A visitor to Harpers Ferry is unable to see the scars while traveling down Shenandoah Street or peering up High Street, but soon after taking the left onto Potomac Street, the damage a devastating fire caused to this most historical town appear to be healing today following the July 23, 2015, blaze.
Harpers Ferry, though, is still able to tell an important tale about a place where three states converge along the Potomac River.
Four years before West Virginia successfully seceded from the state of Virginia, Harpers Ferry was home to a federal arsenal targeted by abolitionist John Brown in mid-October 1859. Word of Brown’s ambush spread quickly, however, and he and his men were surrounded, and many were killed or captured, including the leader. Brown was convicted of treason on Nov. 2 and hanged one month later.
The blaze, however, has changed this place forever. A year and two months ago, at 3:19 a.m., first-responders received the initial report, and hours later three buildings that housed eight businesses and a pair of apartments were deemed total losses. Approximately 30 percent of this place, a destination for sightseers and history buffs from all 50 states and from throughout the world, was reduced to smoking cinders.
“And that smell,” said Cindi Dunn, co-owner of the once-displaced Vintage Lady retail shop. “When you watch a fire like that, you realize it has a life and a mind of its own. And that smell. I just couldn’t get that smell out of my nose. It lasted forever.”
While the state’s Fire Marshall’s Office has not announced an official cause of the fire, evidence was discovered to indicate money was missing from the building where blaze ignited. Neither the fire nor the possible motive has deterred those in Harpers Ferry or many citizens from around the Mountain State from believing in this comeback of sorts.
“Without a doubt, the reaction was very impressive. The people in Harpers Ferry and many from throughout West Virginia reacted in a way that allowed all of us to believe that everything was going to be OK because it was very important to everyone that the recovery took place,” Dunn said. “And after President Gee called our mayor, we felt that moral support, but we also saw physical support because they sent personnel here to help.
“This is a town of about 290 people, but we have thousands upon thousands of visitors every month of the year, and we do the best that we can,” she said. “But then you throw in a fire like that one that took out a good portion of our business district, and it could have been a huge struggle for us. But the resilience of the people in this town has been amazing.”
Amy Goodwin, the state’s Tourism Commissioner, was also quick to visit Harpers Ferry, and during her stay she worked with a filmographer to quickly produce a new video for use on her department’s website, (gotoWV.gov) and for use on social media platforms.
“She traveled here under the radar, and she’s a very nice lady,” Dunn explained. “And the video they shot and put out there didn’t focus on the damage the fire caused. Instead they shot around the fire in an effort to simply promote our town and to send the message that, despite what they might have heard about the fire, there’s still plenty here for people to come see.”
The Village Shop at Harpers Ferry, Sophie and Bailey’s, La Niche Boutique, Upstairs Downstairs Sandwich Shop, Tenfold Fair Trade, Private Quinn’s Club, and a data business all were displaced by the devastation. La Niche Boutique has relocated to the Frederick, Md., area and the data business operates now not far away from High Street. While the others await the rebuilding to be completed, two businesses, Tenfold Fair Trade and The Vintage Lady, have set up shop near the area of the blaze.
“Forty-five steps, that’s it. I counted it myself, and we plan to keep The Vintage Lady right where we are now because we love this new space,” Dunn said. “It was a very emotional decision to make, though. It was something I definitely prayed about, but I have managed, and I have tried my best to look at everything very positively. That’s why I think this is now our space and where we need to be right now.
“I think this was meant to be, and it’s a great showcase for all of the West Virginia items that we sell here,” she said. “When we first purchased the shop in 2004, it was thought of as a jewelry shop, but through the years we have let it evolve, and I’ve had a goal to purchase a lot of art directly from the artists themselves. Now, not everything we have here was made in West Virginia, but those items also were made in America.”
The Dunns were fully insured, she said, and although some of the other victims were not, she believes Harpers Ferry soon will be back to normal.
“I think we are in a really good position right now,” said the native of Ripley, W.Va. “Two of the buildings are now being rebuilt, and they’ve made great strides recently. The third building that was involved has been taken back to its original stone, and the businesses that were located in that one have relocated for now. But that owner is taking his time, and now he is shooting for next spring or summer.
“But there has been a lot of action that has happened, and it’s been wonderful to see,” Dunn continued. “It’s very important to the people in this community to rebuild here, and that’s exactly what is taking place. Hopefully by next summer the recovery will be finished so we can get things back to normal here.”
The destruction and current construction have not scared tourism away from the Harpers Ferry area, and the statistics are impressive.
“We have a book in the shop, and people sign in, and right now for the month of September we’ve had customers from 46 states and 34 countries. And that’s just the first 20 days in September,” Dunn reported. “In May, June, and July, we had people from all 50 states and over 40 countries during each of those months, and in August we missed all 50 by just one state, and that was Rhode Island.
“We are always amazed by those numbers. It’s shocking that so many people come to visit Harpers Ferry. That’s why we started having that book in the shop,” she continued. “That’s why I believe the Vintage Lady represents the kind of items that we carry, and that’s very important to the people who come here. We’re really proud of that because we want to showcase West Virginia and the artists we have in our state.”
During the 14 months that have passed since the early-morning blaze, Dunn has been contacted by media members from all over West Virginia and the East Coast. That’s OK with her, too, because she lived this disaster, and she’s determined to survive it, too.
“I’ve been very blessed, and I am glad to be the unofficial spokeswoman for Harpers Ferry concerning the fire,” Dunn said. “It was brutal. My husband and I just live up the street from there, and we got there about a half an hour after the fire department got the first call about it. At first, we thought the fire might stay in the building below us, but then I saw flames coming from one of our windows and knew it just was raging and was going to do what it wanted.
“I’d never really seen a fire up close and personal, and there’s nothing like it. I could feel the heat from that fire, and of course that smell lives forever. It just doesn’t go away,” she said. “We all take a lot of pride in our little community, and we’re very proud of the historical significance of Harpers Ferry. We all work very hard to make sure everyone enjoys their visits here, and that’s continued since the fire.”
(Cover photo by Cindi Dunn)