Former motel owner watches it go up in flames
As city firefighters burned the last of the old Copper Lantern Motel on Friday, Hollon Kinney felt like he was losing a member of his family.
It has been nearly 40 years since he built the lodging property with his bare hands, but in his mind no time had passed.
“It broke my heart to see the condition it was in,” said Kinney, 78. “Because of my age, time doesn’t mean a whole lot. It was ’69 when we sold it, but to me it seems like yesterday.”
After more than 10 years of being away from Tahoe, Kinney just happened to be in town last week when he saw the smoke from U.S. Highway 50.
“It was kind of like an act of God,” he said. “Someone was telling me I was supposed to be there.”
The buildings on Paradise Avenue were being burned down so the area can be restored to its natural state, while providing live fire training for the South Lake Tahoe Fire Department.
While Kinney said he understands why the buildings were destroyed and is happy the area will be restored to a wetland, he said watching the flames consume his labor of love was difficult to take.
“As they were burning the large building, I looked at the foundation and thought, every one of those concrete blocks I personally laid,” he said. “I poured the concrete, I dug the trenches for the drainage, cut the boards for the steps leading up to the door.”
In 1959, Kinney and his partner, Dave Farnsworth, built the foundation of the business, hauled in the cottage-like buildings themselves and made something they could be proud of.
Kinney bought one of the lots for the motel from a man named John Keller, who owned much of the property in what Kinney calls “Bijou.” Keller, an old realtor ready to retire, wanted to sell off his land as quickly as possible.
Kinney paid $700 for the land – $1 down and $1 per week with no interest.
“He wanted to sell me four acres in the woods – what is now the parking lot for Heavenly Valley,” he said. “I was young, and not very smart. If I’d a bought that, I’d a been rich. But, I chose to go the hard way.”
He remembers driving up every Friday night from the San Francisco Bay Area, working 10 to 12 hours both Saturday and Sunday to get the motel ready for operation.
After that, at least one weekend a month and every vacation was spent up in Tahoe – painting buildings, planting flowers, shoveling snow.
Kinney and Farnsworth built up a fairly successful business, but ran into problems when South Lake Tahoe was incorporated and their land was re-zoned to multi-family residential from commercial.
“We were so far away that we couldn’t really deal with it,” Kinney said. “We thought we had better sell it, because we couldn’t handle it much longer.”
But the nostalgia is still very much a part of him, and was the hardest part about seeing the burning buildings.
“I was very emotional over it – I’ve lost three nights’ sleep because I keep waking up and thinking about it,” Kinney said. “The motel meant so much to my partner and me at the time we owned it. To see it destroyed by fire was difficult.”
Still, for some reason, he couldn’t leave. He stayed for several hours – just watching the buildings crumble.
“I was so mesmerized by that fire,” Kinney said. “It’s like when a member of the family dies – it’s sad, but you want to be there. Now, I understand why it’s happened and I’m glad for it. I’m very glad I was there.”
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Update 9:15 a.m. — Power has been restored to about 3,700 customers, according to the Liberty Utilities outage map.