50 Year Anniversary of Fire in Sistersville
It has been 50 years since tragedy struck Sistersville in the middle of the night in the early hours of Tuesday, December 8, 1970. At 1:10 a.m. Patrolman Glen Hayes of the Sistersville Police Department sounded the first alarm when he discovered fire in Starcher’s Furniture Co. building on Wells Street in the heart of the downtown business district where People’s Bank drive-thru is located today. Many city residents of the time thought it couldn’t happen here; but it did, and the memory of that horrible night has not been forgotten. Lost in the blaze were the buildings housing not only Starcher’s, which was the old Opera House packed full of history and memories of the oil boom hey dey; but also the Shouldis Department Store; the Wells Building (which housed M.S. Rapp’s Insurance Agency, The Golden Touch Beauty Salon, the Hope Gas Company office, Attorney Robert Wright’s office and Margaret Peters’ private child adoption office); and the G.C. Murphy Store Building. Damage was estimated at more than $2,000,000.
Of these buildings only the G.C. Murphy store was not completely destroyed, but nothing left in the store could be salvaged except some saturated office records discovered in the flooded basement and the store safe found in the same location. This was the store where many local folks went for everything from jewelry to hardware. Teens shopped here for 45 RPM records and candy, and kids always found their way downstairs to check out all the new toys. My wife, Mary Ann, can still recall entering the store from the Diamond Street entrance next to the candy counter. She shared, “I still remember being greeted by the sweet aroma of chocolate coming from candy displayed in the glass bins. It’s funny how a wonderful smell can store a memory for so long.”
Nothing was saved, no papers, no products. Nothing was able to be salvaged from Starcher’s, Shouldis Department Store or the Wells Building.
The fire caused damage to the home of Tom and Doris Menighan and family, located at 215 Charles Street, when the wall of the old Opera House crushed the garage and hit the back porch. Local volunteer firefighters became heros that night by their fearless efforts to save not only the Menighan home but the residences of George Kapnicky and Hall Prigga. In a recent letter to Jason Wayne, current Chief of the Sistersville Volunteer Firefighters, Tom Menighan, son of Tom and Doris, was a pre-pharmacy student at the time in finals week at WVU, and shared his memory of the event. He recalled getting a phone call from his parents early the following morning. “My mother described how your volunteers spent all night keeping our house and the buildings around that end of our block covered with water to prevent the fire from spreading,” said Tom. Tom and his family are forever grateful for the bravery of those firefighters that worked throughout the night to save their home and community.
In addition to the brave men of the Sistersville Volunteer Fire Department, under the direction of then Chief Jack Bowen, responding fire companies were Paden City, Silicones, Glendale Volunteers, Steelton, St. Marys, New Matamoras, Belmont, Sardis, Grandview, Middlebourne and Moundsville Volunteers. These firefighters are credited with preventing the rest of the town from burning.
Eight fire trucks were stationed at the river during the fire to pump water to units throwing water on the blaze. The Sistersville Ferry Company put the ferry in operation to bring rescue units from Ohio to the scene of the fire.
Jim Miller, a resident of Sistersville for many years and now residing in Fairmont, was 19 years old at the time and had been with the Sistersville Fire Department for just one year. He clearly recalls awakening at his boyhood home located on the top of Cemetery Hill and looking out to see the entire night sky over Sistersville lit bright orange. Jim Miller was one of many firefighters that fought the fire that night. Bob Efaw, assistant fire chief at the time, assigned Jim and Hap Pancake the task of keeping water on the Opera House. Jim can remember how frigid the temperatures were that night as they worked to keep the blaze from spreading. He said the only thing that saved Davis Jewelry, First Federal Bank, and Kay’s Pool Hall was a fire wall built in the Davis Jewelry building that nobody knew existed.
Jim shared an experience that happened the next morning. Walter Harkness, then manager of G.C. Murphy, asked for two volunteers to go into the basement where the office was located and bring up the safe. Remember no one knew if the remaining walls of the burn site would continue to stand. Jim and Paul Baker volunteered for the job. Jim remembers going down the steps that led to the toy department. At the bottom they were required to wade through knee deep water in pitch black darkness with their flashlights showing the way. He still recalls seeing rats running across the shelves in the basement of the burned out toy department. Of the experience Jim said, “It was very scary and the last time I will volunteer for that type of job.”
Sistersville displayed her goodness and decency in the middle of the disaster. Neighbors and store owners who had to move goods and processions found many willing bodies to help, and students from the high school were available later in the day to move things back. The Wells Inn kitchen crew generously supplied coffee and sandwiches for the weary firefighters throughout the night into the early hours of the morning.
The buildings on the opposite side of Wells street at the time of the fire were the new G.C. Murphy building, Miller’s Pharmacy, Peters Clothing, Locke Shoe Store and the City News which all suffered damage to their windows from the intense heat. The fire melted plastic store signs, cracked glass windows and forced store owners to move their goods to the back of their buildings, but they were considered the lucky ones.
I spoke with Sistersville resident, Dave Miller, owner of Miller’s Pharmacy, a staple in the downtown area at the time. He explained in those days the pharmacy also sold paint. His fear was the paint would explode from the excessive heat so they quickly carried all the paint out back into the alley. People helped by coming by in their trucks to load the paint and move it away from the fire. Dave said, “The funny thing was I never got the paint back.” The front of the store got so hot that it completely blew out all the large glass windows and doors. All merchandise like lotions, lipsticks and medicine was lost due to melting. At the time of the fire Dave was renting the building from S.A. Peters who graciously allowed Dave to design the new store front when it was replaced.
After the fire, the city was faced with the staggering question of how to move forward. Through the leadership of then Mayor Bob Wable the owners of the ruined properties in the fire agreed to jointly hire one contractor to tear down the remaining ruble at the burn site.
In a paragraph taken from the Star News reporting on the fire, “It was an awesome, terrifying sight in the chill night sky over Sistersville, as the huge fire roared out of control, sending golden sparks shooting skyward in towering cascades of color. There was no panic. There was a great deal of intense effort on the part of all concerned to help. The fire ended Tuesday, sullenly dying in a smoldering, smoking hiss. Work on renewal began immediately.”