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CHEYENNE -- A fire destroyed a large portion of the Hitching Post hotel, a historic local landmark and longtime second home for Wyoming legislators that closed amid financial trouble last year.

The sprawling hotel and conference center was vacant. No injuries were reported. The hotel has been undergoing extensive renovations and officials of the company that owns it say it was just weeks away from reopening.

Fire crews arrived at the hotel at 6:28 a.m. today, though nearby residents said they smelled smoke as early as an hour before then. The fire burned through the main lobby building of the hotel complex. Twenty-foot flames leaped through the roof, and black smoke could be seen 10 miles away.

The front lobby and an attached liquor store were destroyed, said John Fox, a division chief with the Cheyenne Fire Department.

The Hitching Post Inn and Conference Center closed in September 2009 amid financial trouble. For decades, the hotel was a social hub for lobbyists and members of the Wyoming Legislature who stayed there during the annual legislative session.

The hotel had a steakhouse and dimly lit lounge that hosted jazz acts.

New owners were renovating and planned to partly reopen the hotel, including 44 rooms, later this year, Mayor Rick Kaysen said.

The rooms being remodeled didn't burn, but the fire has rendered the hotel unlikely to reopen any time soon, Kaysen said.

"It's a total loss right now," he said. "That legend, it's lost as well."

As many as 40 firefighters and two ladder trucks dumped water to try to keep the fire from spreading. A major city thoroughfare in front of the building was closed off.

Jon Narva, division chief with Cheyenne Fire and Rescue, said it could take until this afternoon to extinguish the flames using ladder trucks and engines.

"Until we get the fire out on the outside, we're not going to put any crews in the inside," Narva said. "We call that a defensive fire."

Once the fire is out, the investigation into the cause will begin, Narva said. The fire was reported a 6:24 a.m. by a passer-by and the first crews were on the scene four minutes later, he said.

Despite a steady stream of water from the three fire engines and two ladder trucks on the scene, heavy smoke continued to pour from the roof as of 11 a.m. The holes in the roof exposed scorched wooden trusses underneath.

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The damage to the main building was extensive and it could well prove to be a total loss, Narva said. Crews were concentrating on keeping the fire from spreading to the hotel's 176 rooms in separate buildings generally to the north, he said.

A.J. Jariwala, one of the officers of CJM Hospitality, the company that owns the building, was on the scene of the fire. The company has spent over $500,000 this year renovating the hotel and bringing its plumbing and electrical systems back up to code, he said.

The hotel had been scheduled to reopen in about two weeks, Jariwala said. He said he believes the company has insurance that will cover the loss.

"This is going to delay our opening," Jariwala said. "We were too eager to open. It just breaks our heart. We spent too much time and effort to get this open."

Amanda Trujillo, who lives near the Hitching Post, said she smelled smoke from the fire starting about 5:30 a.m.

"I thought it was from Loveland," she said, referring to a large wildfire that's been burning near the Colorado city since Sunday.

The building was rocked by a large explosion about 7:45 a.m., witnesses said.

"The roof came up like a foot and a half above the building," said William, who declined to give his last name. "It was wild-looking."

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