Some old-timers still talk about it as though it happened yesterday. But it was more than 65 years ago when one of the most disastrous fires in Modesto's history occurred.
The burning of the city's famous Hotel Modesto was on the night of May 3, 1944.
The hotel was well-located at 11th and H streets, near the Lyric Theatre, Platos Menswear, and Schackelford-Ulman and Latz department stores.
Its grand opening was June 18, 1914, marking the beginning of 30 years of notable celebrations, organization and service club luncheons and dinner meetings, innumerable dances and large social events held in its beautiful ballroom. Marble floors and leather-upholstered furniture in the public rooms added to the hotel's luxurious ambience.
The fire started about 10:30 p.m. on a breezy spring evening, the result of a small blaze in the basement of the Dutch Boy paint store on the H Street side of the hotel. Flames and smoke, caused by exploding paints and oils, quickly blocked stairways and elevator shafts, preventing the escape of guests trapped on the upper stories.
Residents told stories of crawling to safety through pitch-black, smoke-filled hallways.
Fire Chief George Wallace later said the city's purchase of a hook and ladder truck some 15 years earlier more than proved its worth that night. Many standing at upper-floor windows were rescued using its 75-foot aerial ladder, including more than 40 women and children, some carried down on firefighters' shoulders and backs.
A sailor from the Crows Landing Naval Air Station, trying to grasp the top rung of a ladder, fell five stories and was killed. A businessman from Los Angeles died from smoke inhalation before help could arrive. Several others were seriously injured, mostly from jumping out of windows.
Some on the lower floors leaped into a safety net and "as fast as someone landed in the net, he or she would be removed and another would leap," a fireman said.
As the fire spread, walls began to fall and sparks showered for blocks, causing more than a dozen blazes on the roofs of nearby City Hall, the Pacific Greyhound bus depot, the Odd Fellows Hall, the PG&E building, the Lyric Theatre, the Modesto Lumber Co. and two apartment houses.
The roof of a 10th Street meat market caught fire and collapsed, and eight blazes were started five blocks away at the Ross Lumberyard on Seventh Street. Nearby property owners used garden hoses to spray their buildings with water.
All of the stores on the H Street side of the hotel were destroyed, including barber and beauty shops, a health food business and Madonna's Wine and Liquor Store with stock valued at thousands of dollars.
Myrne Hammett Madonna, whose husband, Chuck, owned the liquor store, remembers standing across the street and watching the building burn. She later suffered another fire loss when her Hammett's women's clothing store in McHenry Village burned in 2005.
About 100 guests at the hotel were rescued, 16 of whom were permanent residents in the hotel's apartments, mostly located on the top floors.
Damage to the Hotel Modesto was estimated at $500,000 by owner Henry Crow., and it never was rebuilt. City Hall later occupied the 11th and H streets site. The building was finished in 1960.
Bare is the author of several books about area history and is the official historian of the McHenry Mansion. E-mail her at email@example.com.