Friday, May 4, 2012
The Former Victor Hose Company #2
Several years ago, Prestera's Renaissance Center in Huntington began showing up on different lists of haunted places in West Virginia. It looks like the first report of activity from this fire station-turned-drug rehab center was actually made by an employee to the WVGhosts site.
In that entry (linked below), it was noted that the center, which formerly was a fire station, was haunted by the ghosts of several fallen firemen. Allegedly, there had been a deadly blaze, and several firemen were injured. They were taken back to the station to be treated, but ultimately succumbed in an upstairs room. They make their presence known by repeatedly setting off an alarm, and by a foreboding feeling that permeates the room in question.
After having this location in my mind for awhile, I decided the time was right to start looking into the legend. I was grossly fooling myself when I thought that it would be easy to find supporting evidence for this story. I thought surely several firemen dying in a blaze was pretty important information and I could find plenty of sources online without ever having to change out of my pajamas. I would soon find confirmation of the fact that NOTHING in the world of historic research is ever that black and white, lol.
My first stop was the West Virginia Archives website. West Virginia's capitol complex has a memorial to firefighters who died in the line of duty, and the names and dates of their deaths are transcribed online through the archives website. I thought I had hit pay dirt when I found three gentlemen from the HFD who all died in 1948. Those men were listed as Emmett Wheeler, Leon Hartz, and William Booth. For confirmation, I went to the WV State Archives vital statistics page to pull their death certificates and that's where things got a little complicated....
I already had reservations because in 1948, it seemed odd to me that injured firefighters would go back to their station, as opposed to one of the area hospitals, but perhaps they were suffering from smoke inhalation, internal injuries or some other ailment that didn't seem as serious in the field as it did when they got back and were examined. But then, the death certificates just didn't make any sense. Emmett Wheeler, while occupation was stated as city fireman, was listed as having died in 1952 of natural causes. When I typed in Leon Hartz, I got a gentleman who died in 1930! Luckily, I changed search parameters slightly and found out that Lieutenant Hartz was actually listed as Leonard. Still, it was a shock to the morale when the first try came up empty handed. I did have success with William Booth, though, lol...got him right on the first try.
So after I found the correct Leon(ard) Hartz, it was confirmed that he and William Booth, both firemen, died on the same day and in the same manner! Pay-dirt, right? No. The original story specifically mentions a BLAZE. Lieutenant Hartz and Fireman Booth both drowned in the Ohio River.
To be on the safe side, I pulled the death certificates for all seven firemen from the HFD who were listed as dying in the line of duty, between 1901 and 1971, and confirmed those names listed on the WV Archives site with the actual Huntington Memorial--which listed Wheeler as dying AFTER the 1948 group.One gentleman was involved in a vehicle accident, but there were several other causes of death that seemed to be possible matches.
At this point, I realized that even though the death certificates listed a cause of death and address where the accident occurred, none of those addresses actually matched that of the fire station in question. Further, I had no idea what station number I was dealing with, or any other identification as to what station these men would have served at. I started trying to pull some obituaries, hoping for more information. Out of seven, only ONE obituary was easily found online, but it did start me in the right direction! The fireman who died was listed as serving at the Canda Hose Company. When I did an online search for that company, I didn't find much information, but did come across the 1910 Huntington Business directory, which listed not only the Canda Hose Company and its address...but listed among the stations at the time the VICTOR HOSE COMPANY No. 2, which had the SAME address as today's Prestera Renaissance building! Thank goodness for small victories, lol. Since the one man who had his obituary online had his company listed, I thought I could easily pinpoint ALL the firemen's home stations through their obituaries. Since this discovery came late at night, I had to wait awhile before I could get to the library and start going through old newspaper archives.
In the interim, I tried to find out some more information. There was a tiny blurb about the two firemen who drowned, so I knew there had to be a larger story about that one, and made a mental note of it. The City of Huntington Fire Department, where I found the memorial information, has an excellent history section, where I was able to learn exactly when the city of Huntington first developed a fire department, but more importantly, that the building in question was most likely built between 1900 and 1926 (probably close to 1903 when the Central City station, a very similar building, was built), and probably closed during the massive budget cuts and recon-structuring of the 1980s. I also found a short blurb that in 1907, the Victor Hose Company received a horse-drawn truck, lol. As of May 2012, I stumbled across an article from May of 1907 that this location was just now being looked at for a fire station...so I guess 1907 is the year?
