For 114 years, the DeWitt Hotel stood at the corner of Pine and Park streets in Lewiston. Once known as one of New England’s finest hotels, the DeWitt hosted many fine banquets and was an essential stop for salesmen to display their wares in “sample rooms.” It had even earned a somewhat shady reputation because a speakeasy was said to be there during the days of Prohibition.

More than 50 years ago in 1964, the day after Christmas, L-A residents learned that the grand old hotel was to be torn down. It seemed impossible — the five-story building across from the city park and Lewiston City Hall had been a downtown landmark for as long as anyone in the area could remember. Not even a devastating fire in 1909 put an end to its proud history.

The DeWitt Hotel dates back to June 27, 1851, according to George Barron, engineer for Franklin Co., the former owners of the hotel. In a 1965 news story, he said record books show that “land was leveled on Hotel Hill.” Sketches indicate that little of its design changed in more than a century, except for the installation of an elevator in 1892.

At the left of the first-floor entrance on Pine Street were the barber’s room and a reading room with a smoking room at the rear. To the right of the entrance were the baggage room, a kitchen and a dining room, presumably for the help. The second floor had 11 bedrooms and a big public dining room. The third floor contained 23 bedrooms, and an additional 25 rooms were on the fourth floor. The fifth floor is believed to have been added in 1868.

A major renovation of the DeWitt Hotel took place in 1899, and an early-December banquet was held to celebrate its reopening. Just 10 years after that, almost to the day, a noon fire threatened to destroy the DeWitt Hotel, but heroic efforts by Lewiston and Auburn firefighters saved it.

The story of the fire was recounted in a Lewiston Evening Journal Magazine Section feature by Rose O’Brien in 1965.

The fire, later determined to have started in the boiler room, was discovered by one of the waitresses who spotted smoke rising from behind a coffee urn. The hotel staff assured diners that all was well, and the meal continued. Before long, it was clear that a fierce fire was raging within the hotel’s walls and a general alarm was sounded.

Firemen set ladders against the outside of the building and ran 15 hose lines. Crowds gathered in the city park to watch the action. O’Brien’s story said a cold wind blew the dense smoke around firemen working at the top of ladders until they would disappear from view. Miraculously, no major injuries occurred, but there were some close calls.

“One of the hose streams became uncontrollable and went switching along the side of the building.” O’Brien said. “It struck Bartley Murphy, who was alone on one ladder, squarely in the ear. His hat was knocked off, and he was obliged to leave his hose and come down the ladder a few rounds to escape the battering of the 96 pounds to the square inch.”

When the seriousness of the fire was clear, patrons began rushing out with whatever personal belongings they could grab. Firemen protected a large oil painting with a rubber blanket.

Special care was also taken to protect the hotel’s register.

“True to the belief of all hotel men, the hotel register was kept open,” O’Brien wrote. “Each field of work has its own set of rules and hotel men are no different. Throughout the fire and thereafter, the register of the DeWitt Hotel was kept wide open, ready and waiting for any passing guest to register and be assigned a room.

“Call it superstition or anything you please, but there is a belief that to close a register, once opened, before it has been filled is an omen of ill-luck to the house.”

The register on the counter was not closed. It was carefully moved, wide open, to a less-exposed spot and covered with rubber blankets until the fire was out.

There was extensive water and smoke damage, and the top floor suffered the worst damage. The hotel was closed for repairs.

Six months later, it reopened for another mostly uneventful 50 years.

Dave Sargent is a freelance writer and a native of Auburn. He can be reached by sending email to [email protected]


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