Berkely Springs has fiery history

August 13, 2006|by CANDICE BOSELY

BERKELEY SPRINGS, W.VA. - Some of them were identified only by the abandoned cars they left parked nearby. Others were identified by hotel registration records or by tags or bracelets they were wearing.

When the Washington House Hotel at the corner of Fairfax and Washington streets was reduced to rubble in 1974 by a fire, 12 people either staying or living at the hotel died.

The intense heat of that fire melted a face of the clock in the Morgan County Courthouse's tower. Thirty-four years later, that clock itself was lost last week when the courthouse burned.

Two buildings at the same intersection, two fires. As with the hotel, eventually what remains of the courthouse could be knocked down, hauled away. The process, in fact, already has begun.


Scars, though, always will remain in a town that has had fire as its cruelest resident many times, starting with the destruction of the county's first courthouse and 13 other buildings in an 1844 fire. Devastating fires also occurred in 1898, 1901 and 1912.

Courthouse fire recalls 1974 memories

On Aug. 25, 1974, Steve McBee was spending his last night at home before he planned to head to Morgantown to begin his freshman year at West Virginia University.

When the phone rang early in the morning for McBee's father, C. Dwan McBee, the editor of the local weekly newspaper, The Morgan Messenger, was on the other end.

Did I wake you? the editor asked.

No, I had to get up to answer the phone, Dwan McBee smartly replied.

The editor then told Dwan McBee that the Washington House Hotel was on fire, and asked McBee to come and bring his camera, Steve McBee recalled. (His father died earlier this summer.)

With just one roll of black and white film in his camera, Dwan McBee judiciously spread out his images, capturing the fire in various stages. One photograph was picked up by a news wire service and published in newspapers across the country, McBee said.

With 12 dead in the blaze, a temporary morgue was set up across the street in the courthouse. Dwan McBee, in possession of a better camera than the police, also was asked to photograph the remains of those who died, McBee said.

The younger McBee, who was 18 years old at the time, watched the hotel burn after walking to it from his home.

He now is a member of the Berkeley Springs Volunteer Fire Department and has served as its chief and president.

"It was just amazement," he said of watching the hotel burn. "Watching the guys in the fire department at the time, they were doing everything they possibly could, but it was just a futile attempt. I think they realized it, but firemen just don't know when to quit."

Had the firefighters at the time been equipped with today's technology, such as air packs and more sophisticated gear, they might have made it farther into the building.

Tragic consequences might have accompanied them.

"We probably would have had firefighters killed," McBee said.

As it was, the intense heat 34 years ago prevented anyone from advancing far into the building, which was engulfed in flames when firefighters arrived.

A whole block is gone

Along with the hotel, the 1974 fire wiped out a street-length row of businesses behind it on Fairfax Street.

Among the businesses lost was the town's circa-1905 Opera House. The first movies to be shown in town played there in 1909, and the building also housed, at times, Town Hall and a miniature golf course, according to historical information on the town's Web site.

The area now consists only of a bank and a large parking lot used by vendors during the town's annual Apple Butter Festival.

Jeanne Mozier of Berkeley Springs read every issue of a now-defunct Berkeley Springs newspaper published between 1879 and 1939 to compile historical information on the town. She promotes arts and tourism in town.

The courthouse that burned last Tuesday was the county's third. After Morgan County was founded in 1820, the town's elected body met in a tavern for two years before buying a stone house at the corner of Wilkes and Fairfax streets that was transformed into a courthouse.

That building burned in 1844 in a fire that destroyed 14 buildings - nearly a whole block. Buildings that burned included saloons, gambling houses, dance halls and lodging rooms, Mozier said.

A new courthouse then was built at its present site in 1848 and replaced in 1908, but newspaper accounts of the time are not clear whether the second courthouse was razed or somehow incorporated into the third, current one, Mozier said.

The current courthouse opened Sept. 5, 1908, with the clock tower.

"The clock tower was a very big deal," Mozier said, because it was a four-face tower on a large building in a small town and lent a sense of sophistication.

Additions to the courthouse were built in 1923 and 1953. Recently, a series of renovations were finished to better connect the additions to the main courthouse and make the facility handicapped-accessible, Mozier said.

Two grand hotels burn

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