Disaster and Scandal: the 1939 Superintendent’s Residence Fire

By Erik Johnson, Denali Historian
Imagine moving to Denali in 1939 and within a few months of your arrival your home is destroyed by fire. Not only do you lose many of your life’s treasures, it is late October: the temperature is rapidly dropping and daylight is waning. There is no road to Fairbanks or Anchorage or even Healy to pick up emergency supplies. On top of everything else, there is a serious criminal investigation opened against you. This was the situation Superintendent Frank Been and his wife Lorraine found themselves in nearly eighty years ago.

On the morning of October 23rd, 1939, the Superintendent’s Residence caught on fire and was destroyed. Not long after the flames expired, criminal accusations of arson, insurance fraud, and narcotics possession were leveled against Lorraine Been by the park clerk’s wife. The Department of the Interior opened an investigation.

Frank and Lorraine were eventually cleared of wrongdoing by the investigators, and the cause of the fire was determined to be a faulty chimney flue. Flames had spread quickly because of the home's extremely dry interior which was a result of constant heating. The nearest fire-fighting equipment was two miles away at McKinley Park Station—too far away to save the house before it was destroyed.[1]

Below is a transcription of the memo Superintendent Been wrote immediately after the fire that attempts to explain its cause as well as a letter from the NPS Director to the Department of Interior explaining serious charges made against Mrs. Been. Both documents live at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland.

[1] An interesting development from the fire was the formation of the park's first-ever womens' club. It started after the fire to boost morale and contained five members living in Park Headquarters or at McKinley Park Station.

Memorandum for the Director

[Transcription of Superintendent Been's 1939 memo about the fire]

On the morning of October 23, the official residence of the Superintendent, Mount McKinley National Park, was destroyed by fire.

Incidents Preceding and During the Fire

In accordance with his usual custom, the Superintendent examined the fire in the basement furnace immediately upon arising about 7:00 AM. There was very little fire so that live coals and ashes were dumped to clean the clinkers away from the grates. A fresh fire was started by using newspaper, wood kindling and four small lengths of fireplace wood, and ignited by touching a match to the newspaper on which two stirring spoons of kerosene soaked sawdust has been thrown. Furnace draft and damper were opened. When wood was burning well, a small amount of coal was thrown on the fire. breakfast was then prepared. Before eating, more coal was thrown on the fire. After eating, another small amount of coal was thrown in.

Before leaving for the office, the Superintendent tried to pick up on his residence set the park radio broadcast from Wonder Lake as experiments had been conducted for several days while setting up the radio equipment there. Ten or fifteen minutes were spent in these efforts. Then about 8:30 AM, Superintendent looked at furnace fire just before leaving house for office. As fire was burning briskly and the weather was mild, the furnace draft was closed but the damper was left open.

Immediately upon arriving at the office, which is just across the road from the residence the Superintendent sat down at his desk to make entries in his diary for the two preceding days.

The entries were just completed when a woman was heard calling very loudly. When he rushed outdoors, the Superintendent was told by Mrs. Been that the house was filled with smoke.

The Senior Clerk and Superintendent ran to the house and found the house so filled with smoke that it was difficult to breathe and to see. An effort to go down cellar failed as smoke was boiling up. Superintendent then tried to enter cellar by breaking through a cellar window, but smoke was too heavy. Similar effort was made on the other side of the house. When that window was broken, the Superintendent could see the fireplace wood stored in the basement was burning but smoke too dense to enter the basement. A one-quart Pyrene fire extinguisher from the back porch was applied to no avail.

The Superintendent then telephoned to the Alaska Road Commission office, about two miles away, to send all its men to help.

Superintendent then dragged out his writing desk and tried to save photos and notes but smoke so dense could do little more than feel for them. Hence, much of these lost.

Mrs. Been, who had been awakened in her upstairs bedroom by smoke and called to Superintendent, slipped and fell on way to office for shelter so that her back was painfully injured and she had to be carried by stretcher to bed in the Rangers' Dormitory.

Chief Clerk was trying to extinguish the fire with 2 gallon extinguishers from his home nearby but could make no headway due to smoke. The small extinguishers were inadequate. The fire hose was not accessible as it was in the basement where the hose connections were. When the five men from the Road Commission arrived, some of them helped Chief Clerk lay fire hose from hose connection at Clerk's residence, while others were carrying out furniture. The latter were instructed not to risk their safety in these efforts as the smoke was so black and dense that there was serious danger from being overcome.

The superintendent, during these activities gained the second floor and threw some clothing through a window broken with a chair. As smoke was coming up too thickly to return by stars, he went down a ladder placed against the house by the men outside.

The fire by this time had just reached the second floor so there was nothing to do except let it burn. The garage for the residence was saved from burning by playing water against it from the hose attached to hose connection at Clerk's residence. Nevertheless the garage was badly scorched.

