Cause of Alms House fire undetermined so far

By Joe Beck

MAURERTOWN — The fire that destroyed the historic Alms House remained under investigation Monday with the cause still undetermined.

Shenandoah County Fire Marshal David Ferguson said the fire appeared to have started in the southern section of the structure where a man and woman were staying. They later escaped to safety through a first floor window.

“I’m still processing the scene as to the cause and origin of the fire,” Ferguson said as he stood below the towering brick ruins.

The building is listed in county real estate tax records as having an assessed value of $378,300, all of it lost. The entire value of the property, including a spring house, barn, land and other assets is listed at $450,000.

Ferguson said the remnants of the 8,000 square foot building will be demolished and hauled away, a formidable job involving many tons of brick that made up the walls.

The two-story Alms House was built in 1829. A kitchen and two-story addition followed a few years later.

Conrad Helsley, a member of the Shenandoah County Board of Supervisors, reflected on the building’s place in his family history while visiting the site on Monday.

“My grandfather and uncle were supervisors of this for many, many years,” Helsley said of the Alms House.

Helsley said the age of the brick and other parts of the design may have contributed to the building’s vulnerability to fire.

Helsley said the building was made of a soft brick that lacks the fire resistant qualities of more modern forms of brick.

“The way it was built, there was no firewall,” Helsley added. “If the wrong thing happened, this was inevitable.”

Ferguson said firefighters’ main goal upon arriving at the scene was to keep the fire from spreading to nearby buildings.

Ferguson said the couple who escaped had been on the second floor when the fire started. They rushed down the stairs, but found the way out through the porch blocked by the fire.

“So they ended up going through the living room and escaping out through the window,” Ferguson said.

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com