Old-timers remember this day, sixty years ago, when El Centro’s crown jewel — the Barbara Worth Hotel — was consumed by a raging fire that threatened to burn down the town center.
The local fire department received the first alarm at 3:16 on Sunday afternoon, January 21, 1962 … then a second alarm … followed by a third … and then a fourth. Fire departments from across the valley responded to the urgent pleas for assistance. Firefighters held regular drills at the hotel but the fire did not behave the way they expected due to very strong seasonal winds.
The United States Navy sent a fire crew from the nearby navy base to help battle the raging inferno. Business owners covered the roofs of their buildings with wet sand bags. It was feared that a gas station next door would ignite an out-of-control conflagration.
Flames from the blaze could be seen 60 miles in any direction. Moviegoers were evacuated from the theater across the street. Residents stood on the roofs of their homes with hose-in-hand as ashes from the fire were blown far and wide across the small desert community.
One hundred firefighters fought valiantly through the night to save downtown. Dale Holder, a volunteer firefighter, was the only fatality. He was trapped in the basement, where the fire started, when the hotel imploded.
After the fire was contained, all that was left was a smoldering hole in the ground. A fire unit remained onsite for days to control the burning embers. The devastated site emitted a putrid odor that lasted until the entire block was turned into a parking lot ten years later.
The hotel opened on May 8, 1915 at a cost of $300,000 in the style of Spanish Renaissance. It was named after the heroine in Harold Bell Wright’s novel “The Winning of Barbara Worth”.
W.R. Irwin and his family visited in 1931, and decided to stay. Irwin, vice president of Hilton Hotel, bought the Barbara Worth, and restored her stately grandeur. She was transformed into an oasis of elegance that attracted the who’s who of Hollywood society.
United Artists bought the theater across the street where the studio premiered their latest films. The hotel became a destination for screen legends who would attend premieres, then spend the night before heading across the border to Mexicali where it was legal to drink and gamble.
In her day, the Barbara Worth was the place to go for proms, weddings, anniversaries, special events and business deals. She was the Grand Old Lady that welcomed visitors from every continent especially snowbirds who came to the desert southwest to enjoy the finest winter weather in the world. Which is why El Centro, my hometown, is the winter home of the Navy’s Flight Demonstration Squadron, the Blue Angels.
An investigation determined that the fire was caused by cleaning rags set ablaze by the building’s furnace. Ghost hunters have captured audio and visual evidence that the site is haunted.
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