On December 9, 1917, a natural gas explosion triggered a devastating fire that completely destroyed the six-story House & Herrmann department store located at the southwest corner of 14th and Market Streets in downtown Wheeling, West Virginia, when on that Sunday evening around 5:30PM, John Powell, a night watchman at the store, prepared to light a burner under a gas stove used to heat water for cleaning the store, which 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, so as he unwittingly struck a match, the pocket of gas flashed and exploded, somehow leaving him unharmed. The fire started on the second floor and quickly spread through the elevator shaft, and though Powell attempted to use an emergency water hose to extinguish the fire, the flames had already sprung up and down the shaft, propelled by the grease on the bearings, and Wheeling’s worst fire was already out of control. Strong winds and bitter cold hampered firefighting efforts, causing hoses to freeze and collapse. The intense heat also damaged nearby buildings, though no deaths or serious injuries were reported. After burning for less than an hour, the beloved department store was reduced to smoldering ruins encased in ice. The dramatic blaze finally convinced the city to invest in upgrading the fire department's outdated equipment. In 1925, the Central Union Trust Company Building, designed by architect Charles W. Bates, was constructed by the R.R. Kitchen Company on the site of the former House & Herrmann building that met a dramatic fiery end.
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Photo Credits: Ohio County Public Library Archives, Wheeling WV