Almost Yesterday: Halliday Hotel Burns

Dec 17, 2019

It seems like Almost Yesterday that the historic Halliday Hotel in Cairo, Ill., was destroyed by fire. The most famous structure in the history of Cairo was consumed by flames on the morning of Feb. 22, 1943. Within four hours, the majestic five-story, 155-room hotel was reduced to rubble.

The estimate of damage was inititally placed at $80,000, but quickly escalated as the cost of replacement was considered.

The fire started around 7 a.m. in the basement of the building, beneath the coffee shop and main lobby. Flames rose swiftly up the hotel's elevator shaft adjacent to the main entrance, thus blocking the escape route through the main entrance along Second and Ohio Streets.

Within an hour, the fire escalated to great intensity. Hundreds of onlookers stood and watched the smoke and flames from the safety of Commercial, Fourth and Ohio Streets as well as along the Ohio River levee.

More than 100 guests from across the nation had spent the night at the Halliday, most still sleeping when the first cries of "Fire!" were shouted through thte hallways. Police, firemen, coast guardsmen and volunteers raced through the hallways knocking on doors and shouting "Fire!"

Remarkably, the hotel guests escaped without loss of life. Rescue workers and volunteers reportedly were able to check every room to move people to safety. It was a remarkable and courageous evacuation.

The 85-year-old hotel, originally known at the St. Charles, had been constructed in 1858 and 1859 and used by General Ulysses S. Grant as Union headquarters during the Civil War. The bar on the first floor of the hotel was thereafter called "General Grant's Bar."

With the destruction of the Halliday Hotel, a major feature of the distinctive landscape of Cairo, Ill., was gone. It seems like Almost Yesterday.