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The Ship to rise again -- in miniature

Tuesday, April 23, 2002

By Tom Gibb, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The Ship of the Alleghenies, once the most conspicuous of roadside curiosities, is making a comeback -- albeit in compact form.

In this 1998 photo of the Ship of the Alleghenies restaurant, former employee Jean Blackburn displays an old postcard and plate from the 79-year-old business. (John Beale, Post-Gazette)

A meld of hotel and restaurant fashioned to look like a ship, it was a stopover for the likes of Tom Mix and Greta Garbo and an example of the kind of chutzpah showmanship with which 1930s entrepreneurs lured motorists off Route 30, the Lincoln Highway. For seven decades, even abandoned in its dotage, The Ship rode the lonely Bedford County crest of the Allegheny front.

Then, on a cold night six months ago this Friday, it went up in flames -- history turned to tinder, feeding an inferno that left only broiled remains sinking down a hillside.

A state police fire inspector has made no ruling on the cause or offered much detail beyond that.

The nonprofit Lincoln Highway Heritage Corridor, Greensburg-based guardians of the roadway's mid-Pennsylvania legacy, wasn't about to let folks forget The Ship. So around this time next year, they expect to have a two-dimensional, 12-foot-long replica of the hotel -- maybe a tenth the size of the original -- as it looked in its heyday, when it hosted dances and slept 49.

Historical markers will go up, explaining how The Ship evolved -- and died. And the heritage agency plans to install telescopes, a nod to the hoteliers' enticement, emblazoned on the side of The Ship: "See 3 States and 7 Counties."

Consider it a requiem to a piece that Pittsburgh author and historian Brian Butko said at the time of the fire was "probably the best-known roadside attraction in America."

"I think this is wonderful," said Bedford resident Clara Gardner, granddaughter of the businessman who launched The Ship and who was born in the building in 1931, a year before it officially opened. "It's something that everybody will remember."

Olga Herbert, executive director of the Lincoln Highway Heritage Corridor, said that the project, cost yet unknown, will be the largest piece of a multiyear effort to install historical markers and bits of celebration along the Lincoln Highway route, from Westmoreland County through Adams County, about 180 miles.

The project will start with a mural in Everett, Bedford County, and include attractions from Gettysburg to Idlewild Park and beyond.

Back at The Ship, though, the people preserving history won't be able to say what caused the fire, at least for now.

State police Fire Marshal Michael Eppolito won't say if there's a link between the blaze and fires that claimed at least one other unoccupied building in the area last year.

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