Since March fire, an empty place in heart of Solomons


SOLOMONS -- The crowd is thick at the Tiki Bar with weekend visitors sipping margaritas. The museum is busy with children touching turtles and watching fish. Customers are flocking to Stoney's for its softball-size crab cakes. And most weekends, there is no more room at the inns.

But anyone who knows the place can see there's a hole in the heart of this Southern Maryland town.

Since that windy day almost four months ago when a fire destroyed two of Solomons' best-known landmarks, local hangout Bowen's Inn and its upscale neighbor, the Lighthouse Inn, folks here have been living with a void.

On an island full of nice restaurants and low-key bars, regulars pine for the taco night and karaoke concerts at Bowen's and the elegant atmosphere at the Lighthouse. In a place where waterfront cottages are rapidly becoming renovated second homes, people miss the everyone-knows-your-name feeling of two of the island's older businesses.

Bowen's, which had been open since 1918, was the last of the island's old-style inns. The late state Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein used to hold court there at a reserved table. As charter boat captain Bruno Vasta recalls: "He would come in, and he would carry on, and carry on, and carry on."

Gordon Thomas, a Solomons native who runs a charter boat, Miss Bobbie, sold oysters to Bowen's back when he worked the water. Sometimes, he said, he helped the cook steam them.

"That was Solomons' place," he said. "We used to go down there on weekends. They always had a cookout or something."

For Thomas and other residents of this town of 1,500, March 15 will go down in history as the day they almost lost the island.

The land was parched. Winds were gusting. Somebody - the Calvert County fire marshal's office says it has no idea who - dropped a cigarette on the ground. Within minutes, the two restaurants, their decks, a condominium complex, four boats and several piers were engulfed in flames.

Tugboats stationed in the Patuxent River to accompany the liquefied natural gas tankers helped the Fire Department douse the flames - a move that many here believe spared the rest of the island. Though the Coca-Cola sign advertising rooms for rent and the white boarding house remain, the hotel part of Bowen's is not fit for guests anymore.

Many people watching the television footage assumed that all of Solomons was lost.

"It really hurt us initially. They made it sound like the entire island had burned to the ground," said Helen Bauer, owner of Solomons' Victorian Inn. "We fielded dozens of calls from people saying, `We heard Solomons Island is gone.'"

But any hit to business owners' wallets was short-lived. Bauer's bed and breakfast was full that night, and it has been booked most weekends since. The island's two largest hotels, the Holiday Inn and the Comfort Inn, have been busy most weekends.

Thousands of people are expected to turn out for today's Fourth of July celebration, which will include fireworks over the Patuxent River. Crowds haven't let up at the island's Calvert Marine Museum, which opened its discovery touch-and-feel area last month and has held a series of packed concerts at its outdoor pavilion.

But at all of those places, customers still inquire about the two that aren't there anymore. They talk of anniversaries spent at the Lighthouse and ask what they can do to help.

It's an instinct Bauer said she and other business owners share.

"Never once did anyone on Solomons think, `Oh, this is going to have such an impact on tourism,'" she said. "It was just a terrible blow in the fact that these people were our friends and neighbors. Our hearts went out to them."

Neither Bowen's Inn owner Joan Simmons nor Lighthouse Inn owner Richard Fischer could be reached for comment. A banner on the forlorn site of the old Lighthouse Inn promises community support to Fischer if he rebuilds. But even if he does, the place could never be the same.

Fischer opened his restaurant 20 years ago, when the island was more small fishing village than weekend getaway. He hired craftsman Pepper Langley to create a wooden bar in the shape of an old skipjack hull. Langley died four years ago, and residents say that no one could replicate his work.

It was in front of that bar nine years ago that Paula Andreas took her dad on Father's Day to tell him that he would soon be a grandfather. For many years, the Charles County native took her mother there for her birthday. And last Mother's Day, Andreas, her sister-in-law and her mother-in-law celebrated with drinks on Bowen's deck, enjoying the stunning view.

Andreas said she was devastated when she heard about the fire. Even now, she said, "when you drive by, there's an emptiness."

The Lighthouse Inn might have been a romantic, expensive special-occasion place, but once a year it was open to everyone. For more than a decade, Fischer held a Thanksgiving dinner free for anyone who walked in his door - and hundreds did, from the needy to the just lonely.

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