Fire damages buildings in historic Harpers Ferry

Fire damages buildings in historic Harpers Ferry, WV.

An early-morning fire ripped through several early-1800s buildings in this beloved historic town early Thursday, damaging several businesses and threatening the national park that commemorates a pivotal moment in U.S. history.

"This is devastating for Harpers Ferry," said Gregory Vaughan, mayor of the town at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, where Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia all come together.

The buildings "have been standing there for almost 200 years," Vaughn said, "and they withstood the test of time — until 2015, unfortunately."

A summer evening in Harpers Ferry typically sees tourists exploring historic buildings, browsing souvenir stands and eating ice cream. But at sunset on Thursday, visitors were surveying damaged buildings surrounded by yellow tape, the smell of the fire still in the air.

"It's really heart-wrenching," said Matty Clark, a regular visitor from nearby Charles Town. "These are real decent people, these shop owners."

David Heise, co-owner of Scoops Ice Cream in the town's business district, said the fire happened during "prime time" for tourism. The businesses that were shut down by the blaze, he said, "are done for the year."

West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tamblin said the fire was "heartbreaking" for West Virginians.

"We will do all we can to help in the recovery process and to restore these historic buildings that tens of thousands of people visit and explore every year," he said in a statement.

The first report of fire came in at 3:16 a.m. Firefighters from all three states rushed to the scene, said Denise Pouget, director of emergency services for Jefferson County. None of the 80 firefighters were injured, she said, but three firefighters were treated for exhaustion.

Four buildings were affected by the fire, but the cause and amount of damage had not been determined late Thursday. The buildings were commercial, Pouget said, but one had apartments above the businesses. Businesses affected included a pub, a sandwich shop, a vintage clothing store and other shops, according to the Herald-Mail of Hagerstown.

"They all have significant fire damage," Pouget said. The West Virginia state fire marshal is leading an investigation.

The nearby MARC train station was closed for part of Thursday but reopened by afternoon. Harpers Ferry National Historic Park closed the historic lower town district because firefighters needed its hydrants to battle the fire, park historian Dennis Frye said. The district includes museums and exhibits.

Frye said the rest of the park remained open Thursday.

The park and town, population 285, draw tourists from Baltimore and Washington. It's about 70 miles, or a 90-minute drive, from both.

The town was the site of a federal arsenal targeted by the abolitionist John Brown in an 1859 raid. He intended the attack to trigger a slave uprising. It failed, but became a flash point between the North and the South that helped to ignite the Civil War.

The town changed hands eight times during the war.

Most of Harpers Ferry became part of the National Park Service in 1944. The historic district is on the National Register of Historic Places, which notes about 100 historically or architecturally important buildings and sites, most built between 1800 and the Civil War.

Clark said he comes to Harpers Ferry to take pictures, walk around and observe the scenic sunsets. He loves the historic nature of the area and residents' friendliness.

"There's a real spirit," he said. "You feel there's a good presence."

Vaughn was out of town when the fire struck but rushed back. He said he was "totally disheartened for the entire community and particularly the shop and business owners."

Vaughn said he would try to identify grants or loans that could help businesses rebuild from the fire. He said he's been touched by an outpouring of support not only from people in West Virginia, but also Maryland and Virginia. And he hopes tourists will continue to visit despite the fire.

"Harpers Ferry is open for business," he said. "It's the one small section of town that's affected by this. The lower portion of High Street, where it comes in contact with the National Park Services — those buildings are unaffected. Hopefully this does not deter anyone from coming to Harpers Ferry."

The sentiment was echoed by Chris Corder, who owns the Stonehouse Bed & Breakfast. His building was not damaged, but he said the town could lose tax revenue if tourism drops off.

Still, he's optimistic. When the national park closed during the government shutdown in 2013, he said, people still visited Harper's Ferry.

"People love this town from all over," he said. "They'll keep coming back. We need them to keep coming back, now more than ever."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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