WVU marshals effort to restore Harpers Ferry after devastating fire, Bill Schackner, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, November 29, 2015After a fire destroyed almost a third of its commercial district in July, this renowned Civil War town suddenly faced a nightmarish list of recovery tasks, among them deciding which landmark buildings could be saved.The crush of work, and the level of expertise it demanded, threatened to overwhelm a small group of officials who oversee the tiny river community of 286 people.“We were just not in a position to do all of this on our own,” Mayor Gregory Vaughn said. As it turned out, they wouldn’t have to. The cavalry was on its way.
Some 120 miles west in Morgantown, on the sprawling campus of West Virginia University, leaders already had begun marshaling resources from schools across campus for an extraordinary recovery assistance project — one in keeping with WVU’s outreach mission as a land grant university.
In the days that followed, WVU dispatched experts in structural engineering, law, writing and marketing. A representative of the university’s extension service split his work week between WVU and Harpers Ferry, so he could quickly pair the most urgent needs with university expertise.
Oh, and there’s the drone.
The unmanned, computer-guided aircraft and the aerial pictures it took are helping Charlie Yuill, an associate professor and chair of WVU’s landscape architecture program, write an intricate grant proposal so town officials can repair outdoor areas damaged by the fire — and while they’re at it — create a streetscape more in keeping with Harpers Ferry’s Civil War identity.
On a recent sun-splashed afternoon, he was the man in plaid shirt sleeves standing on High Street not far from the national park devoted to the town’s place in history, cradling a tripod with a laser surveying tool that can measure 100,000 points a second. Across the street, a sign on a boarded up storefront with the words “We are strong! We are positive! We will survive!” was an obvious clue to visitors walking past of the destruction that had occurred a few months prior.
Over the years, Mr. Yuill and others at WVU have worked on scores of community outreach projects, often to improve life in struggling towns that never fully recovered after the mines shut or the steel mills closed. But this has been different, a chance to help a national symbol, a top tourist destination and a vital part of West Virginia’s economy quickly get back on its feet. “Outside of perhaps Boston and Philadelphia, this is one of the most historically significant places in the country,” said Mr. Yuill. “Opportunities like this don’t come along often.”
Said Chad Proudfoot, a program coordinator with WVU’s extension service: “Harpers Ferry is a national treasure.” Understanding why involves geography as well as history. Harpers Ferry, a valley town just below the Blue Ridge Mountains, sits at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers and straddles the states of West Virginia, Maryland and Virginia. Hikers nearby on the Appalachian Trail and bikers emerging from the C & O Canal Towpath easily can feel they have slipped back in time as they enter Harpers Ferry National Historical Park and approach the brick and stone commercial fronts, some dating to the 1830s and 1840s.
The town was settled in 1732 by an individual who then sold his “squatters rights” to the town’s namesake, Robert Harper, according to a municipal history. A ferry he created in 1761 to cross the Potomac helped settlers move into the Shenandoah Valley and destinations to the west.
In 1859, an armory and arsenal built by the U.S. government saw an incident that contributed to the Civil War. Abolitionist John Brown led a raid on it hoping that weapons stolen would help incite a slave uprising, but he was captured and later hanged in a nearby town for treason.
During the war itself, Harpers Ferry suffered mightily. It was so coveted by the North and South armies that it changed hands in bloody fashion eight times between 1861 and 1865. Today, that legacy translates into 15,000 or so visitors a week, a total aided by a passenger rail line from Washington, D.C. In fact, one retail shop in October logged customers from all 50 states and 34 nations, some of whom had come for a taste of rural tranquility less than two hours by train from the nation’s capital.
But that peace was shattered at 3:18 a.m on July 23 as residents were rousted from sleep.
A fire that started in a wooden deck just down a hillside from High Street was spreading rapidly among four close-in buildings on that street and below on Potomac Street. Eventually, nine businesses were destroyed and a 10th was damaged. In an amateur video shot before firefighters arrived, a woman’s terrified screams are heard as residents look for people living above the storefronts.
