The Fremont Hotel Fire, 1971
On February 4, 1971 flames consumed an historic landmark in Lander, The Fremont Hotel. The grandest building in Lander, and the tallest in Western Wyoming, the Fremont saw much of Lander’s early history.
The first two stories of the Fremont Hotel were built in 1891 by Jerry Sheehan. With the coming of the railroad and increased visitors, a third and fourth floors added after the turn of the century. The Fremont Hotel was located at the corner of Third Street and Main Street where Central Bank and Trust is located today. When the Fremont Hotel was completed it was the tallest and most substantial building in Lander, and the first 4 story building in Wyoming. The second story balcony, above the main entrance, was a noted feature of the building, hosting speakers, bands and other entertainment performed for people standing on Main Street below.
The four story brick building housed the Fremont Hotel, the Fremont Café, The Fremont Bar, Jim Trimmer’s barber shop and Irene Clay’s beauty shop. The Fremont was famous for good food and lodging. It was a meeting place for dignitaries, cattlemen and hosted many gala occasions.
In the early days the only heat for the building was a huge pot-bellied stove in the main lobby. A story in the Lander clipper from 1900 related this story: “It was in the 1890s and in the dead of winter, a traveling man had one of the upstairs rooms. The only heat in the building was from a big old coal burning stove in the lobby. The stage driver had just come in off of his run and his mustache and beard were covered with ice. The traveling many had gotten frozen out of his room and had come down to the lobby to thaw out just after the stage driver came in. The traveling man took one look at him and said “Good God, man, what room did you have?” Steam heat wasn’t added to the rest of the building until 1909.
The old hotel had had a number of small fires over its history, but the fatal one was in February, 1971. Lander’s volunteer fire department answered the fire alarm about 10 am when smoke was seen rising from the rooftop. Most guests were quickly evacuated, but the thick smoke and flames trapped a young Idaho man, Steven Ochsner, age 16, in his room on the 4th floor. Ochsner said he woke up with choking smoke in the room, he went to the window, flung it open and started yelling for help. Lander’s volunteer fire department did not have a ladder truck tall enough to reach the fourth floor of the Fremont Hotel.
Seeing the smoke and the young man in danger were three NOLS instructors, Skip Shoutis, Steve Gipe, and John Cooper. Skip Shoutis grabbed a rubber garden hose from NOLS and ran across the street. Steve Gipe was shoulder lifted up to a nearby fire escape carrying the hose. Gipe climbed up as close as he could, then threw an end of the hose to the youth. He instructed Ochsner to wrap it around his middle with three loops, then Gipe braced himself with the hose across his back as experienced mountain climbers do, told Ochsner to climb out of the window and he would lower him to the ground. Ochsner was dressed only in blue jeans when he got to the ground. A coat was thrown over him and he was taken to Bishop Randall Hospital and treated for smoke inhalation and a burn on his leg. His right arm was so coated in soot that spectators thought it was badly burned.
The three NOLS instructors stayed on the scene after the rescue helping fight the fire.
It turned out that Ochsner was a run away from his home in Idaho. He became famous for being rescued from the fire, and his parents arrived a few days later to take him home. The Riverton fire department answered the fire call about 1 pm. The Westco Company donated the use of their ladder truck for the fight. The volunteer firefighters were able to save Chisholm’s jewelry from the flames. In thanks, Mrs. Chisholm became a generous donor to the volunteer Lander Fire department.
As the fire raged and the building threatened to topple over, plywood was quickly put up over the windows of the Noble Hotel and drug store across Main and the big plate glass windows of the Frist National Bank across Third Street to protect them from falling debris.
There were about 30 guests registered in the hotel at the time of the fire. All were accounted for except William Mockey who died in the fire. The fire chief later determined the cause of the fire had been Mr. Mockey smoking in bed.
Virginia Isabell, a volunteer at the Pioneer Museum and the Museum of the West, reported the fire live on KOVE. She had just started working at the station in sales the day of the fire and put live on the air to inform the town of the tragedy. “It was a horrible sight - all the smoke. We were so worried about the people that might be still inside. It was a tremendous loss for Lander,” Isabell said.
Next up for the Fremont County Museums
February 7, 7pm at the Dubois Museum, “Bats in the Wind River Range”
Wyoming Community Bank Discovery Speakers Series
February 8, 6pm “What are Those White Lights in the Winter Sky”
Wyoming Community Bank Discovery Speakers Series
February 9, 6pm at the Riverton Museum, “Murder Mystery Event”
The Dubois Museum, the Pioneer Museum in Lander and the Riverton Museum need your financial support. In the current economic environment the museums are more reliant than ever on donations from the private sector to continue to provide the quality programs, collections management, exhibits and services that have become their hallmark over the last three and half years. Please make your tax deductible contribution to be used specifically for the benefit of the museum of your choosing by sending a check to Fremont County Museums 450 N 2nd Rm 320 or taking it directly to the museum you choose to support.
Photo Credit: Lander Journal