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Fire sinks the 'Ship,' U.S. 30 hotel-eatery

Saturday, October 27, 2001

By Tom Gibb, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

SCHELLSBURG, Pa. -- All day long yesterday, a stream of mourners was drawn to the wild mountaintop where U.S. Route 30 crosses from Bedford County to Somerset County.

Onlookers view the burned remains of the Ship of the Alleghenies restaurant in Bedford County yesterday. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette)

For 80 years, all but abandoned in its old age, the Ship of the Alleghenies stood here -- king of the roadside curiosities, a combination restaurant and hotel built to look like a ship riding the mountaintop, a melange of utterly American innocence and kitsch.

"It was probably the best-known roadside attraction in America," said Brian Butko, editor with the Sen. John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center and author of "Pennsylvania Traveler's Guide: The Lincoln Highway."

Yesterday morning, the ship went down, swallowed by flames that were hopelessly beyond taming by the time the first firefighters raced to this sparsely settled mountaintop.

It was 2:30 in the morning.

"But the ball of flame -- from a distance, it looked like the sun was coming up," said Lt. David Hershberger of the Shawnee Valley Volunteer Fire Co.

The place had its own orchestra once. The china bore the hotel's name and likeness. There was a marble soda fountain as long as the dining room.

In the early 1930s, when Route 30, the Lincoln Highway, was the mid-Atlantic's way west, the likes of Greta Garbo and Henry Ford stopped here. Tom Mix dropped by with his horse.

By first light yesterday, it was wreckage -- gnarled beams, toasted wood, a bathtub one place, twisted railings from the rooftop lookout somewhere else -- crashed 100 feet down the mountainside.

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)

The owner, a neighbor, kept a light and television on inside to ward off intruders, Hershberger said. State police Fire Marshal Michael Eppolito said it probably would be this afternoon before smoke and heat died enough to let him hunt a cause.

"I'm upset. It's such a landmark," said Clara Gardner of Bedford, born in the Ship 80 years ago and now the last surviving descendant of Dutch-born grandfather Herbert Paulson, the man who began with a mountaintop hot dog stand, replaced it with a hotel built to resemble a castle, then fashioned that into the Ship.

"It's going to break some people's hearts to know it's gone," Butko said.

The remembrances were in progress on the mountaintop yesterday.

There was 86-year-old Bob Zembower of Bedford, recounting how the Ship promised a rooftop view of three states and seven counties, and Pat Bonus of nearby Central City, recounting how her mother worked here when it opened and how her own senior class banquet was staged here 43 years ago.

The Ship was born to an era when attention-hungry entrepreneurs lined the Lincoln Highway with such curiosities.

"It just filled everyone with awe -- a ship on a mountain," said Olga Herbert, executive director of the nonprofit Lincoln Highway Heritage Corridor.

Twenty-three years ago, current owners Jack and Mary Loya bought the place for $70,000, renamed it Noah's Ark, tried renovations and found what owners of the Lincoln Highway's lost roadside treasures learned before them -- that traffic had passed the road by.

Fifteen years ago, the place went idle. And preservationists at the Lincoln Highway Heritage Corridor hit an impasse in a bid to buy the place -- offering the $40,000 an appraiser suggested, while the Loyas demanded $900,000.

What might be left, Herbert said, is to erect historical markers telling the story of the Ship and showing its photos. But the real thing is now rubble.

"It really hurt to see it go downhill," said Jean Blackburn, a one-time Ship employee who stayed away yesterday. "But I don't know how I'll feel when I go by and it's not there at all."

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