Wheeling’s House & Herrmann Department Store Burns to the Ground After a Winter Storm
Ninety-eight years ago today, on December 9, 1917, a natural gas explosion triggered one of the most destructive fires in Wheeling’s history. On a quiet Sunday evening, the six-story House & Herrmann department store on the southwest corner of Market and 14th Streets, an anchor in one of Wheeling’s busiest commercial hubs, caught fire. Despite bitter cold and icy conditions that hampered firefighting efforts, the blaze was intense enough to damage some of the surrounding structures. By the next morning, the retail giant, succumbing to a peculiar alliance of fire and ice, had been reduced to a smoldering, icicle-strewn ruin.
Wheeling in 1917
By December 9, 1917, the United States had officially been embroiled in the European “war to end all wars” with Germany for eight months and had declared war on Germany’s primary ally, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, just two days prior. Recruitment of soldiers and sailors in Wheeling was “Very Vigorous” and “experiencing a boom such as never known before” the Wheeling News-Register reported, even as thousands of West Virginia soldiers of the 80th “Blue Ridge” Division prepared to depart Virginia’s Camp Lee for the Great War trenches. As a result of wartime rationing under the guidance of state “food administrator” Col. E. W. Oglebay, Wheeling was rocked by a “sugar famine,” forcing bakeries to cut “cakes and sweet foodstuffs” and citizens to “drink unsweetened coffee for breakfast.”
Meanwhile, the Wheeling newspapers were full of stories about the devastating maritime explosion and fire in Halifax, Nova Scotia that killed thousands and injured thousands more on December 6. On that same day, the WVU football team had just completed a “Remarkable Season” featuring victories over the powerhouse Naval Academy, Washington and Jefferson College and the Carlisle Indians and a hard-fought loss to arch rival Pittsburgh. Bell telephone was lauded for shifting 4400 subscribers to a new switchboard in just 90 seconds and, beginning on December 8, a “miniature blizzard” swept Wheeling, dumping 11 inches of snow. The temperature plummeted to 3 degrees below zero on the evening of the 9th, according to Miss Bessie Forsythe, “official weather observer for the Wheeling district,” reporting from her outpost on the Island.
Chicago Had Its Kicking Cow While Wheeling Had Its Match-Wielding Night Watchman
Against this backdrop, on Sunday, December 9, 1917 at about half past 5 in the evening, John Powell, a night watchman at Wheeling’s House and Herrmann department store prepared to light a burner under a gas stove used to heat water for cleaning the store. The stove was kept in a small closet on the rear of the second floor where clothing and shoes were sold. Unbeknownst to Powell, a slow leak in the closet had caused a dangerous accumulation of natural gas. As Mr. Powell unwittingly struck a match, the pocket of gas flashed and exploded. Somehow unharmed, Powell attempted to use an emergency water hose to extinguish the fire, but the flames had already sprung up and down the elevator shaft, propelled by the grease on the bearings. Powell pulled the alarm, but Wheeling’s worst fire was already out of control.
Your Credit Is Good
House & Herrmann department store was founded by Baltimore native George E. House, who opened the “parent house of the firm” in Washington, D.C. in 1885 and the Wheeling store at 1300 Main Street three years later. By 1895, the store had outgrown its location and moved to the six-story Pollock Flouring Mills building at 14th and Market after a $20,000 (nearly half a million in 2015 dollars) remodel designed by Franzheim & Giesey.
Cranmer’s venerable 1902 History of Wheeling City, offered the following description: “The first floor is devoted to furniture and other goods, such as chinaware, sewing machines, lamps and silverware. The show window on Market street is 60 feet long, and is attended to by an expert window dresser. The firm is the most extensive advertiser in the state, having numerous original and effective methods. [Indeed, the Wheeling papers were never without an advertisement by House and Herrmann, up to and including the day of the great fire.]
“In front of the door, at the northeast corner of the building, is a bulletin board, on which are given the main events of each day, the firm having private arrangements with leading newspapers for items of public interest. The second floor is devoted to clothing, shoes, hats, trunks, etc.; and the third floor to wall paper, upholstered furniture and carpets…The fourth floor contains a complete stock of bedroom suites and miscellaneous furniture. The fifth and sixth floors are used for warehouse purposes and duplicate stock, and the basement for stoves. The building is equipped with two electric light plants, the power for which is furnished by steam and natural gas is used as fuel…The store is an exceedingly attractive one, and especial feature being the number of electric lights and the amount of gold leaf in use.”
Employing 60 people, House & Herrmann was said to be a pioneer of the “installment plan,” and its slogan, prominent on the front corner of the building, was “YOUR CREDIT IS GOOD.”
The Fire and the Firefighters
In short order, the blaze ignited by John Powell’s match had spread. “The front part of the [2nd] floor was stocked with ladies’ wearing apparel, including light waists and skirts, which burned like tinder.” (Intell., Dec. 10). Having noticed the flash of blue flame, a pedestrian on 14th Street shouted “Fire!” More alarms were sounded.
