Volunteer firefighters from eight companies shared memories of fighting a series of arsons 40 years ago at Friendship Hill National Historic Site in Springhill Township during a recent tribute hosted by the National Park Service.
“It was tiring, hot. That time of year made it bad,’’ said Gary Ganoe, Point Marion fire chief.
Fire struck Friendship Hill three days out of four the summer of 1979. The first hit about 5 p.m. Friday, June 29, damaging portions of the roof of the brick and frame sections of the mansion built by Albert Gallatin, Secretary of the Treasury under Presidents Jefferson and Madison.
“I just remember how much fire there was in the building and the amount of effort it took to ventilate the building and put the structure out because the fire had progressed quite a bit before we arrived,’’ said Dan Rockwell, then- assistant chief for Smithfield.
Bernie Townsend, of Masontown VFD, said, “We got called here three different times. It’s Point Marion’s area but us and Smithfield always went with them. The water supply here – there wasn’t any – so that’s the reason we called the other trucks. We used them for tankers.''
Bob Swanger, of Point Marion VFD, said, “To this day, I can still remember how committed all those hose teams were.''
Around 10 p.m., Sunday, July 1, a second fire destroyed the gardener’s cottage. The third broke out Monday morning, July 2, gutting the mansion's kitchen and spreading to the roof of the state dining room and servants wing.
“Despite being severely damaged, the Gallatin House still stood after the fires thanks to the efforts of the 100-plus volunteer firefighters,'' announced park ranger Hilary Miller, naming the companies as Point Marion, Smithfield, Haydentown, Fairchance, McClellandtown, Masontown, Collier and Edenborn.
Miller, whose father and uncle were among the firefighters, said, “Today, we’re here to recognize the efforts of those firefighters and thank them for their service.’’
James Tomasek, park ranger, explained Friendship Hill was in transition from private property to a national park when the fires hit. Legislation passed in November 1978 and the park service began leasing the property in Spring 1979 from Sherwood Martin, widower of Evelyn Martin, whose grandfather was coal baron J.V. Thompson. The official changing of hands took place January 1980.
Tomasek this past winter went through newspaper articles and photographs about the fire long ago donated by Edna Phillips, who worked for the Martins and was a founding member of the Friendship Hill Association. Realizing it was the 40th anniversary of the fires, the park service decided to host the July 14 tribute, co-sponsored by FHA, the park’s friends group.
“I love the park, love the house, love the history,'' said Laurel Miller, FHA board member, who was in high school when the fires struck. "It’s near and dear to my heart and I appreciate firefighters all over the county.''
Firefighters used the event as a reunion, bringing firetrucks and posing for photos. They helped identify people in the historic photographs and signed up to give oral histories.
"It’s kind of nice to come back and see you contributed to the preservation of the mansion,'' said Rockwell. "Without all the volunteer fire companies, this wouldn’t be here today.’’
“We don’t expect any recognition but when you get it, it’s nice,'' commented Townsend, noting volunteers train and do fundraising in addition to answering calls as their ranks grow thinner. "I’ve always looked at it as a calling. I think most of us do.’’