SOLOMONS -- The locals came out to mourn yesterday for a Southern Maryland era that died in a windswept blaze.
Two favorite Solomons Island haunts were destroyed Wednesday by fire, the Lighthouse Inn and Bowen's Inn. The former was known for its unique skipjack-boat bar, the latter for its live bands and cheap beer. Both restaurants were burned beyond saving in a matter of minutes after a discarded cigarette butt is believed to have sparked a fire that spread from dry grass to tanks of propane gas and underground lines of natural gas.
"That's what we're going with ... but it's still very early in the investigation," said Deputy State Fire Marshal John Tennyson, who did not know yesterday who dropped the lit cigarette. "There's no indication that it was arson."
In the time it took a Miller's beer distributor to climb into his truck after delivering stock to both bars and drive across the road to the Solomons Island pier, Bowen's was engulfed in flames stoked by blustery northwest winds. Bowen's 63-year-old owner Joan Simmons, who works late, sleeps late and lives above the bar, was awakened by someone screaming her name and escaped unharmed, said Jimmy Tesh, a family friend who rents a room in the adjoining Bowen's hotel.
Tennyson said the fire started between Bowen's and the Lighthouse, then spread quickly. By the time firefighters from four counties responded at 12:36 p.m. Wednesday, both places were already destroyed, said James Lazaro, a chef who has worked at Bowen's for nine years.
Firefighters contained the blaze, except for some embers that blew across a field and burned brush and a boat docked landside, said Calvert County Public Safety Director Robert Hampshire. Damage was estimated at $5 million.
Yesterday, Tracey Cooke, who until recently worked at the Lighthouse Inn, stood several feet from the indiscernible piles of charred rubble and choked back tears. "It's hard to believe; one day it's here, the next it's gone," she said. "A lot of people lost jobs."
The Solomons Business Association met yesterday with Calvert County officials at another island favorite, the Naughty Gull restaurant, to discuss ways to expedite permits for rebuilding the restaurant-bars and to find ways to lessen the impact for dozens of affected employees, perhaps as many as 50, said association President Wesse C. Ranes III.
With the busy spring-summer tourist season approaching, Ranes said the island's 15 or so other restaurants would likely bolster their staffs and could hire some of the Lighthouse and Bowen employees. By yesterday morning, Bowen's chef Lazaro, 49, had already lined up a job at Neptune's Beach Club, three miles away in St. Mary's County.
"The damage was severe, but as dramatic as the pictures looked on TV, it was severe only to those two businesses," Ranes said. "The businesses around them have not been adversely affected. This is not a Solomons-wide impact. People will still come down and do what they normally do."
Whether the two restaurants will be rebuilt was unclear yesterday. Tesh said he is trying to persuade Simmons to give up the business. "Knock it down, get on with your life," he said he told her. "You're 63."
There isn't much left to knock down. Although Bowen's adjoining 12-room hotel escaped mostly with water damage, the restaurant and bar were total losses. Last night would have been all-you-can-eat taco night with beer specials. It would have featured an open mike for local musicians except, as Lazaro said, "Our piano ain't no good no more." Sitting in the sun was Bowen's 100-year-old upright, burned almost beyond recognition.
Lighthouse owner Richard H. Fischer Jr. told Ranes and others that even if he rebuilds, he can't possibly duplicate the signature skipjack bar, which was designed and built by local master craftsman James Leroy "Pepper" Langley, who died four years ago. Built with mahogany and teak and one-third the size of an actual skipjack boat, it took six months to construct, said Langley's 59-year-old son, Jim, a craftsman who helped design and build it.
During the construction of the Lighthouse two decades ago, Langley said Fischer was painstaking in his oversight, hand-picking every piece of wood. Last night, Fischer's wife, Susan, said it was "way too early to say" whether they would rebuild.
"You really just can't replace something like that," Langley said yesterday, standing in the parking lot and staring into a void.
Last Friday, he had proposed to girlfriend Melissia Damon, belly up to the skipjack bar with two cold bottles of Coors and a crowd of regulars.
"This is where all the locals went. It's where everyone knew your name," Langley said. "You know, it was just like Cheers."