Mysterious Origins of a Blue Mountains Icon
Who started the 1895 fire that destroyed the original hotel at Jenolan Caves? Why, in 1897, did the New South Wales Government replace it with a grand hotel, seemingly in the middle of nowhere?
Jenolan Caves had become quite famous by 1895. But, on March 14, barely three weeks after a Royal visit by Prince Joseph of Battenburg, a disastrous fire began somewhere in the extensive accommodation complex.
The fire was discovered at 12.40 am and quickly took hold of the wooden buildings. The intensity of the conflagration was such that Jeremiah Wilson, the ‘Keeper of the Caves’ (and lessee of Caves House) was forced to flee with his family, dressed only in their night clothes, along with some visitors who lost everything in the blaze.
Newspaper reports at the time praised the efforts of neighbours who battled with ‘great exertion’ to bring the fire under control, aided ‘with a good water supply’. After two hours, during which the flames ‘lit up the mountains about’, they succeeded. However, most of the complex lay in blackened ruins. The original Caves House, dating from 1880, along with its kitchen, a billiard room and a new two-storey building were destroyed.
Although partially insured, Jeremiah Wilson, ‘The Crown Prince of Guides’ declared himself in no position to rebuild, and his lease was resumed by the Government.
The new lessee was Harry Curzon Smith, who had made a fortune from railway refreshment rooms, essential in the days of steam trains.
Mr Smith’s aim was to provide high quality accommodation at the famous Jenolan Caves – to attract wealthy tourists into the Blue Mountains. It had become fashionable for the well-to-do to escape Sydney’s summer heat and humidity and to experience nature. Holidays and honeymoons in the nearby Blue Mountains, with its fresh air, fresh water, wildlife and numerous walking tracks had become trendy.
To take advantage of this trend, the Government Architect, Walter Liberty Vernon, drew up plans for a new Caves House. Built of locally quarried limestone, the new hotel was an elegant and spacious building in the Sussex Weldon style, popular in England, giving the hotel an instant air of age, charm and respectability. By 1910 all traces of the original accommodation complex were gone.
Rumours abound to this day as to the cause of the destructive blaze. House fires were a common enough occurrence in those days. Kitchens were built separately from the main house in an effort to avoid fires. However there were plenty of other ways that it could have started, from an upturned oil lamp, to a log falling from an open fire.
It appears that Jeremiah Wilson, despite his status, was not as scrupulous in his personal and business dealing as might be expected. (This eventually proving his undoing, when he went to prison in 1900 for receiving a stolen horse.) The suggestion is that the fire was deliberately lit by an aggrieved third party or even Jeremiah himself, but the latter can be discounted as the hotel was his family’s livelihood, and he had erected all the buildings at his own expense.
The truth will never be known. All the participants are long dead. Whatever secrets they might know about the destructive blaze of 1895 went to the grave with them.