Firefighters arriving on the scene encountered a raging inferno. All of the windows on the west side of the Rogers Hotels were shattered by the intense heat. Strong winter winds blew the flames across 14th Street, gutting the upper floors of the Reilly building and part of the West Virginia Printing Company, then the home of the Wheeling News-Register. The latter was saved from complete destruction only by a recently installed modern innovation: a sprinkler system. Even the great water tower on its rooftop burned. The nearby Bijou restaurant and The Hub department store also sustained lesser damage.
The extreme cold and shifting winds made fighting the fire nearly impossible. Sparks were carried half a mile north, and only the fresh blanket of snow was credited with stifling a much wider disaster. “Some of the sparks were as large as a flour barrel-head,” The Intelligencer reported, “and steam arose from the tops of buildings when they alighted into the snow.”
Firefighters who attempted to douse the volcanic flames from the roof of the Gee Electric building (now the home of the Artisan Center and Wheeling National Heritage Area) were driven from their task by the overwhelming heat.
The great fire lit the night sky, drawing onlookers from all parts of the city and from across the river in Ohio. “Apropos of the fire while at its height,” the News-Register later reported, “automobilists state the National Pike at Woodsdale hill was so brightly illuminated from the reflection in the sky, lights were turned off on motorcars as the speedway was light enough to distinguish cars going to and coming from towns at great distances.” A crowd estimated at more than 10, 000 people gathered to watch. The police held them back as they jostled for position. Sparks rained down, causing burns.
Firefighters from Bellaire, Martins Ferry, Bridgeport, Woodsdale, Edgwood, and Warwood joined their Wheeling brethren in an effort made more difficult when the Market Street wall of the House and Herrman building fell, crushing the hook and ladder aerial truck under tons of brick and stone. Several firemen were nearly crushed as well.
Salvation Army workers and members of the Fort Henry Club served hot coffee to the firemen, who were “covered in a coat of ice.” In fact, the landscape was one of frozen fire as the “intense cold lathered everything touched by water with a thick coating of ice and gives the whole situation an odd appearance.” At the peak of the battle, more than 30 streams from fire-hoses were trained on the blaze, but to little avail. Again, the cold exacerbated the problem. “The firemen encountered much difficulty by water freezing in the hoses and bursting…” said The Intelligencer. The river of runoff on the ground also froze, embedding the fire-hoses in thick ice. Heavy with ice, trolley cables and electric power lines crashed to ground.
Less than an hour after it had started, the “fire fiend” (as The Intelligencer dubbed it), had completely consumed House & Herrmann, leaving only a smoldering metal skeleton.
Remarkably, despite the chaotic scene, featuring explosions, falling walls, sparks, and cables and a predatory fire — there were no reported deaths or serious injuries. But the property damage was extensive. Initial estimates put the tab at half a million dollars — more than ten million 2015 dollars. Most was covered by insurance. The state and city fire marshals seemed satisfied with Mr. Powell’s story and no further investigation was discussed. The store’s records actually survived the fire in a steel vault. But the long-term fate of those records is unknown.
Over the next several days, crowds flocked to gawk at the smoking, frozen ruins. “Sightseers were again in evidence throughout the day looking over the ravages of the blaze,” the News-Register reported on December 12. “The ice-crusted ruins offered elegant material for Kodak owners. The Reilly block and West Virginia Printing company building were draped in appropriate Christmas array, ice-coated wires being strung at all angles from top to bottom.” Firemen were seen using picks and shovels to retrieve their hoses still embedded in the ice.
In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, House & Hermann continued to do business from a temporary headquarters at The Hub, it’s gracious neighbor on 14th and Market. A supply of records and Columbia Grafonolas (record players) apparently survived the fire, and House & Herrmann placed ads to sell them to Christmas shoppers.
But despite these efforts, the company could not rise from the ashes. In the 1919 city directory the former House & Herrmann address was listed as a vacant lot.
Designed by architect Charles W. Bates (Capitol Theatre), the Central Union Trust Company Building was built on the site in 1924 by the R. R. Kitchen Company.
Though a sad end for House & Herrmann, the fire and ice battle inspired a positive development for the Wheeling Fire Department. The poor performance of Wheeling’s old steam pumpers, especially when compared to the modern, motorized pumpers from Bellaire, finally convinced city leaders to spend money on more modern equipment for their firefighters. At long last, Wheeling’s antiquated horse-drawn steam pumpers like those picture below were replaced with motorized fire trucks.
This slideshow from the 1925 History of Wheeling Firefighting features a look at the full array of Wheeling’s new motorized fire trucks.
Callin’s Wheeling City Directory, 1917-1919.
Cranmer, G. L., “George E. House,” History of Wheeling City and Ohio County, West Virginia and Representative Citizens, pp 456-457, 1902.
Plummer, R. and Hanlan, W. C., A History of Firefighting in Wheeling, Wheeling: E.B. Roberts, 1925.
The Wheeling Intelligencer, December 8-13, 1917.
The Wheeling News-Register, December 8-13, 1917.