There was never much doubt that an arsonist torched the Beach Hotel, though it was never proved. Some also reasoned that the firebug had a soft spot for dogs.
Galveston’s 19th century seaside resort was framed in wood, as were its crowning cupola and tiered verandas, on which guests could enjoy onshore breezes.
The majestic, four-story hotel, designed by famed Galveston architect Nicholas Clayton, stretched from 23rd to 25th streets and hugged the gulf shore in the days before the seawall. It welcomed its first guests on July 4, 1883.
The 200-room hotel was rarely fully booked and regularly lost money, and on July 3, 1898, a day short of 15 years after its grand opening, someone freed manager George Korst’s tethered watchdog and then attempted to kindle the resort.
“I have a bulldog which I keep at the hotel at night and they told me last night that the dog had been loosened and had disappeared,” Korst told The Galveston News. “I understand that some people who were here early this morning after the fire started smelled kerosene about the boiler-room and kitchen.”
The night watchman managed to extinguish the flames.
Three weeks later, on July 23, a second attempt to put the Beach Hotel to the torch succeeded, again only after a watchdog Korst had acquired to replace the first was set free before the flames consumed the building.
“The hotel was set on fire,” Korst told The News. “I have no doubt whatever about it. They tried to set it on fire two weeks ago, but made a fizzle out of it. At that time we found evidence of coal oil in the boiler-room. It was just about the same time in the morning, too” — in both cases just before dawn.
An overnight employee of The News, William Rice, who lived near the hotel, arrived home just as the latter fire broke out.
He reported seeing flames coming from the boiler-room, smelling kerosene oil and spotting a man fleeing the premises.
The hotel’s owner, former Confederate Col. W.E. Hughes, two years earlier had purchased the resort at a tax sale for some $25,000, a fraction of the $263,000 it cost to build. Days before the second fire erupted, Hughes insured the building for what he had paid.
The fire consumed the Beach Hotel in less than half an hour, and The Galveston News’ July 24 headlines told the story:
“Beach Hotel Is In Ashes
“Galveston’s Magnificent Seaside Hostelry Was Burned to the Ground Early Yesterday Morning—Origin of the Fire Unknown
“It Is Supposed To Be Incendiary
“The Building Burned Rapidly and the Firemen Had a Job to Save Nearby Buildings.”
There was but a single guest staying there that night just before the official, annual July 4 opening, a whiskey salesman named L. Fass, who in recent years had taken to summering at the resort.
Just before dawn, Fass was jarred awake by the hotel’s clanging fire alarm just in time to escape. It was his second such close call in half a year.
“He is a very heavy slumberer,” The News reported, “but on the 20th of last December he was awakened by another such ringing, and when he got up he found that the hotel in which he was sleeping—the Auditorium at Kansas City—was burning.”
This time around, only meteorological good fortune kept the hotel blaze from burning down the surrounding neighborhood, although the fire’s intense heat did scorch several adjacent structures.
“As a spectacle, the fire was grand,” The News reported. “The air seemed to be charged with meteors. Some of these flaming bits of wood were hurled high into the air by the draft from the furnace below, and then, swept by new currents of air, went swirling out toward the gulf.”
Two days before the fire, Hughes had left by train for St. Louis, never to return.
It turns out the owner, from whose hotel the two watchdogs had been freed prior to the fires, had a thing for dogs; in fact, after local fire investigators found no conclusive evidence of arson in the hotel’s smoldering remains and the insurers paid up, Hughes turned his full attention to breeding hunting hounds.
Had the investigators known of Hughes’ fondness for dogs, perhaps the providential freeing of the hotel’s watchdogs might have provided a final clue as to who paid the presumed arsonist. Yet, apparently they weren’t the sorts to peruse the American Kennel Club Stud Book, the 14th edition of which was published in 1899 and attested to Hughes’ new vocation.
The former hotelier, the stud book revealed, had recently sold a liver and white pointer pup named Surf to a fellow former Confederate colonel, F. Charles Hume, of Galveston.
The studbook’s listing identified Surf’s sire as Meteor Max, an odd echo of the News’ account of air “charged with meteors.”
Surf’s mother was Daisy, as Hughes had fondly named her.