Around 5:30 a.m. on the morning of December 11, 1934 a fire broke out at the Kerns Hotel in Lansing, Michigan. The hotel, built in 1909, was four stories tall and originally contained 162 rooms at a cost of over $50,000. The hotel was a very popular place in Lansing. Communities members and state politicians enjoyed staying or meeting at the hotel. The location on the corner of SE Grand and Ottawa was right in the heart of downtown and allowed for easy and quick access to most everything in Lansing. The restaurant and bar in the Kerns were constantly packed during the non-prohibition years.
The fire was discovered by the nightwatchman and had apparently been burning for nearly 30 minutes. The alarm bell was sounded almost immediately after discovery but it was already too late. The interior of the building was made entirely of wood and the flames spread fast. Being so early in the morning, many of the hotel’s 215 guests were still asleep when the alarm rang.
The fire department showed up almost immediately and many of the guests on the lower two floors were able to escape quickly. The guests on the third and fourth floor were unable to get down the stairs and were basically trapped. A steel at one end prevented
Flames swept through the hallways and doors leaving many on the upper floors to cry for help and seek a dramatic escape. The fire department had ladders and were able to get some out but not everyone could get to the ladders. Some victims attempted to gain safety by jumping onto the kitchen roof below but ultimately perished when the roof collapsed. Some guests jumped out of the windows and attempted to jump into safety nets placed on the street below.. Several people died when they jumped to the ground below missing the firemen’s net.
The death toll was difficult to determine due to the fact that many victims were unable to be found. Some victims were charred beyond recognition and others were feared lost in the freezing Grand River. The river was located directly behind the hotel and guests, trapped by the blaze, may have leaped from their windows directly into the ice-covered river.The fire caused several of the brick exterior walls to collapse, killing several.
After the river was dragged and the ruins combed it was determined that 32 persons died and 44 were injured, including 14 firemen. Among the dead were seven Michigan state legislators in town for a special session of the state legislature
- JOHN W. GOODWINE, representative from Marlette. He was completing his fourth term in the Legislature. He operated a stock farm in Elmer Township; directed the farm bureau. He was 56 years old.
- VERN VOORHEES, representative from Albion. A farmer, her moved to Calhoun County from Mendon in 1907. Served as school director, highway commissioner and supervisor. At 56, he was serving his first term.
- CHARLES D. PARKER, representative from Genesee County. A Democrat, Mr. Parker was serving his first term. A hardware merchant, born in South Mountain, Ontario 57 years ago. He left a widow and two sons.
- T. HENRY HOWLETT, representative from Gregory. He was finishing his first term. A merchant, he served Livingstone County as supervisor and treasurer for many years. He was 70 years old.
- JOHN LEIDLEIN, State senator from Saginaw. He was serving his fourth term. He was 70 years old.
- DONALD E. SIAS, representative from Midland. He was completing his second term. Born in Midland he was serving as an aviator in World War I. Before going into dairy, he taught school at Ypsilanti.
- WILLIAM HANNA, representative from Caro died several days after the fire of injuries sustained while jumping out his third floor window and missing the safety net.
Several other state legislators were injured, but survived. The deaths of the politicians caused anguish and strife. Special elections had to be held in four different legislative districts to elect new members to replace the fallen.
The deaths actually caused the balance of power in the Michigan House of Representatives to shift from the G.O.P. to the Democarts when M.L. Tomlin won the final seat.
The widow of Vern Voorhees was awarded $750 in May of 1935 for funeral costs and hospital. Other settlements were awarded but the amounts were not disclosed.
There were four victims of the fire that were never identified. A funeral was held for them on December 29th at the Prudden Auditorium in Lansing.
It was determined that the fire was caused by a carelessly discarded cigarette in the room of David Monroe, hotel manager, who died in the conflagration. No charges were brought against anyone from the hotel. It was determined that a reasonable effort was made to arouse and awaken the 200+ sleeping guests.
On June 1, 1935 the Hotel Safety Act of Michigan went into effect. The act was drafted to prevent any possibility of a recurrence of the events at the Kerns Hotel. The Act stated that any building in the state that had 10 or more persons sleeping above the first be registered with the state fire marshal and that the safety of the hotel was to be approved upon inspection.
Unfortunately this would not be the last hotel fire in Michigan with at least 10 lives lost. Almost exactly 43 years later on December 10, 1977, the Wenonah Park Hotel fire in Bay City resulted in ten deaths.