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Lodge remembered for natural beauty

June 21, 2003|by CANDICE BOSELY

martinsburg@herald-mail.com

Shannondale, W.Va. - Standing on the porch of The Mountain Lake Lodge's bath house Friday, one could see smoke still rising from the charred remains of the lodge.

Lodge employees remembered the grand building as it was before flames engulfed and destroyed it early Thursday morning. The cause of the blaze is under investigation.

Built in 1956, the lodge sat at the base of a mountain, which was shrouded in fog Friday afternoon. The Appalachian Trail crosses the ridge.

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Inside the lodge was a ballroom with pine support beams in the cathedral ceiling. Each beam, hewed from the land that is now a 55-acre manmade lake, weighed 2,000 pounds, said lodge owner Elizabeth Houghton.

Billiards could be played in the Duck Pub while steaks, fish, pasta and other food was available at The Waterside Restaurant.

Russell Firestone, Houghton's brother, opened an Orvis fly-fishing and clothing shop in September. Thousands of dollars worth of inventory was lost, along with original paintings by a family member.

Holding up his laptop, Firestone scrolled through photographs of the inferno taken by a fire department volunteer. Houghton quickly turned and walked away, unable to look.

"Everybody's really devastated because it was such an icon," Firestone said.

After buying the lodge in 2000, Houghton opened it to the public, selling annual memberships. Anybody could eat at the restaurant, which was not previously the case.

"We tried to take it back to being a small mountain resort," Houghton said. "It was so beautiful. In the Adirondack style."

Two days ago, workers finished renovating the bathrooms to make them handicapped accessible, she said.

Sitting in the bath house, which is next to the still-closed pool, family members remembered objects lost in the blaze. Remembering one item brought to mind another - trophy deer heads, a boar head, velvet curtains held in place by antlers, paddles, Adirondack chairs and antique lures, snowshoes, rods, reels, tennis rackets and cameras.

"You know what I was thinking about today? That gorgeous big fern in The Waterside," said Houghton's mother, M.J. Firestone, who handles advertising and public relations for the lodge. "The whole thing was done with such tender loving care."

At 2:50 a.m. Thursday, Houghton said, a representative from her alarm company called her at home saying an intruder alarm and then a fire alarm had been activated at the lodge. Still in her pajamas, Houghton rushed to the building.

"When I got here, the flames were shooting out the windows," she said. "I kept saying, 'If they could just save the restaurant.' When I saw the restaurant go, I said 'If they could just save the ballroom,' " Houghton said.

Nothing was saved.

Special Agent Richard Summerfield, with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, stood near the ruins as he waited for a crane to arrive. Before Summerfield, who has been a fire investigator for three years, could go inside, he said dangerous items hanging overhead needed to be torn down.

It is possible the fire was intentionally set, but Summerfield said he would not use the word "suspicious." To do so means he would enter the fire scene without an open mind, he said.

"I'm looking for what the scene's telling me," he said.

If someone is arrested, Summerfield said, the case could be prosecuted federally because the fire affected interstate commerce. Also, investigators are trying to determine whether the blaze may constitute a hate crime.

Acts of vandalism have been committed before, Houghton said. Someone burned the lodge's sign, battered a fence with what turned out to be a stolen car and threw gutted fish by the front door, Houghton said.

"This is our welcome to Jefferson County," said Houghton, who is originally from Washington.

Although the loss was estimated at $2 million, Houghton said she did not have the lodge insured for that much because of high costs. Interested buyers had offered $3 million, she said.

"It would never be rebuilt the way it was originally built, not for any price. Well, maybe $10 million," Houghton said.

All of the logs were hand-notched, with not a nail in place, she said.

Houghton could not say with certainty whether she will rebuild, but her mother was more optimistic.

"Everybody wants to somehow keep going," M.J. Firestone said.

Approximately 20 people worked at the lodge, which had around 150 members, said Jami Kempf. Kempf handled memberships for the lodge and also was the unofficial DJ, playing music during dances. She lost compact discs in the fire.

Weddings were held at the lodge, along with anniversary celebrations, luncheons, corporate functions, fishing trips and monthly dances for members, Houghton said.

Although no weddings were planned for today or Sunday, one was scheduled for next Saturday. A new venue has been found for the couple, but other details still need to be arranged, M.J. Firestone said.

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