tank was not drained until freezing weather set in.”
Instead, Aument said, firefighters and the people who jumped in to help had to improvise.
“The firemen, when they arrived from Holland, had to put hoses into the lake and suck water out to fight the fire,” he said. “By that time, it was all over.”
Local news reports from that day also say the weather played a factor. A cutting wind out of the northwest helped fan the flames and put more buildings at risk.
“With the hotel and its contents doomed, the firefighters concentrated their efforts to save the Murphy cottage, the cottage of Mrs. Boyd Pantlind nearby, the store and post office, the boat houses, the resort garage and the docks,” van Reken wrote.
Fire investigators estimate without the work of the firefighters and volunteers roughly 75 homes could have been lost to the fire.
The front page of the next day’s Holland Sentinel was covered with coverage of the fire. The main headline read, “Half-million-dollar fire wipes out Ottawa Beach Hotel in big evening blaze.” The paper also highlighted how one local farmer helped fight the fire:
“Charles Jackson of Lakewood Farm deserves a great deal of credit in helping to prevent confusion among those who offered their services to fight the fire at Ottawa Beach on Tuesday night,” the article started. “Mr. Jackson took it upon himself to direct the work and his expert knowledge of the place and its equipment stood the firefighters in good stead. He superintended the laying of the plank road to the water’s edge on which the pumper could run, and he directed the men who formed the bucket brigade to put out the miniature fires on the docks.”
While investigators at the time had limited tools to piece together what sparked the fire, the agreed assumption was that faulty wiring was to blame.
WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN…
Losing the hotel was a blow to the Ottawa Beach community, but the fire actually played a key role in shaping the neighborhood as we know it today. For one, we may not have Holland State Park.
“(The current owners of the hotel) realized that the land on which the hotel was sitting, they didn’t own it. It was part of the undeveloped park land (in the West Michigan Park Association’s original plan for the property),” Aument explained. “The majority of the land on the plat was never developed. … It has been upheld in the State Supreme Court that these properties, those parklands in this neighborhood should not be, forever and ever amen, be developed.”
He continued: “Even though the County of Ottawa now has taken them over, I think to our benefit, they don’t have restroom buildings on there or other structures on these parklands. It has to be preserved.”
Instead of dealing with the headache of trying to rebuild and work around the land ownership issues, they took their $300,000 in insurance payouts and turned their focus to a different property.
So what would have happened if the Hotel Ottawa had never burned down? Aument suspects that land would have been parceled off for private development.
“It would probably be a gated neighborhood like Macatawa Park,” Aument surmised. “The hotel would still be there, the Lake Macatawa unit of the Holland State Park would be the golf course … but it would be totally different.”
He continued: “So you can say it was a good thing that the hotel burned down. Because now the public has access to the beach.”
Aument and the Historic Ottawa Beach Society maintain the Pump House Museum. The pump house is the last surviving structure of the Hotel Ottawa complex. After the hotel was destroyed, the building was used to house a water pump to service the cottages across Ottawa Beach.
Public water service came to Ottawa Beach in the 1980s, rendering the pump house useless. The building fell into disrepair until the Historic Ottawa Beach Society teamed up with the Ottawa County Parks and Recreation Department to renovate it and operate it as a local museum.
The museum tells the story of Ottawa Beach and Park Township, including the legacy of Hotel Ottawa. The museum is currently closed for the season but will reopen next summer.