Fire early Friday destroyed a once grand Main Street hotel undergoing renovation in a small western Minnesota town.

Firefighters in Ortonville were called shortly after 3 a.m. to the four-story Columbian Hotel, which was built in 1892, to find it ablaze, said Fire Chief Al Arndt.

The flames were brought under control in about two hours, Arndt said.

The chief said that the flames originated in the basement of the Victorian-style structure but that he had no information on how the fire started, adding, "To me, there was nothing suspicious about it."

Arndt, a longtime Ortonville resident, said, "The part the town is going to miss the most is the history."

The 50-room hotel was under remodeling at the time, with the intention of offering "a combination of things, including a few hotel rooms," Arndt said. The remodelers, one of whom he identified as Damian Mullaney of South Dakota, would spend some nights in the building, "but they weren't in there last night."

County tax records show the property was valued at $43,400 and the owner is Daniel Johnson of Bushnell, S.D. Johnson bought the property from the city, which took ownership a few years ago after it went into forfeiture because of back taxes, said Big Stone County Treasurer Cindy Nelson.

Arndt recalled that a bar was run out of the building about four or five years ago. In the 1980s, he added, it was used for housing for the elderly.

In 1999, the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota listed the Columbian among that year's 10 "Most Endangered Properties." "This downtown hotel overlooking Big Stone Lake was the Holiday Inn of its day," the nonprofit said. "[It was] the place to stay for traveling salesmen and families."

Its longest-tenured owner was George Kahler (1897 to 1951), according to the Big Stone County Historical Society. Starting in the late 1950s, Larry and Hortense Ische ran it for a quarter-century until its days as a hotel ended.

One sales ad from decades ago read that the Columbian boasts "a spacious dining room and number of saloons. It is rumored that sometime during the '20s and '30s there was a speakeasy in the lower levels."

It noted that "most of the hotels in the area ... have been destroyed by fire. The mighty Columbian still stands, however, a symbol of that bygone era."

The Historical Society's Larry Helgeson described the Columbian as "a grand hotel that has been a landmark forever" at 305 2nd St. NW., on what is also known in town as Main Street.

"Somebody was working on it, trying to restore it, but I guess that's over now," Helgeson said.

Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482