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2004-04-01 20:56:12

British Colonial Hotel: The Landmark With Nine Lives

There may be people who still remember the Hotel Colonial. There are many who remember the Sheraton British Colonial. And those who remember the Best Western British Colonial.

There have been many incarnations of the British Colonial Hotel, but at its core, the landmark which is owned by the Oakes family and has been leased to many hotel chains, is the cornerstone of the downtown aesthetic. The hotel is demonstrative archictecturally of the tenuous ease with which Nassau has transitioned from old world colonial majesty into new millenium free thinking splendour.

There may be people who still remember the Hotel Colonial. There are many who remember the Sheraton British Colonial. And those who remember the Best Western British Colonial. The younger generation of Bahamians have only known the world renowned hotel as it stands today, The British Colonial Hilton.

The original Hotel Colonial was built in 1900 and was a six storey wooden structure that was deemed the most luxurious resort in the West Indies. In January 1922, the hotel officially opened for the season. The advanced bookings for the hotel were numerous. Events for the hotel were a staple in the social page of the Nassau Guardian. The hotel bragged about the musical stylings of Mrs. Anna Van Gerow, the featured church and concert soprano who had performed in New York and other U.S. cities. The newly formed Bahamas Tennis Club had been admitted membership to the United States Lawn Tennis Association. But on the morning of April 1, 1922, the Hotel Colonial which had a reputation for tennis courts unexcelled in the south would meet an untimely fate.

The Nassau Guardian, whose front page usually offered news from around the world and columns such as Women's Realm and London To-Day offered a bold, locally relevant headline, "Hotel Colonial Destroyed by Fire: Serious Conflagration Imperils City."

Shortly before 6 a.m. on April 1, 1922, an alarm for fire was raised, and fire engines and their crews came face to face with the "most gigantic and hopeless task with which [they] had ever been confronted."

There were many rumours about the fire with regard to how it began and how it was extinguished, but the facts of that day, will follow.

At 5:35 a.m. a bellboy went into a laundry room located in the south western wing of the hotel. It was at this point that he noticed smoke coming from behind a drying apparatus. There was no one else in the room, so the bellboy broke open the fire box and tried to douse the flames. However, the hotel worker was soon overcome by the smoke and had to be dragged out by another staff member. Once the manager and remaining staff arrived at the scene there was nothing that anyone present could do. The hotel manager sent several attendants to call the hotel guests and also to go quietly to every occupied room and warn the guests that there may have been an emergency afoot, but at that time there was still some hope that the fire could be contained.

A resident who lived on the corner of Marlborough Street and Cumberland was awoken by noise and the smell of smoke and telephoned the Central Police Station. The police, the City Brigade and the Western Brigade engines all tried to extinguish the hotel blaze, but once they realised that it was already beyond their control, they tried to salvage the surrounding buildings, many of which were already on fire. After some time, there was a decision to dynamite the burning wing, in order to cut the spread of the fire off at the pass and prevent the ruination of the entire structure, but it was too late. The world famous Hotel Colonial, referred to as "the pride of the city" was consumed by the flames. The only fortunate factor was that the wind direction, from the south east, was able to fan the flames away from town.

Once the flames overcame the sixth storey, another solemn decision was made to dynamite the eastern stone buildings, which were used as servants' quarters, so that the business district of the city could be spared. Guests of the Hotel Colonial and other officials praised the hotel's management for the expeditious manner in which all occupants of the hotel were notified. Their advanced warnings prevented the tragic statistic from including a number of lives lost. There was also minimal loss of personal effects since many of the guests were scheduled for sailing and thusly their heavy luggage had already been removed from their rooms.

Trucks were used to remove anything that could be saved, including a small quantity of silver and some furniture, from the Hotel Colonial and was sent to be stored at the Royal Victoria Hotel which had closed for the season during the previous week. They re-opened the hotel to accomodate many of the displaced Hotel Colonial guests, while Bahamians opened their homes to the remaining stranded visitors and tried to make them comfortable during their last few hours in the capital.

Later that day passengers coming into port could see the smoke rising from 15 miles out. It is said that when the wireless operator received the call in Harbour Island, they thought it was an April Fool's joke, but upon visiting the city they had to give the grim news once they returned home.

When all was said and done 12 private residences, a stone cottage which was occupied by the Chief Engineer of the Hotel Colonial, the brick power house, the ice factory, the coal shed, the Colonial Cottage, the boat house and a yacht which was stored behind it were destroyed. The jagged remnants of the servants' quarters were imploded. The only amenity left untouched on the property was its swimming pool. In the end a huge seared smoke stack was the only thing above ground level on the hotel site and it stood like a "grim monument to the glory of the Hotel Colonial."

Click here to visit the British Colonial Hilton online.

Brigette Dean, The Nassau Guardian 

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