Rutland marks 50-year anniversary of devastating fire

Published: Jan. 6, 2023 at 5:09 PM EST
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RUTLAND Vt. (WCAX) - Unnoticed for close to half a century, a reel from the Channel 3 archives captures the worst fire in Rutland’s history that took place 50 years ago this week.

The story now told through the eyes of a fireman, a photographer, and the mayor. “It looks like a bombed-out city in World War II, it was sad,” recalled Rutland Fireman Ray Mooney.

“When daylight broke, it was pretty devastating,” said Wilbur Marquis, a photographer.

“Something we have never seen before, certainly not in the middle of your own hometown,” said Rutland Mayor David Allaire, who was just 16 at the time.

The Berwick Hotel on the corner of Wales and Center Street had recently changed its name to the Town House and was under renovation. On January 7, 1973, at 12:07 Sunday morning, the fire call came in. Ray Mooney was a 25-year-old Rutland fireman. “The whistle stuck, it was blowing 45, Box 45, it got four toots out and on the fifth toot, it froze,” Mooney recalled.

The alarm woke up nearby residents and mobilized seven area fire departments to the inferno. “I see where the wall just fell out, there’s Chief Koltonski,” Mooney said, reviewing the old footage.

One of those hearing the whistle was Wilbur Marquis, an employee of Wilson Country Camera, just steps from the hotel. “I always like to give my friend Wilbur Marquis credit for getting the good pictures he did,” Mooney said.

“You can see how cold it was,” Marquis said, looking at footage from the day.

Reporter Joe Carroll: Did you go into the store and get film?

Wilbur Marquis: I did. I went in and got film.

He began to shoot away in living color. “Firemen all over the place, hoses all over the place,” Marquis recalled. “Firemen were getting iced up from the spray of their equipment.”

Reporter Joe Carroll: Were you surprised how big the fire was?

Wilbur Marquis: I was absolutely flabbergasted, yeah.

By morning. the full extent of the damage came to light. Along with the Berwick, the Mercury Building and scores of businesses on the ground floor of the two structures were gone. “A lot of retired people, pensioners, lived there, so they had a good idea of who was missing,” Mooney said. They would later find five people dead in the rubble.

There was never an official cause of the fire. If it hadn’t been for a firewall at Wilson Sports, a whole city block could have been wiped out.

That Sunday morning it seemed like half of Rutland was here, including me. I tagged along with my dad who brought his camera and took pictures. Like so many, he couldn’t believe what he was seeing.

“It was just like a giant ice castle amongst the ruins,” Allaire recalled. “Just really very eerie and scary and something I remember to this day. And now it’s 50 years later.”

A half-century later, the property still hasn’t been developed. The area, known as “the pit,” remains a parking lot.

Reporter Joe Carroll: Would you consider this a scar in the city, having it like this?

Ray Mooney: Well, after 50 years, I hate to say it, but gosh, you know, everyone else seems to rebuild.

Reporter Joe Carroll: Not to put the onus on you, but it’s your administration now. Why hasn’t it been developed in 50 years?

Mayor David Allaire: You know, that’s a great question. I’m not really 100% sure. You know, part of it was the ownership previous to the current ownership now.

There is some optimism. Belden Construction tells WCAX that they would like to build a hotel on that spot but warns it could be years. There is the potential of contaminated soil that would need to be removed.

Reporter Joe Carroll: So you think Rutland could support a downtown hotel?

Mayor David Allaire: Under the right circumstances, we could, they could. Yes.

But for now, it’s just memories for the people who lived it. “I don’t know where time goes, but it goes,” Mooney said.