A Texas man working on a road crew has been arrested and accused of setting a fire that destroyed a Steele motel where he was staying.
The 50-year-old man had not been charged in relation to the Sunday morning fire at the Lone Steer as of late Monday afternoon.
Little remains of Steele’s Lone Steer motel, lounge and restaurant after the Sunday morning fire. Some walls were left standing, along with a metal spiral staircase that juts out from the charred ruins remaining from the longtime landmark along Interstate 94.
The fire was reported shortly before 9 a.m. Sunday, Steele Fire Chief Stuart Thompson said. He said it already was raging by the time firefighters arrived on the scene.
“It was pretty involved when we got here,” he said.
Federal and state authorities are investigating the fire. Bob Schmidt, a spokesman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said two investigators from his agency already are working on the case, with more resources likely to be sent there. An arson investigator from the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation also was investigating on Monday.
Steele Police Chief Dave Feland said officers interviewed witnesses and identified the Texas man as a possible suspect. The man had been staying at the Lone Steer along with the rest of a road crew working in the area. Officers found the man at the Motel 6 in Bismarck and arrested him there.
The rubble left at the site of the building still was smoldering Monday morning, with a light gray smoke visible from several miles away. Thompson was monitoring the scene.
Thompson said 15 of the hotel’s rooms were open at the time of the fire, but he was not sure how many people were inside at the time. No one was injured. The Red Cross assisted people displaced by the blaze. Feland estimated 25 to 30 people, many of them on the same crew as the man accused of starting the fire, had been staying at the hotel, along with the owner’s family and approximately five long-term tenants.
Feland said everyone staying at the Lone Steer has found new housing arrangements.
The hotel, visible from Interstate 94, was at one time a popular meeting place, a Greyhound bus stop and a refuge from the storm for people caught in North Dakota blizzards. Originally a 20-room motel, former owners Fred and Susie White added 36 rooms, a pool and sauna, a game room, banquet and conference facilities and a campground. In 2000, a large sandhill crane statute, dubbed “Sandy” in a naming contest, was built to the north of the hotel.
In the 1980s, the Lone Steer was involved in a federal case against the U.S. Department of Labor that ended up in the U.S. Supreme Court. The motel was trying to make the Labor Department get a warrant from a judge before inspecting employment records, but the Supreme Court unanimously decided in favor of the Labor Department.
Thompson, motioning to a concrete slab to the west of the Lone Steer, said the Sunday morning fire was not the first major fire at a business place in Steele. A fire in 1995 destroyed the Johnson Mini Mall that used to sit on that spot, wrecking nine businesses.