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Like a phoenix, Merchants Hotel rises from the ashes after 1907 fire

Jacob Bembry: Greene Publishing, Inc.

A shudder of horror thrilled the crowd as they watched the pride of Madison go up in flames. Renovated and reopened only a little over five years earlier, the Merchants Hotel had become one of the most popular places for Florida’s weary travelers to rest their heads and for locals and guests from surrounding towns to come and enjoy dining out. It would be snuffed out on the night of Thursday, January 3, 1907.

The alarm had been sounded with cries of “Fire! Fire!” and volunteer firefighters were quickly on the scene, battling the blaze which worked even more quickly than they did. Firefighters saved buildings surrounding the beautiful hotel, though.

Photo Courtesy of the State Archives of Florida
The drawing from the January 9, 1908 New Enterprise of the old three-story wooden Merchants Hotel, which had built in 1884 and had been the Central Park Hotel before being renovated and reopened in September 1901, and the two-story brick building, which opened on January 8, 1908, after the older building burned to the ground January 3, 1907.

Within ten minutes of the alarm being sounded, streets were filled with men, women, and children, who watched helplessly with heavy hearts as the Merchants Hotel burned to the ground, becoming a heap of smoldering rubble.

The hotel had been filled with guests, and the question of the hour was, “Have all survived?”

Guests inside the hotel included Major Drew, C.P. Kelly, T.D. Sloan, and a Mr. Crane, and others, who made their escapes by climbing from the second floor down the posts.

As the fire was at its zenith, the crowd of people saw a man inside, surrounded by smoke and flames. Gasps and screams came out of their mouths, as the man appeared to be calmed and collected. He walked to a window on the east side of the second floor, surveyed the distance to the ground, and the crowd yelled for him to find another exit at the rear part of the building which was directly over a shed. He disappeared, then reappeared at the rear exit, and climbed out the window, letting himself out full-length, then he dropped onto the roof of the shed, where the clambered to the ground, and was met with joy by those awaiting him and cheering for him. The man was later identified as a Mr. Hackney, who lived in Wellborn in Suwannee County.

T.D. Sloan, was lodging at the hotel because he had moved to Madison only three months earlier after being hired as Superintendent of Machinery at the Florida Manufacturing Company. When he was awakened by the alarm, he was in a position where he would have had plenty of time to make sure his escape to safety, but Sloan, caring for the well-being of others, began knocking on doors alerting others to what was going on. His work of mercy complete, Sloan tried to leave the building but found virtually every avenue of departure cut off, except by climbing down a post on the front veranda. To do that, he had to walk through flame and smoke. When he finally reached the ground, it was discovered that his face, hands, and arms were horribly burned. The skin of his arms hung in shreds from his fingertips. He was given prompt medical attention was taken to the home of W.M. Burton, where he stayed, bandaged, and suffering in agony for a good deal of time before he recovered.

Photo Courtesy of the State Archives of Florida
A 1908 photo of the Merchants Hotel, which still stands today. The original hotel, mentioned in the article, which had been the Central Park Hotel burned down and was replaced by this building.

The Merchants Hotel had been a large, wooden three-story structure. The original building was built in 1884, and had been managed by several different parties until 1901, when the property was secured by a stock company, comprised of merchants and businessmen from Madison, and capitalized at $8,000. Officers of the company were A.H. Smith, president, and T.C. Smith, secretary and treasurer. Mrs. J.P McCall served as the manager and Walter McDaniel was the clerk.

When the company had been organized in 1901, they purchased the building that formerly housed the Central Park Hotel, and set about having it repaired, remodeled, and improved. The building was transformed, and presented a more attractive appearance, both inside and out. The inside included forty-five bedrooms, which had also been remodeled, and featured electric bells.

Citizens of Madison attended the gala, as did guests from Monticello, Valdosta, Ga., and other towns. People danced to the strains of the Park Opera House Orchestra, from Jacksonville, and enjoyed sweet refreshments, consisting of cake and ice cream.

The ladies wore elegant dresses and gentlemen were clothed in conventional evening wear of the time.

Charge of the renovated hotel had been given to Mrs. J.P. McCall, and in a short time, its fame abounded throughout Florida, and other southeastern states. It was spoken of highly by traveling men, who frequented the Merchants Hotel on their journeys, and it had become known as the best commercial hotel in the state.

Much property was lost by the hotel, Mrs. McCall, and her guests. The insurance on the hotel was $7,000, which would not begin to cover the losses suffered.

The fire could not burn the spirit of the people of Madison, however. Almost before the ashes had cooled, steps were put into place to build a new hotel on the site of the old. The Merchants Hotel Company, the stock company which owned the building, deemed that it should not be required to build a new building, but offered to organize a new company for the purpose. Subscriptions slowly came in, but finally the needed $20,000.00 was raised, and a new brick building was constructed.

The new hotel was brick throughout. It was two stories in height, and had ample and broad verandas. Every modern convenience of the time was available, including water, baths, rooms en suite (with the bathroom next to the room where the guest slept), electric bells, and fire alarms.

Mrs. McCall was proprietress of the new hotel, and Walter McDaniel was found as the clerk at the front desk, smiling and suave as ever, ready to help guests.

The new hotel opened its doors to the public on Wednesday, January 8, 1908, with a delicious meal served in the dining room.

Looking ahead 109 years later, the new building, no longer a hotel, stands regally, looking east toward the Four Freedoms Park, with its Gazebo, the Four Freedoms Monument, the Confederate Memorial, and the memorial to the sad era of slavery in Madison County. It stands as a symbol of history, and strength, and like a phoenix, it rose from the ashes.

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