Note: Second story in a team reporting series about the Wabash River.
MOUNT CARMEL — It's a tale of fame, fortune and even rumored crime. But it's not about the latest fallen star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame — it's about a hotel that's painted on the mural in Mount Carmel's Uptown Amphitheater.
If the Grand Rapids Hotel only existed for 7 years out of the city's nearly 200-year-old history, why does it earn a spot on the mural next to Hanging Rock and across from the old Wabash County Courthouse?
The story of the hotel is a lot like that of the Titanic — everyone thought it was too big to fail. Its elegant parties and modern amenities were short-lived after a suspicious fire burned the building down to its foundation.
To understand the history of the Grand Rapids Hotel, one must first understand the people and events surrounding it.
Frederick Hinde Zimmerman, the grandson of Rev. Thomas S. Hinde, one of the Mount Carmel's founding fathers, was by all accounts a prominent member of the city. After his mother died at a young age, Zimmerman lived in Ohio until he returned to the Wabash County area as an adult.
He first opened a small shack at the edge of the river in 1912, where a farmhand operated a concession stand, and rented boots fishing equipment and boats. Everyone must have thought Zimmerman had lost his marbles when he built his hotel in the same location, where flooding was prominent and no levee existed.
In "2,543 Days: A History of the Hotel at Grand Rapids Dam on the Wabash River," John Matthew Nolan emphasizes Zimmerman's desire to build a hotel along the river spun from his uncle, Captain Charles Hinde's Del Cornado hotel in California. Other accounts share the idea started as a way to profit from the successful fishing area that the Grand Rapids Dam supplied.
The Grand Rapids Hotel was much smaller in scale than the Del Cornado, with 36 rooms and an elevated foundation to protect it from the frequent floods. The state of the art facility was built in the fall of 1921 and opened to the public Aug. 7, 1922. The hotel boasted a dancing pavilion, music, golf, a trap shoot and even a baseball diamond.
It quickly became the standard of elegance in Mount Carmel and "one of the greatest resort centers in the Wabash Valley," according to an article published in the Daily Republican Register at the time.
For two years, the hotel operated in prosperity and grew its already upstanding reputation. That all changed on a dark September night in 1924 after the Wabash County Fair.
The fair used to be held where Riverview Stadium is today and it was a very popular affair to say the least. Zimmerman expected large crowds attracted by the fair to stay at his hotel, so after a family trip to the event, he stopped at the Grand Rapids Hotel area to check the hotel's guest book, as the story goes.
Zimmerman fell in the dark and broke his hip, which was a much more serious health issue in 1924 than it is today. He was treated for his hip, but died shortly afterwards from "hardening of the arteries" at the young age of 59.
The community and Zimmerman's family was in shock. His children inherited $44,159, worth millions today, and authorized the current hotel manager at the time, O.L. Rapson to leave. In his place they hired Glenn Goodart in 1925.
Goodart is recounted in history records as a dynamic man with a poor business sense. He held seven jobs before his hiring as the Grand Rapids Hotel manager, Matthews says, and only had one leg.
However, he did plan extravagant events, which continued to help the hotel develop into a popular tourist attraction. The Daily Republican Register described Goodart as a man who "served a most excellent chicken dinner," the dish the hotel was known best for.
Goodart could not plan for Mother Nature and flooding continued to ravage the hotel's interior and grounds. Not only could no one stay there during the floods, but costly repairs to keep the building operational had the hotel, both figuratively and sometimes literally, sunk.
The demise of the Grand Rapids Hotel has not yet been distinguished from accident or arson.
Many believe Goodart knew the hotel was in financial ruin and could not recover from the floods, and thought it would be best to destroy the evidence before it went bankrupt under his care. Others think he was tired of his job as manager and used the fire to propel his political career. A new competitor, the Wabash Hotel, had also recently opened near downtown Mount Carmel, where it did not have to worry about floods.
One thing is for certain though — Goodart was using a blow torch when the hotel burned to the ground Wednesday, July 24, 1929.
"The fire started from a blow torch which Glenn Goodart, the proprietor, was using in his shop which is in connection with the hotel. It started to blaze and he tried to throw it out a window but it missed and set fire to the beaver board wall and other things in the shop and in a short time the whole building was in a mass of flames," the Daily Republican Register read. "The fire department was called out but they could be of no assistance in fighting the blaze as it was burning madly.
"All that was saved from the building was a few chairs and a little clothing. Even some money in the restaurant was burned. A motor boat which was stored under the hotel was also saved."
The Grand Rapids Hotel was a complete and total loss. Jacob Zimmerman, Fred's son, was the rightful heir to the property, which he estimated was worth about $15,000.
Goodart went on to be elected as a Wabash County Treasurer in 1930 and was never prosecuted for the bizarre end to what was a prosperous business that put Mount Carmel on the map. The hotel was never rebuilt due to its ultimate financial failure and the onset of the Great Depression.
While the hotel's existence may have been brief, its mark on history is long and full of mystery. Today, a set of concrete stairs covered in brush and poison ivy lead up to a piece of the hotel's foundation just off of River Road.
The Grand Rapids Dam
The Grand Rapids Dam was built in the late 1800s by the Army Corps of Engineers, originally built to control the passage of ships.
Constructed from rock and concrete, the dam cost about $260,000 to complete. While it did have a lot of boat traffic, the dam was more acclaimed for its fishing conditions.
In "Faces & Places: A Pictorial History Of Wabash County Illinois," Phil Gower describes the accounts of two fishermen who claimed to have caught 567 fish in seven hours.
Thus contributing to Frederick Zimmerman's desire to build the Grand Rapids Hotel and capitalize on the growing fishing attraction.
After the federal government no longer supported it, the dam was abandoned in 1931, only two years after the historic hotel was destroyed in a reported blow torch fire.