Harpers Ferry Fire: Image 1

photo by: Greg Dean

November 23, 2015

How Historic Harpers Ferry is Recovering from a Three-Alarm Fire

  • By: Gwendolyn Purdom

When a three-alarm fire tore through the center of town in July, the historic community of Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, was devastated. Three buildings and nine businesses were severely affected—a minor blow in most communities, but for Harpers Ferry and its 286 residents, the flames took out a full 30 percent of the commercial district.

Though the economic destruction was startling, the damage to historic properties in a tourism-heavy community that played a role in both America’s Revolutionary and Civil wars was perhaps more heartbreaking. Three of the charred buildings date back to the 1840s.

“These buildings have survived numerous floods and witnessed John Brown’s raid, Stonewall Jackson’s capture of the town, and Niagara Movement’s civil rights gathering in 1906,” Ed Wheeless of the Harpers Ferry Historic Landmarks Commission says. “While the fire left a gash through the center of the business district, we are grateful that there was no loss of life and, due to the quick and intrepid efforts of area fire companies, the fire was contained.”

Harpers Ferry Fire: Image 4

photo by: Greg Dean

While many modern additions had been gutted by the fire, the integrity of the historic structures is largely intact.

In addition to reaching out to the Preservation Alliance of West Virginia and other experts, town officials turned to administrators at nearby West Virginia University for help soon after the fire.

“Anything that happens in Harpers Ferry sort of directly affects the integrity and the viewshed then that relates to Harpers Ferry National Historical Park,” West Virginia University Extension Service’s Chad Proudfoot, a program coordinator in the recovery efforts, says. “They’re in this unique set of circumstances where they’re facing some things that a lot of other towns might not have to deal with to such a degree.”

Proudfoot was assigned to work in Harpers Ferry three days a week. Community development specialists, representatives from the law school, and WVU’s agriculture college all pitched in as well, he says. A community forum was held to set priorities for preservation efforts and strategic plans. An associate professor of landscape architecture is leading a streetscape design project. Engineering school faculty did early structural assessments and found that while many modern additions had been gutted by the fire, the integrity of the historic structures is largely intact.

Harpers Ferry Fire: Image 5

photo by: Greg Dean

A community forum was held to set priorities for preservation efforts and strategic plans.

“Each owner has recognized the value of these buildings to our town and is working to preserve the historic buildings so they will remain standing for all to enjoy.”

Chad Proudfoot, program coordinator in recovery efforts

“It’s been one of those things where everyone has been willing to get involved and to help and to do anything possible,” Proudfoot says.

As plans move forward, Proudfoot says he’s been pleasantly surprised by the degree to which Harpers Ferry’s displaced business owners and employees have worked together, sharing contractors and progress reports. Demolition of damaged non-contributing additions has already gotten underway, according to Wheeless, and should be completed by the end of the year. Several displaced business owners have reopened in nearby locations as well.

“Each owner has recognized the value of these buildings to our town and is working to preserve the historic buildings so they will remain standing for all to enjoy,” he said. “Merchants are looking forward to celebrating Olde Tyme Christmas as the business district is renewed.”

For the place Thomas Jefferson once described as “perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in Nature... worth a voyage across the Atlantic,” the future looks bright.

“Everyone in the town really seems to have this commitment to work together and help one another, this attitude that they have that the fire was a very catastrophic event, but it was a catalyst to helpful things so they will move past it,” Proudfoot says. “They will do what they need to do, and they’re going to be bigger and better in the end.”

Este Lugar Me Importa: Your donation will send much needed supplies to help the recovery efforts in Puerto Rico.

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