Six weeks ago, my husband and I went to settlement on a weekend home in Berkeley Springs, an historic town in the eastern panhandle of West Virginia. Anyone who was about to close on a real estate deal there, however, now faces an indefinite delay. That's because last week, the Morgan County Courthouse was gutted by fire and the local government came to a standstill.
This past Saturday morning, I was part of a steady stream of people taking pictures of the shell of the 98-year-old Classic Revival-style building (pictured before the fire above and after on the right) and its charred cupola (below), which sits in the street after a crane lowered it to the ground to take the weight off the clock tower. Only yesterday were fire investigators able to enter what remains of the structure and surmise that the cause of the blaze was accidental, most likely an electrical fault.
I grew up in a city of 70,000 and now live in a sprawling suburban county in Maryland, with agencies occupying dozens of buildings. But the fire in Berkeley Springs is a sobering reminder that in small municipalities all across America, the entire government is often concentrated in a single location. When tragedy strikes, not just the operational heart of a government--but also its head, arms and legs--can be entirely disrupted and displaced.
Voter registration lists were destroyed; other records, including deed books, wills, bound documents, maps and computer hard drives were damaged and have been sent to a company in Texas for cleaning and preservation. The majority of vital records, though, were protected by a fireproof vault.
Make-shift sign s have been posted telling residents where various departments have relocated around the area. By next Monday, all of them expect to be housed for the forseeable future in three trailers adjacent to the courthouse complex (note the the portable storage units already on site). Whether or not the yellow-brick landmark can be rebuilt, the county faces a long, difficult and costly process of reestablishing a permanent home.
Meanwhile, the incident has set off alarm bells among clerks and other officials in neighboring counties, who are telling commissioners that a lack of both storage space and money for records managmement systems could result in the loss of paper documents dating back more than 200 years if a similar fire broke out in their facilities. Let's hope one local genealogy researcher is right when she commented, "Sometimes one disaster averts another."