I t was Labor Day weekend, 1920. Hotels in downtown Klamath Falls were packed with visitors in town for the holiday celebration.
Rooms at the Houston Hotel at the corner of Main and Second streets were filled and people slept on cots in the hallways. At about 3 a.m., a pile of greasy rags ignited.
City night patrolman M.L. Barnett spotted and reported the fire.
Firefighters arrived to chaos. Flames by then had engulfed two blocks on both sides of the street. People on the hotel’s second floor were trying to escape using ropes dangling from windows. While the fire department struggled to access city water lines, the inferno grew.
The next day, the annual Labor Day parade passed the smoking rubble of the Houston Hotel.
The fire claimed the lives of at least 14 people, the deadliest blaze in Klamath Falls history.
The victims were buried in unmarked plots in the Linkville Cemetery.
More than 90 years later, those graves will be recognized when the Klamath County Historical Society dedicates a monument Saturday to the victims of the Houston Hotel fire.
The Klamath Falls Parks Department will host a ceremony commemorating an engraved marker designating the burial site of seven of 14 fire victims. The ceremony will be at 11:30 a.m. Saturday. A tour of grave sites will follow the ceremony.
“More lives were lost in this fire than any before or since, locally,” said Carol Mattos, a board member of the Klamath Historical Society. “For the future residents of this town, this needs to be marked so it is not forgotten.”
The number of dead was disputed due to the amount of recovered remains that were too damaged to be positively identified as human, Mattos said.
In a 1938 newspaper article, Keith Ambrose, fire chief at the time, remarked some remains were simply charred backbones entwined in blackened metal bed springs.
The victims were interred in two plots, one holding a mother and daughter, and a second holding five other victims, although coroners disagreed on the number.
The destructive blaze was among disasters that galvanized creation of fire codes in the 1960s, said Klamath County Fire District No. 1 Fire Marshal Scott Rice.
It also had an immediate impact on the fire safety standards for hotels, said Elizabeth Budy, member of the Klamath County Historical Society.
“It caused huge furor in the newspapers and it had a big impact on safety regulations,” she said. “It forced hotels to comply with safety rules more than a rope hanging from a window.”
City Health Officer Dr. A.A. Soule was quoted in The Evening Herald in 1920 saying, “now is the psychological time to attack (other unsafe hotels) while the Houston Hotel tragedy is fresh in the public mind.”
The fire caused about $126,500 in damages, according to articles published in The Evening Herald.