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Grief, Worry for Island's Lost Anchors

Leonard Schultz, owner of Harbor Island Marina in the background, walks among the ruins of Bowen's Inn.
Leonard Schultz, owner of Harbor Island Marina in the background, walks among the ruins of Bowen's Inn. (Photos By James A. Parcell -- The Washington Post)
By William Wan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 17, 2006

For almost nine decades, Bowen's Inn has stood at the heart of Solomons Island. Oystermen drank their nights away there when the island was just a small hamlet. Officers filled the bar when it became a military base. Governors and movie stars breezed in and out. President Harry Truman once stopped by.

But yesterday, all that remained of the bar and restaurant was charred rubble. Workers stood staring at the blackened planks while traffic on the small island backed up throughout the day as locals stopped to pay their respects.

While residents reminisced and fire investigators sifted through debris, business leaders gathered for an emergency meeting, a day after a fire destroyed Bowen's and the Lighthouse Inn -- both business anchors on the small town's main strip.

Gathering outside the island limits, local leaders discussed the sudden loss of two businesses in Wednesday's fire, its economic impact just weeks before the start of tourist season and how to help the owners recover. Business consultants offered to advise the two restaurants' now-unemployed workers. Calvert County officials vowed to put construction permits on a fast track if the owners choose to rebuild.

"Let's face it, they were both very well-known local landmarks," said Linda Vassallo of Calvert's Department of Economic Development. "It may have some impact, but we're going to do everything we can to help put together a game plan.

"We don't want the general public to think the entire island burned down yesterday. People need to know the island is still open and ready for summer," Vassallo said.

Tourism is the lifeblood of Solomons. The small island has survived previous booms and busts -- first as an oyster hub, then as a military base -- before it was revived with the inter-county bridge in the late 1970s. Since then, it has become an upscale yacht community and a star attraction in Southern Maryland.

Bowen's Inn, built in 1918 as a small hotel by Mortimer Bowen, was passed on for three generations. During World War II, Bowen added a second floor to the bar -- the top floor for officers and the bottom for enlisted, workers said. For decades, famous figures pulled up to the bar's dock on pleasure boats for a sampling of its famous crab imperial.

All that disappeared Wednesday in the flames.

The fire, investigators think, began at Bowen's and quickly spread to the Lighthouse Inn, an apartment unit and two small pleasure boats on nearby docks. Deputy State Fire Marshal W. Faron Taylor increased the estimated damage yesterday from $2.5 million to $5 million.

"It's a tragedy and devastating to the owners, but Solomons will recover quickly from this," said Wesse Ranes, president of the Solomons Business Association. "The site will be completely cleared in coming days, and I don't think it should have an adverse effect on tourism."

Many say that the damage could have been much worse. At one point, flames seemed to threaten the Tiki Bar, an outdoor gathering spot whose opening in mid-April each year kicks off the tourist season and draws thousands to the island for a wild night of revelry.

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