The information on when the building was probably built came in handy, because when I tried to access the county assessor's website to pull up a summary and get the deed information to take to the courthouse, I could NOT find this property listed, lol. I searched for both the physical address, AND as using Prestera as the owner. I found that Prestera owns a lot of historic buildings in Cabell County, but out of all of them, not ONE matching Renaissance was found, so that was frustrating. Without that information, I would actually have to ASK for help at the court house when I went to do the title search, which would normally not be a problem, but honestly, I just didn't feel like it at the time, lol.
Anyway, at the first chance I got, I headed into Huntington to spend an afternoon at the library, poring over microfiche in order to pull the remaining obituaries for the fallen firemen, and also to print out any news stories that mentioned their deaths. I got some good information, including two major articles featuring the two firemen who drowned in the Ohio River, as well as a fire in 1901 who took the life of Fireman John Wright, and injured two others. I found information for every firefighter EXCEPT Jesse Hensley, who died in 1945. As of July 2012, I have found some additional information on Jesse Hensley, who died on April 8, 1945 from burns and suffocation as a result of a building fire at the former Arena Gardens when the roof collapsed on him. And, as a complete bewilderment to me, I still did not see information for all firemen concerning which station they served, including Jesse Hensley.
Due to clues, I was able to rule out most...and thought that maybe the two men who drowned could have possibly been from Victor Hose based on the station's proximity to the the site of the accident. However, the main problem was that they DROWNED...and the story specifically mentioned a blaze. John Wright, who died in 1901 had a story that seemed to fit the description, since there were two men who were also injured, yet survived. Unfortunately for this story, the newspaper article stated the two stations that were on the scene, and neither one was the Victor Hose, or anywhere near that part of town. Jesse Hensley remains a candidate until information can be discovered to rule him out.
Obviously, this is another case that is extremely frustrating! More recent employees of the center have come forward with their own tales, so I do believe that there is something going on here. Anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that fire stations can be pretty haunted places. You're dealing with a lot of high emotions, and high energies that can become trapped and replay themselves over and over. You're also dealing with men and women who routinely put their lives on the line in dedication to serving the public through their fire stations. That dedication has been known to be carried over even after the physical body is gone.
More recent stories from the center do take a little pressure off, though, lol. It seems that the entity is still believed to be a former fireman, but not necessarily more than one, lol. It is also believed that this fireman is a little more, antique, coming from the turn of the century as opposed to possibly being Jesse Hensley who died in 1945. Older is better, because it would support the idea that the injured was taken to the fire station as opposed to directly to the hospital, like we would assume would occur in more modern times. Therefore, it IS plausible that the building is older than I suspect, and perhaps, a fire man DID die, but for whatever reason, records were lost and he was not included on the memorial. It is also entirely plausible that this man did not technically die in the line of duty, and therefore, was not included in the memorial.
What I personally believe is that there is some death associated with a fireman at this location. With at least 70 years as a fire station, there are going to be deaths. I do believe that a dedicated fireman is still on duty, yet over the years, the story submitted to the WVGhosts website has been evolving with each retelling, as people try to fill in missing details and desperately try to make sense out of something that by its very nature shouldn't make sense.
I have a couple of leads that I will be following up on, but ask that anyone who has relevant information please contact me, as I would love to hear your stories and try to give a name to this man. If only one good thing comes from this research, it is that I definitely learned a LOT about Huntington's fire department history, and as our motto goes...we're telling Huntington's history, one ghost story at a time!
This post is dedicated to all the brave men and women who have served the Huntington Fire Department, past, present and future, but especially to the seven men who died in the line of duty.
Articles transcribed by Theresa:
More info on this location can be found in Theresa's Haunted Huntington, Volume I book!
The photo above was taken with Google Street View if you couldn't tell by the the arrow, lol.