Century-old building lost to flames

LOCK HAVEN – Recent events at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1630 building warrant us to stop and take a look at what has been lost. The history of the building spans more than a century and, though its shell is destroyed, the memories made there will carry on.

The Veterans of Foreign Wars building was originally built by Jacob Smith in 1863 as the Girard House and was used as a hotel. Its name was changed several times, first to the United States Hotel, and again, when Smith added three stories to the building, to the newly designated Columbus Hotel.

In 1924, a man named Elmer Gibson caused a gasoline fire by attempting to use gasoline to clean his suit. There was some damage, but the building was not destroyed.

The Columbus remained in the family until the VFW bought it from the Smith estate in April 1945.

The VFW renamed the building the Bland J. Rossman Post.

Private Bland J. Rossman was a local veteran who died of disease in France on Dec. 1, 1918 while serving in World War I. He served with the 305th Ambulance Corps. Once his remains were returned home, he was buried in Cedar Hill Cemetery in Mackeyville.

The VFW installed Harry W. Bowes as commander of the post in April 1952 and fully paid off the mortgage by the end of that same year. It celebrated a “Mortgage Burning Celebration Week” to commemorate its freedom from a building debt.

Not long after the Lock Haven flood of 1972, the Bland J. Rossman Post suffered considerable damage due to an early morning electrical fire on Nov. 15, 1973. The fire also greatly damaged the Loyal Order of Moose club next door, which is where the fire originated.

Though it seemed as if firefighters might have been able to contain the fire to the Moose, a gas line explosion caused the fire to rage out of control. Firefighters from Castanea Township, Woolrich, Dunnstown, Flemington, Avis and the Jersey Shore Citizens and Independent Hose companies answered Lock Haven’s calls for help and the volunteers from Mill Hall and Beech Creek stood ready to respond while protecting the larger community.

After about five hours, firemen were able to bring the blaze under control but both the Moose and VFW suffered extensive damage, despite having just remodeled after the Agnes flood.

Four firemen required treatment from Lock Haven hospital for injuries and smoke inhalation sustained during the fire. The injured firemen included Jay Young, then 27, of Citizens Hose Co., Lock Haven; Norman Wolfrom, then 26, of Citizens Hose Co., Lock Haven; John Ruggiers, then 29, of Dunnstown Fire Co.; and Donald Fague, then 22, of Citizens Hose Co., Lock Haven.

Norman Wolfrom, now fire chief for the Lock Haven Fire Department, has witnessed the same building go up in smoke twice in his lifetime.

Though firemen remained on the scene for the day in 1973 and believed the fire to be completely doused, the fire flared up again the next morning.

Now, just over 150 years of history may have been extinguished after a new fire raged and destroyed the VFW Thursday evening.

Few details are known yet about the cause or where the VFW will relocate, but incoming commander Wayne Litz Jr. insists the organization will continue.

Thankfully, no injuries were reported this time around. Members of the VFW tried to recover as many of its valuables as possible.

Total damages and losses are estimated at about $400,000.

No amount of money can replace the memorabilia lost in the blaze, but VFW officials say they have to believe the organization will preserve what history remains, and will find a way to survive this most recent and perhaps most devastating turn of events.