Tammy Dubrueler was one of them. Asleep in an apartment upstairs from her High Street bakery and gift shop, she awoke to barking from her eight-pound cross-breed dog, a Morkie, and saw an orange glow outside her window.She grabbed her flip flops, a computer and a few other belongings and, with her boyfriend, fled down a flight of stairs. “You could see the flames shooting up the side of the building,” she said. “We had maybe two or three minutes.”At about the same time, Billy Ray Dunn and his wife, Cindi, got a call from a retired firefighter in Winchester, Va., telling them the building housing their shop, The Vintage Lady, was ablaze.
“When we first came, we could see smoke coming out of the building and we were hoping that’s all it was, but a little later, you could see flames coming out the bui
lding,” he said. The couple, who since have reopened at a temporary location nearby, could only watch as their inventory burned. “We were just stunned,” he said. Martha Ehlman, whose store, Tenfold Fair Trade Collection, also has reopened nearby, had no idea how complete the destruction was when her husband first called in the morning to say the Potomac Street business had been affected. “I came with boots and jeans thinking an hour or two and [I’m] done,” she said. Instead, she remained until early evening.
In all, firefighters from three states and two dozen departments worked until late morning to put out the fire. Investigators later reported that money was missing from Private Quinn’s Pub, one of the businesses that burned, but the fire’s cause itself is undetermined, said George Harms, assistant West Virginia state fire marshal. Told by local elected officials about Harpers Ferry’s predicament, WVU president E. Gordon Gee said it struck him as an opportunity to put his university’s mission into action. “We can’t solve every problem in the state, nor should we, but we can give hope and capacity to communities to help themselves,” he said. “This is the university doing what it should be doing.”
Within a week, Mr. Gee, WVU extension service dean and director Steven Bonanno and a dozen other campus and elected officials were in town for a meeting. Over lunch, the president got right to the point: “Mayor, what do you need?” There were insurance concerns, legal questions and a mountain of clerical tasks to be done, but within all that, certain needs stood out. “The first thing that we were concerned about was people thinking that Harpers Ferry was totally destroyed,” the mayor said. “So the university brought in their journalism people and their marketing team and helped us market the fact that Harpers Ferry was not closed. That was a huge help.”
Given Harpers Ferry’s historic designation, officials had to know quickly which brick and stone buildings and their newer additions could be saved. Hota GangaRao and P.V. Vijay, two engineering experts from WVU’s Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources, examined the structures and deemed older parts intact, a finding that allowed the mayor through the local Historic Landmarks Commission to mandate that historically significant portions not be razed.
Mr. GangaRao said the buildings survived in part because smaller rooms with less open space — typical of construction back then — helped contain the fire. The building’s plaster included not only cement and lime but another ingredient used at the time — horse hair. It minimized shrinkage cracks, he said. The timber, he added, was more mature and thus sturdier and the fired brick was superior, too.
During the summer and into the fall, the college of law at WVU offered advice on governmental affairs issues. And two weeks ago, the municipality, with guidance from WVU, won Home Rule status, meaning it can take steps to raise revenue for needs including a rainy-day fund should another disaster like the fire strike. Some say Harpers Ferry’s post-fire resilience is tied to its rich and varied history, conjuring images from George Washington and Thomas Jefferson to the Niagara Movement at the roots of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People or NAACP. The town, steeped in rail and river history too, is headquarters for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.
“There is a real sort of get-up-and-do-it feeling here,” Mr. Proudfoot said.
When he gives speeches, the mayor is not shy about expressing gratitude to the research university that swooped in to help. Some locals, even if they know little about WVU’s presence, have been impacted by the result. Mr. Dunn is heartened to know his shop’s original location appears to have survived the fire. After all, he said, “it survived the Civil War.”
Bill Schackner: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1977 and on Twitter: @BschacknerPG.
Text and Image Source: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette