Historic building goes up in flames

Diana Jorgenson
Staff Writer

The old Western Pacific Hospital burned to the ground last Wednesday, Sept. 7, at 1:30 a.m.

Incident Commander Travis Schiavone, fire chief for the Portola Volunteer Fire Department, deems the building a complete loss. Beckwourth Volunteer Fire Department and Eastern Plumas Rural Fire Protection District joined Portola in fighting the fire that encompassed all three structures comprising the old hospital.

Firefighting went on well into the following morning as heavy equipment was brought in to clear floorboards away from fire hidden beneath.

The Feather River Rail Society and the Western Pacific Railroad Museum of Portola, the owners of the property, are offering a $1,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person or people responsible for the blaze.

Frank Brehm, Feather River Rail Society director and fire marshal, made an official statement on their behalf: “The Feather River Rail Society suffered a huge loss on the morning of Sept. 7 when the fire department was called for a fire at the old WP Hospital site in Portola. Upon arrival of the first responding units they found the structure fully involved in fire. Although efforts were made to save some of the structure these efforts were in vain. The building is now a devastating loss.

“The cause of the blaze is suspected arson and an active investigation is ongoing. There will be no further details released until the investigation is completed. There are no suspects for this tragic act at this time.

“If you have any information please contact the Plumas County Sheriff’s Department at 283-6375 or CalFire Investigator John Berglund at 257-7360.”

The Feather River Rail Society had included the old hospital structures in future expansion plans for the museum. The building was believed to be one of the last remaining railroad hospitals in the United States and its historic preservation was of concern to the society.

Norman Holmes, one of the charter members of the rail society, expressed his sense of loss: “It’s a sad loss. We worked hard to preserve some history and it didn’t work out. We never had the wherewithal to do anything with it.”

See the accompanying sidebar for more on the history of the Western Pacific hospital.

David Epling, manager for the museum, said that not only was the loss of the building devastating, the cleanup after the fire was costing more money than the society had available. The society would appreciate the community’s financial help with debris removal. Call 832-4131 to lend a hand.

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