Life At The Top

December 27, 1992|By LISA WISEMAN

BLUE RIDGE SUMMIT, PA. — People always return to Blue Ridge Summit. They come at first because they need to leave the civilized world for a day or two. They return because they find something special here.

The town sits 2,000 feet above sea level and straddles the Maryland/Pennsylvania line at Frederick and Washington counties. Once you're in town, follow the winding Buena Vista Road to the top of the mountain and you'll find only a few homes, a small chapel, a winding stone wall, an open field and some of the most breathtaking scenery you've spied in some time. You'll recognize the place when you get there. You've seen it before in your daydreams.

Blue Ridge Summit is bordered by the Appalachian Trail and lies within the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains (from this vantage point, you can see why they are called blue).

It is the quiet beauty of this town that has brought visitors to Blue Ridge Summit since the turn of the century.

Around that time a grand hotel was built -- the Buena Vista Springs. It was an L-shaped building with a 15-foot-wide porch bordering the front. A tower sat at each of its two far-most ends.

Inside, the hotel was lavish -- 178 guest rooms, a ballroom, an auditorium, two parlors, a bowling alley, barbershop, post office, billiard room, and a dining room big enough to seat everyone. There were also tennis courts, a 50-carriage garage and a nine-hole golf course.

The Buena Vista Springs was a retreat for the rich, the aristocratic and foreign dignitaries. Ambassadors from Yugoslavia, Spain, China and Japan stayed there.

Mary Peiffer, a lifelong resident of Blue Ridge Summit, remembers playing with the ambassadors' children when she was a child. Her grandfather, William Elias Harbaugh, was the hotel's original caretaker.

Mrs. Peiffer and her husband of 50 years, Robert, have kept a scrapbook of the hotel's history. Inside are snapshots and menus dating to the early 1900s, travel brochures, a room key and postcards.

But such a grand hotel couldn't survive the Great Depression, and in 1931, the hotel was sold to the Jesuits to be used as a retreat house. The setting was a perfect place for spiritual reflection.

"It was truly a wonderful place," Mrs. Peiffer says. Her husband adds, "It was a shame to see it go."

On Dec. 8, 1967, what was once the largest all-wood structure on the East Coast burned to the ground.

The Peiffers' home sat across the lawn from the hotel property. Their dog, Taffy, was first to discover the fire around 5 a.m.

"The dog started to bark and whine," Mrs. Peiffer remembers. "I looked to see what was wrong, and all I could see was this . . . light."

Word spread quickly, and the community gathered and watched as the once-majestic hotel burned. To this day, the cause of the fire is unknown.

Only the chapel and a few homes and cottages remain from the time the hotel was built. Some of the cottages are part of the Bellermine Retreat center, and are still used today by Jesuits and Catholic schools and youth groups. What was once a retreat for the rich is now a retreat for one's soul.

Like most visitors on retreat at Blue Ridge Summit, I decide to take the 5-mile hike along the section of the Appalachian Trail that's right off Buena Vista Road.

Content to just listen to the sounds of leaves shuffling beneath my feet, I rarely speak to my hiking companion as we make our way up the mountain. I continue uphill, and take in deep lungfuls of air. When I reach the end of the trail, I see an eight-story fire tower perched on the top of the mountain.

Not one to pass up an incredible view, up the steps I go. On the way, I try not to look down. Instead, I read the names of those who have made this trip before. "James, Ron & Chris '72," "Michelle + Joe Together 4ever '85." When I reach the top I lean against the railing and look out at the rolling hills and mountains before me. Little homes and church steeples dot the landscape. Right now, the leaves are still changing colors; each a different shade of orange, amber and crimson. To the west I see an eagle soaring -- its left wing sweeps the ceiling of the sky.

I know I'll be back.

NOTES FROM THE SUMMIT

Souvenirs from the hotel: Just about everyone who lives in Blue Ridge Summit has something that belonged to the hotel. Residents have held onto glasses, dishes, menus, water bottles, a laundry basket, even the flags from the golf course.

Why there is a stone wall running alongside the road: A pastor in the area did some missionary work in China. He was so impressed with the culture there, that when he returned, he decided to build his own Great Wall in Blue Ridge Summit.

The Springs: The hotel is named after natural springs in Blue Ridge Summit. Summit spring water, promoted as almost completely free of contaminants, was bottled for sale and reached markets as far away as Baltimore.

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