The Shocking Secret Of The 1915 Fire
It seems that all great cities of the world have at one time or another suffered a great, disastrous fire throughout their vast histories.
Long before the advent of modern fire safety practices and firefighting technology, most of the world’s populated centers have a history of suffering such a conflagration.
There was the Great Fire of London, in 1666, which destroyed more than 90 percent of London’s central district known as The City. There was the Great Fire of New York in 1776, only two months after the Declaration of Independence; a fire which destroyed as much as one-quarter of the city of New York.
Most well known of all, perhaps, is the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, which killed hundreds and leveled nearly 3.5 square miles of the Windy City.
Avalon (being one of the world’s great cities) is no different. It was on Nov. 29, 1915 that we made our contribution to the world’s “great fires” list when a blaze got started in the Rose Hotel located about where the Hotel Villa Portofino is now and proceeded to destroy nearly 1/3 of the town, including the palatial Hotel Metropole.
The media of the day and the common sentiment over the decades since has concluded that the fire began as a simple kitchen fire in a café located in, or near, the Rose Hotel.
But a voice from the past, barely audible on an old oral history cassette tape from the 1970s, has perhaps revealed a terrible secret behind the 1915 fire; the kind of secret of which nightmares are made. That voice belonged to none other than Johnny Windle, one of Avalon’s most respected founding citizens.
The son of Judge Ernest Windle, who in between hearing cases at the bench found time to establish and operate the Catalina Islander newspaper, Johnny Windle was as close to a town patriarch as a town can have.
He was a plain-speaking, hard-working individual who held various positions of importance in Catalina history and directly participated in many of Avalon’s most momentous events. To those who knew him, his word and his reputation on Catalina Island was sterling.
During the 1970s, Catalina Islander Chuck Liddell tirelessly documented early Avalon history with dozens of oral history interviews with early residents, from Jessie McClanahan to Squirrel D’Arcy to Jimmy Trout and many others.
These tapes are now the property of the Catalina Island Museum.
One of Chuck’s interviews, conducted in 1978, was with Johnny Windle and included a lengthy segment on Mr. Windle’s experiences in the 1915 fire.
At 2:30 a.m. on Nov. 29, young Johnny was abruptly awakened by the town constable, Al Wiggs. “Fire! Fire!” yelled Wiggs. Johnny ran into the street in the early morning darkness and beheld his town in flames. “It looked like the whole town was going,” said Windle in the interview. “That’s exactly how it looked to everybody.
“You look to where the (Cabrillo) Mole is now,” he said, “and it was nothing but women and children trying to get away from the fire.”
Citizens gathered their belongings in push carts and bed sheets and filed zombie-like towards the safety of the east side of town.
The windows in the stately Hotel Metropole exploded in the heat and the Moricich family pushed their piano out of the house and straight up Stage Coach Road. “People were doings things they would never be able to do if everything was all right,” said Windle.
But it is after Windle finishes his general narrative of the fire that things in the interview really get interesting.
“OK,” said interviewer Chuck Liddell on the tape. “Is that the end of the fire story then?”
There is a pause.
“Well, no,” answered Windle, “There’s one more item … ”
Windle then goes on to describe how he was told by “Tinch” Moricich and Squirrel D’Arcy about how, in the midst of the maelstrom, they had to rescue the mother-in-law of the owner of the Hotel Rose, who had evidently been INTENTIONALLY locked in the attic. Moricich, who would later become town constable, had to bust open a padlock and force a trap door open to free the woman, injuring his shoulder in the process.
Windle then goes on to say how the woman’s son-in-law had, only days before the fire, curiously begun to move his belongings out of the hotel.
“Let me get this straight then,” asked Chuck bluntly in the interview, “We’re assuming (the son-in-law) locked the mother-in-law in there to do away with her.”
“You can assume what you want,” said Johnny.
Heavy stuff. Stuff that gets a lot heavier when you also consider that only four hours before the fire began, another mysterious fire had been set on the other end of town at 200 Eucalyptus St. This previous fire had drawn all of Avalon’s volunteer fire department and their equipment to the other side of town.
This equipment was evidently not put back in order before the main fire broke out at the Rose. In fact, the Los Angeles Times story even mentions that efforts to fight the Rose Hotel fire were greatly hampered by the fact that “most of the hose and firefighting gear was still up at Eucalyptus.”
Was Avalon’s Great Fire of 1915 intentionally set by the owner of the Rose Hotel?
If so, was it done for insurance purposes or—chillingly—to “do away” with an inconvenient mother-in-law? Was the Eucalyptus fire set intentionally as a diversion, knowing the volunteer firefighters would be ill-prepared and perhaps too beat to fight a second, bigger fire in town? (The L.A. District Attorney reportedly came out to investigate the story, but without result).
As is often the case with these little unpolished gems of history that are unearthed, all living memory and any semblance of documentation is now and forever gone, so we’ll probably never know the truth.
In the words of the legendary Johnny Windle, “you can assume what you want.”