Two Wooden Hotels--Two Disastrous Fires
“The Highland Park Hotel may be said to be the cornerstone of Aiken, for it is the original, the mouthpiece that has made Aiken known to the world. It has been in existence for twenty years or more, growing every year and keeping pace with the times and the demands upon it – until now it is one of largest and best hotels in the State. It is a handsome building, spreading out over a great extent of surface, and extraordinary care has been taken in the matter of drainage and water supply to keep it perfectly pure and healthy.”
The writer, mysteriously identified in the February 28, 1892 New York Times article only as “W. L.”, further says that B.P. Chatfield, the hotel’s owner, gave him an “interesting account of his going to Aiken and establishing a hotel there when the place was little known and its future extremely uncertain.” Chatfield, a Connecticut native, built the Highland Park Hotel in Aiken between 1866 and 1870, just a few years after the end of the Civil War.
A Prosperous Resort
During the Reconstruction Period, Northerners were not especially welcome in the South. Despite this fact, the hotel prospered in its location at the west end of Park Avenue. People flocked to Aiken because it was regarded as a health resort. The hotel sat on what today is an area between Highland Park Drive and Hayne Avenue, with verandas facing what would become Hitchcock Woods. It accommodated 250 to 300 guests.
Just six years later, the New York Times reported that the Highland Park Hotel was destroyed on the morning of February 6, 1898 by a fire that started in the laundry room. The blaze awakened the168 guests, who were all able to escape safely with their bags, with the exception of one Bostonian who was shot and wounded by a hotel engineer. The impressive Highland Park Hotel burned to the ground. A second hotel was built on the site in 1914 but also fell victim to fire in 1945.
Two short years after the 1898 Highland Park Hotel fire, another grand wooden hotel was under construction not far from where the Highland Park had burned to ashes. The Park in the Pines Hotel was built on 40 acres of land purchased from a section of city property called Eustis Park. Presently, the Aiken County Administration building (originally the Aiken County Hospital building) stands on this site, which later was known as Toole Town in the 1930s and 40s.
By 1906, accolades from Northern writers began pouring in for The Park in the Pines Hotel. They reported that the hotel was “among the most elegantly equipped and liberally conducted hotels of the South.” Park in the Pines had 300 guest rooms and was nestled among pine trees that were thought to deliver a “soothing and purifying effect exerted upon the mucous membrane of the respiratory passages by the exhalations from this tree.” In fact, it was written that “the climate of Aiken owes much of its well-deserved reputation as a health resort for persons suffering from all forms of disease affecting the respiratory tract.”
Sunday Morning Fire
But the fire that struck the Park in the Pines Hotel early on a Sunday morning in February of 1913 burned even more swiftly than the Highland Park fire had 15 years earlier.
After fleeing for their lives amidst a savage blaze, the Pine’s winter residents lost all that they had brought with them for the season. The speed with which the hotel burned was blamed on low water pressure that impeded firefighters from extinguishing the flames. Local residents and the smaller but elegant Willcox Inn gave the Pine’s wealthy and well-known guests shelter.
And so it was twin February fires that ultimately brought an end to the era of the massive wooden hotels that made Aiken a destination as a winter health resort.