The Wawbeek Hotel burned to the ground in a spectacular fire, the night of Saturday, March 1, 1980.

Adirondack Enterprise on Monday, March 1, 1980.

Fire destroys Wawbeek Inn


TUPPER LAKE - The main lodge at the historic Wawbeek Inn on Upper Saranac Lake was completely destroyed by fire on Saturday night.

The spectacular blaze raged out of control for hours with flames and smoke billowing high into the air. The conflagration was visible against the night sky for miles around.

So intense was the heat that at the height of the fire bark and limbs on tree* more than fifty feet from the flames were ignited.

Spectators were comfortably warm at a distance of well over a hundred feet from the building, despite subzero temperature readings.

First to be summoned was the Tupper Lake Fire Department, which was called by staff personnel at the Inn when fire broke out in the kitchen reportedly originating in a deep fat fryer.

The alarm was sounded in Tupper Lake Just before 7:30 p.m. The county fire coordinator was notified immediately, according to Fire Chief Pat McLear, and the Saranac Lake Fire Department was summoned within a few seconds. First on the scene was the Tupper Lake Department. The kitchen was engulfed in flames when they arrived.

McClear blamed a lack of adequate water for the loss of the building. The first thousand gallons trucked to the scene were quickly expended. Meanwhile, a hole was being chopped through the two and a half foot thick ice on the Lake Fire was spreading rapidly in the old wooden building.

The Saranac Lake Department arrived at the scene within a few minutes of the alarm, and two trucks from each department ferried water from Tupper Lake during the early hours of the fire, Mcclear said. With both companies pumping water, the fire continued to spread.

With only a small portable pump to force water over 100 feet from the lake to the inferno on shore even the unlimited lake supply proved ineffective.

Within an hour of the initial alarm the holocaust was clearly visible from the top of Sunmount Hill just east of Tupper and from other vantage points surrounding the area. The Lake Placid Fire Department was summoned to cover for Saranac Lake under the mutual aid system Men and equipment from Paul Smiths and Garbriels joined in fighting the fire later in the evening

When the flames were at their height, between and 10pm firefighters could take no effective action except to prevent the spread of the blaze to the surrounding woods and smaller buildings.

The building, which is owned by St. Lawrence University, was leased and extensively renovated by Sports Illustrated Magazine for use during the Olympic period. All magazine personnel had reportedly departed after the games, and only staff persons were at the Inn when the fire broke out.

Chief McLear reported that fire was burning between the double walls of the kitchen when his men arrived at the scene.

Bright blue sparks crackled from the kitchen area at the height of the fire. After 10 o'clock as the flames subsided two or three muffled explosions threw debris into the air. The cause was not immediately known.

Photographs of famous sports figures left by the Sports Illustrated staff littered one area of the lawn.

A second alarm was sounded in Tupper Lake at 7:40 p.m. Fifty seven men and four trucks responded from Tupper Lake, and ambulances from both Rescue Squads stood by at the fire. McClear reported that only one injury was reported: Dana Comeau of Tupper Lake suffered a sprained finger.

The Saranac Lake Department had twenty two men and three trucks at the scene in addition to their ambulance, according to a spokesman there.

The Tupper Lake Department secured at 12:20 a.m. on Sunday. Saranac Lake had men and equipment at the seen for nearly. They were reported back in service al 1:10 a.m. on Sunday.

The Paul Smith-Gabriels Department was summoned under the Mutual Aid system at about 11:30 p.m. and was on the scene with two trucks and about a dozen men until early morning, according to a spokesman at the Saranac Lake Department.

Adirondack Enterprise on Monday, March 1, 1980.

Fryer fire got into walls


SARANAC LAKE - Guy O'Connor, assistant manager of the Wawbeek Inn which burned to the ground here on Saturday night said the blaze started when he attempted to deep fry some french fries in the kitchen.

O'Connor said. "The thermostat on the deep fryer must not have been working, because it got so hot, the coil caught fire."

He said the Inn's chef Jay Sharkey then tried to extinguish the small fire with a kitchen extinguisher, but the blaze "kept re-igniting." O'Connor said he then pulled a lever designed to release chemical extinguishing foam from ceiling pipes above the counter.

O'Connor said the foam "must have been faulty, it didn't come down like it's supposed to." He then called the fire department, using the State Police's new 911 emergency dial phone number.

Tupper Lake firemen easily extinguished the fryer fire, O'Connor said. "We thought it would only be a sloppy mop up job. Then one of the firemen said he thought he heard something upstairs."

O'Connor said the fire had travelled up a flue to the attic, where it raced quickly across the hollow wooden space the length of the building "The fire was out in the kitchen, but flames were already licking out the top windows on the other side." O'Connor said. "In 20 minutes, the whole place was on fire "

O'Connor is the son of James O'Connor, the Inn's manager, hired by owner St. Lawrence University for the Inn's first winter season. O'Connor, of Cherry Hill, N.J., reportedly had some of his staff and a few friends booked in the hotel for the weekend.

Inn caretaker Judy Phillips said, "Normally, the hotel would have been closed." She said there bad been a large staff party on Thursday night, and the Inn would have closed Friday, but "Mr. O'Connor wanted to stay up over the weekend."

Bud Randall, St. Lawrence University's vice president for business affairs said "It's hard to say if we'll rebuild, of course, we just finished winterizing it "

The Inn was rented to Sports Illustrated for a six week Olympic period. Randall would not disclose the rental fee, which is rumored to be $100,000.

A complete winterization job, including a new heating system, insulation, plumbing, sewage and electricity was finished earlier this season. Randall said the job was done by St. Lawrence, but the cost was covered by the Sports Illustrated rental fee

He said the 45 acres and main building, plus eight cottages and two large annexes are covered by insurance "That's not to say they're covered for complete replacement." the administrator said. "That would be extremely expensive."

The original Wawbeek Hotel was built in 1880. It was a five story structure, with 200 guest rooms and cottages. In 1913, the grand hotel was destroyed by fire.

Roy Baker rebuilt the Wawbeek in 1930 and operated it for several years before selling the business to Harry and Terry Purchase in 1952. The Purchases had stayed at the Inn on their first wedding anniversary some years earlier. They managed the Inn for 12 years.

At the scene on Sunday, Harry Purchase said. "I used to check the place over three times every night, because I knew one spark was all it would take for the place to go up. '

Mr. Purchase clutched a glass goblet the couple had found in the hotel rubble.

A Major Edwards operated the Wawbeek as a boy's camp for several years in the early 1960s before selling the Inn to Judge and Mrs. Van Voorhis of Rochester.

In 1975, the Van Voorhis donated the Inn to St. Lawrence University, which also owns Camp Canaras on Upper Saranac Lake. Randall said finances had been "tough," for the four summers the school had managed it. "It was only open 10 weeks out of the year." Randall said.

It was hoped the winterization recently completed would be a shot in the arm for the Adirondack Inn, one of the few still open to the public.

Local people visited the site all day on Sunday, arriving in cars, on foot, and even on snowmobiles, driven over the frozen lake Looters took several steel bowls, blackened with soot, and the andirons from one of the Inn's four fireplaces, according to the caretaker

Ironically, a huge pile of newspapers, stacked for kindling one fireplace was intact, sitting in a pile of ashes.