How One Harpers Ferry Shop Is Bouncing Back After July Fire
At 3:18 a.m. on July 23, a fire started in the historic commercial district in downtown Harpers Ferry, devastating four buildings containing nine businesses.
The fire was fully contained eight hours later, but those shop owners had lost everything. Although shocked and heartbroken by the loss, the community of Harpers Ferry, surrounding areas, and officials from around the state came together to support the town’s recovery.
It’s been a little more than one month since this day in Harpers Ferry.
“It was just up in flames. Everybody lost their businesses down here, down on this side. It was just awful. It was just chaos,” said Jeff Gaskins, a Harpers Ferry resident who watched as the fire engulfed the four buildings – most of which were built before the Civil War.
Cindi Dunn lost her small boutique called the Vintage Lady, which featured jewelry and many made-in-West Virginia items.
“It’s a personal, of course loss, huge loss, but the loss for our town is devastating. This is such a beautiful town, and people come here literally from all over the world,” Dunn said.
While the fire caused at least $2 million in damages, many of those affected haven’t lost hope.
And Cindi Dunn is one of them.
Six weeks after the fire and just a handful of steps up the hill from the location of Dunn’s original shop is the “new” Vintage Lady.
Her new space was once a small wine shop. The ceiling is high and has seven windows that look out at the grassy mountains in Harpers Ferry. There’s jewelry, mugs, socks, books, jam, and scarves ready to be sold.
“We selected the best of the things that we had in the other shop. It’s obviously a smaller space, and so we just went through and picked out our very top best sellers, and I think we did it,” Dunn explained.
Of those nine business owners who lost everything in the fire, Dunn is the only one so far who’s been able to reopen in Harpers Ferry.
Dunn says the long-term plan is to be able to move back into her old space if possible, which she spent twelve years in, but says that’s not something she’s worrying about right now.
“My bigger concern right now is for the town that I want the town to rebound from this. It’s such a huge impact financially, you know, so right now, I just want the town to rebuild, I want things to bounce back, so I just want people to come and see the beauty that’s Harpers Ferry.”
And things are beginning to bounce back.
Help Comes from Community, West Virginia University
Community members and many others have donated money to the cause. State and Federal legislators have been doing what they can to aid in the recovery process.
Last week, Harpers Ferry Mayor Gregory Vaughn held a community meeting to discuss where the town is in its recovery and where to go from here.
A big part of that is West Virginia University’s recent involvement. WVU’s Extension Service Program is working to match local needs with the university's resources.
“We’re getting structural engineers came here, architects, landscape architects have been here, your marketing specialists have been here, your community development specialists who conduct these types of things that we had this evening, we don’t have those kinds of resources to do that, and for a community like Harpers Ferry to be able to sit down with the big shots in Morgantown, and for them to come and assist us is just remarkable,” Mayor Vaughn explained.
WVU is mostly offering assistance in the way of research. Vaughn says he’s not interested in money from the university, but is working on securing grants on the federal level, from the private sector, and is seeking some emergency funds to help pay for things like the half a million gallons of water used to put out the fire.
Chad Proudfoot is the WVU Extension Service program coordinator. Over the next few months, he’ll be spending three days a week in Harpers Ferry as the liaison between the town and Morgantown.
“The university sort of looked at Harpers Ferry as being in a very unique situation, because of its national importance and what it’s doing, and then also its drive, and really their resilient attitude to want to make things better, to want to move forward from this, and so it’s a very town driven project," Proudfoot said, "WVU is able to provide some in-kind assistance, but everything is really being headed up by the town and its people. What a wonderful thing to be a part of.”
Back at Cindi Dunn’s shop, she’s also looking toward the future.
“I think that this is a turning point for Harpers Ferry, and I am sorry as to how it happened, but life just happens that way sometimes, so it’s really new beginnings,” Dunn said.
For the next year, West Virginia University will be working closely with Harpers Ferry to figure out what can be done to bring the town out of the ashes and make it better than before.