Norton House Hotel Burns Down

John and Susan Chalfant House, c. 1863. The John and Susan Chalfant house on the corner of Lansing and Main Street in Mendocino. The figures in the foreground are most probably Susan Chalfant with her daughter, Mattie. John Edward Chalfant came to California from Pennsylvania in 1850. He married the sister of Martha Ford, and the home he built was almost identical to Jerome and Martha Ford’s house. William Norton purchased the Chalfant House in 1874, when the Chalfant family moved to Oakland, and converted the house into a hotel. This house/hotel was destroyed by fire in 1879. (Kelley House Collection, Kelley House Photographs)

November 29, 1879 – About 4:30 am, the town’s night watchman discovered smoke coming from the barroom at Norton House Hotel, located on the southeast corner of Lansing and Main Streets. The school bell was rung, and the mill whistle sounded, alerting the townsfolk. A large crowd gathered at the scene.

Flames were just beginning to emerge from the building, and if there had been any fire-fighting equipment nearby, the disaster might have been avoided. There were two elevated tanks a short distance away filled with water, but there was no hose to connect to them. Instead, water had to be carried in buckets from Switzer & Boyd’s stables further up Lansing Street.

The bucket brigade proved ineffective, and the whole building was quickly engulfed in flames. No one was injured, as the night watchman had discovered the fire in time for all the hotel guests to escape. The hotel’s safe was dragged out by chains from the burning remains as soon as possible, and the contents were saved.

The owner, William Norton, was out of town at the time and arrived to find his hotel totally destroyed. Norton immediately built another hotel on the same site. The following year, the Beacon noted, “W. H. Norton says that he has 200 feet of hose attached to his water tank – making the most complete water works in town.”

In 1887, the hotel was renamed the Occidental Hotel by its new owners, Mathew and Aaron Kiser. Frank and Kate Gorman purchased the Occidental in 1892. After Frank passed away in 1894, Kate continued to operate the hotel until 1941 when it, too, burned to the ground. The Occidental was never rebuilt.

The Volunteers: History of the Mendocino Volunteer Fire Department by Walt McKeown and Linda Wilson – Recounts the great fires since 1870, countless heroic rescues and the camaraderie and struggles involved in keeping an all volunteer force intact from 1887 to the present day. $15.