The Chief Ranger had started the water pump that supplies the water reservoir to assure an adequacy of water in the 20,000 gallon tank. He then returned to participate in saving the garage.

The remarkable rate of spread of the fire was almost unbelievable. The house was tinder dry, doubtless, as it has been heated almost constantly since it was furnished in 1930. At 11:30 AM, there was only the cellar walls and chimney standing where about 2 hours before there had been a two-story seven room log constructed house.

Possible Cause

From the time the Superintendent left his residence until he returned to find the house smoke-filled, not more than twenty minutes could have elapsed. When he examined the furnace just before leaving the house, no fumes, odors or smoke were noticed in the basement. It may therefore be said that within twenty minutes, the fire had started in the basement and had created enough smoke to fill every room in the house. As the Superintendent ran toward the house from the office, he noted that there was not much smoke coming from the chimney. This caused him to assume that the furnace pipe had clogged in some way causing the house to become filled with smoke.

Subsequent conversation with the Chief Ranger brings forth the following possible cause.

A low grade of soft coal is used in the park, although it is probably as high in quality as can be procured from Alaskan mines. The coal when added to a fire frequently creates quantities of gas too great to pass out through the chimney. The result is an explosition [sic] within the furnace. This may force the furnace door open, or it may be heavy enough to blow coal dust throughout the house. In the Superintendent's experience, the furnace door has blown open once very soon after placing coal on the fire while he was still nearby and saw it happen. Since the fire, he had a similar experience at the Rangers' Dormitory.

Another possible cause is from live coals working out from beneath the furnace from the ash dump. When the grates were cleaned, the pile of ashes in the bottom of the furnace were scattered with a furnace rake to get them away from the bottom of the grates. A live coal could have gotten outside the furnace through a tiny space between the furnace and the cement floor on which it was sitting.

Examination of the wreckage since the fire showed the furnace door closed and the pipe between the furnace and flue in place. It may therefore be assumed that no explosion occurred severe enough to blow open the door nor to separate pipe from furnace.

The clean-out at the bottom of chimney was in place and so packed with ash that it doesn't seem possible sparks could have worked out from there.

While measuring, the Superintendent noted that the bottom of the pipe between the furnace and the chimney was scaly and seemed porous. When he felt of that with his finger tips, the metal was pushed with no effort as though the material were very thin paper.

This may then be considered the cause of the fire as sparks could have dropped from this porous part of the pipe to the floor, ignited accumulated coal dust there and crept to the wood pile which was thereby set on fire.

The pipe material is very heavy but so far as known the pipe has been in place since the house was completed in 1930. During the nine years, it burned through on the bottom and eventually became porous enough to permit sparks to fall through. It is possible that an explosion in the furnace may have accentuated the action.

The pipe is being saved to demonstrate the possible cause. Chief Ranger Corbley and Corralman Herning were with the Superintendent when faulty pipe was discovered.

Defective wiring is out of the question as there was no power at that time.

Conclusion and Recommendations

The fire is an ironical demonstration of the Superintendent's first observation when he took over administration of the park, that is, the almost pathetic lack of fire prevention and suppression equipment. Because of this situation, Ranger Ogston, now Chief Ranger at Death Valley, due to his long experience in the service was assigned inspecting and improving the fire hazard conditions. Much good was done but the needs are greater than can be accomplished by one man working with materials at hand.

In a remote region like McKinley where fires are kept almost daily throughout the year, where frame buildings as a consequence become thoroughly dried out and where low temperatures require steam pipes in the trench with the water pipes, funds greatly more adequate than up till now must be provided to give an insurance against building fires.

The pick-up equipment and materials and consequent make-shift facilities for fire prevention and suppression are almost a farce.

As this is the third fire in six years, Mount McKinley National Park should be given preference for funds and equipment to cope with a serious fire situation. The advice and recommendations of a specialist will be appreciated. Recommendations, however, are of no consequence without funds to put them into effect.

An itemized list of losses will be forwarded in the next mail.

Frank Been, Superintendent

Memorandum for the Secretary

February 19, 1940

There is attached a letter of January 24, from Mrs. Lacie O. Janes, the wife of the clerk at Mount McKinley National Park. Mrs. Janes makes serious charges against the Superintendent and Mrs. Frank T. Been, virtually alleging that they deliberately caused the fire which destroyed the superintendent's quarters.

The preamble to the letter of Mrs. Janes indicates that isolation has preyed on a subjective personality to the point at which her judgment may be impaired. It is believed unlikely that Mr. Been committed the alleged arson. At this distance the facts seem to be that Superintendent Been inherited a difficult personnel situation and that in his attempts to reorganize the Mount McKinley National Park he has trod on the toes of the Janes family.

However, the charges are of such a serious nature that it is believed the Division of Investigations should be cognizant of them and take any action considered advisable.

Arno B. Cammerer, Director

Last updated: October 24, 2018