HUNTINGTON — The town of Huntington is in mourning this week.
The sadness came over the community of 440 after a fire swept through the downtown business district Thursday night, destroying iconic buildings that have been a point of pride for Huntington residents since they were constructed in 1890.
The loss of the three-story brick building that housed Howell’s Cafe and the Streamliner Lounge and the adjoining building that housed Grady’s Tavern has left community residents stunned.
Nearly everyone in the town, near the Snake River about 45 miles southeast of Baker City, seems to have fond memories of time spent in the buildings.
Mayor Richard Cummings, 76, who originally moved to Huntington with his family in 1949, said the buildings were always part of the town.
“The buildings were (Thursday) like they were then,” he said. “They stood the times.”
Cummings recalled how members of his Class of 1961 at Huntington High School would gather at Howell’s Cafe after games for a hamburger and Coke.
“All through high school — that was great,” he said.
Later on, the Streamliner Lounge was the place to be when a band would play for a dance through the night.
Although Cummings moved away for a time, he and his wife, Susie, returned to Huntington to raise their family.
“Our kids went to school and graduated here,” he said.
The effort that brought firefighting volunteers and paid staff from neighboring communities to Huntington Thursday night also has left Cummings, as well as longtime Fire Chief Eric Bronson, struggling to express their level of appreciation for the all-night effort put forth on their behalf.
Twenty firefighters from Fruitland, Weiser, Ontario, Baker Rural, Haines and North Powder responded to join the two Huntington volunteers, including Bronson, as they worked to douse the flames. Another 10 helped with mop-up and two paramedics stood by in case they were needed. No one was injured as they worked overnight to contain the blaze.
The Huntington Fire Department has just six volunteers, and four were unavailable Thursday night, Bronson said.
“There’s no end to the amount of praise these people deserve,” Cummings said of the firefighters. “They stayed to the end. Nobody gav e up and left. They were very, very tired, but they hung in there.”
The building that was the longtime home of Howell’s Cafe and the Streamliner Lounge was constructed as the Oregon Commercial Company in 1890. It was added to the National Register for Historic Places in 1992. The building was converted from a store to the cafe and lounge after a Mr. Howell bought the building in the 1930s, according to documents filed in the National Register application.
The lounge also included a section known as “the banquet room,” and that is where the fire was started, Bronson said Tuesday.
Bronson, 57, said the door of the banquet room had been kicked in and black smok e was pouring out of it when he arrived.
The fire chief lives about a block east of the fire station, which sits just behind the fire scene.
“I had a hard time making it from my house to here,” Bronson said Tuesday during an interview in Cummings’ office at City Hall.
Thick smoke that was being pushed around by the wind that night blocked Bronson’s view.
Investigators have determined the fire was intentionally set.
“It was definitely arson,” Bronson said, although further details will be released after the ongoing investigation is completed, he said.
Raynmon Garcia, 22, was arrested at 11:48 p.m. Thursday in Huntington. He was charged with first-degree arson. The Baker County Grand Jury is reviewing evidence against Garcia.
Bronson said Garcia had been in Huntington for a couple of years. He moved with his mom and other family members from the California/Nevada area, Bronson said.
Neither Bronson nor Cummings knows Garcia personally, noting that the community has changed over the years.
“In the past you knew people in town,” Bronson said. “Then they moved or passed away. Now I don’t know half of these people.”
Marlee Garhart, 29, a lifelong Huntington resident, said she was acquainted with Garcia and had communicated with him some on Facebook.
“He was always nice to me,” she said.
As far as she is concerned, however, their friendship ended when she learned that Garcia allegedly had threatened to burn Grady’s Tavern earlier on the night the fire s tarted.
Mike Wiley had clos ed his Streamliner Lounge about a year and a half ago and he closed Howell’s Cafe about eight months ago, Cummings said.
“There was no power and no gas to the building,” Bronson said. “How else is it going to start?”
The banquet room’s front window traditionally had been used to announce community events and to post the results of the annual Memorial Day Catfish Derby.
The event took place as usual, but afterward, Garhart said she didn’t know where to find the results.
“Now I don’t even know where to look for the winners,” Garhart said. “I feel like my childhood has burned down,” she said, as she walked around the site of the demolished buildings, strolling her 9-month-old daughter, Arya, along the way.
“It’s home. It’s the face of Huntington. We’re not even a town anymore,” Garhart said as she grieved the loss of the historic structures.
“It’s not going to be the same without them,” she said.
Howell’s Cafe and the Streamliner Lounge were not insured, Bronson said.
The owners of Grady’s Tavern, Lillian and Tim Mathews, did have insurance on their property and they intend to rebuild, the couple said Tuesday.
“We’re trying to do something to get the business going now while we rebuild,” Lillian Mathews, 52, said while finishing work at her other job as head cook for the Huntington School District.
“We’re going to get going again,” said Tim Mathews, 64.
Grady’s Tavern was well-stocked for the Memorial Day Weekend Catfish Tournament, a Huntington tradition.
“The freezers were full, the cooler was full --— it’s the weekend everybody waits for,” Lillian said.
A bartender working that night closed up at 10 p.m. and put money from the day’s earnings in the fireproof safe.
The Mathews family learned about the fire at about 11:57 p.m. Thursday. Lillian recalled that she had just checked the five remote security surveillance video cameras from her home at 10:27 p.m. before going to bed that ni ght.
“It was perfect,” she said. “Nothing was wr ong. I went to bed and at 11:57 w e got the phone call.”
Scanning through photos on her cellphone Tuesday, Lillian has image s that show Grady’s Tavern was unharmed when she first arrived.
See more in the May 29, 2019, issue of the Baker City Herald.