In the wake of a Jan. 17 fire that destroyed her long-running Shirley's Tippy Canoe restaurant and lounge near Troutdale, Shirley Welton sounds determined to move forward and rebuild.
She also knows that whatever happens, she and the Tippy will never be quite the same.
"The walls were full of memorabilia, family, all the pictures of the kids growing up and things you used to do," she said. "It's the personal things that are hard. You can't replace those things."
Beyond the fixtures and the structure itself, the fire, which broke out in the early morning hours of Friday, Jan. 17, also claimed replaceable, yet beloved, elements of the business, including artwork and goldfish.
"A whole bunch of stuff," she said.
In an interview with The Outlook on Thursday, Feb. 6, Welton described feeling "empty."
"I work seven days a week. I love what I do. What the hell?" she said. "Now I get up and there's no place to go. It's not fun."
Property and objects aside, Welton, who in 2007 bought and completely refurbished the Tippy, at 28242 Historic Columbia River Highway, is grateful for loyal customers and employees who have supported her through this ordeal.
"I've been blessed with marvelous customers, the nicest people in the world," she said. "They've been so kind. I appreciate it."
Welton has lived across the Sandy River and downstream from the Tippy since 1964, the year she had her first-ever cocktail at what was then a rowdy dance hall and roadhouse.
Though still shocked and dazed by the fire that quickly consumed the two-story, wood-framed building — and whose origins investigators consider "suspicious" in nature (see separate story below) — Welton has already taken steps toward rebuilding.
As the Tippy was fully insured, the 82-year-old sees no insurmountable obstacles to getting back to business in the foreseeable future.
"I don't think there are any, really. Just time," she said. "I like what I do and am happy to do it. It's a beautiful spot."
Welton has already talked to Multnomah County officials regarding zoning and design regulations she needs to follow. As the property sits within the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, the Gorge Commission regulates structural changes she might consider, such as moving the building's footprint.
"The county has been very friendly to me," she said.
Talking with various officials and representatives from her insurance company has been largely pleasant, she noted, if depressing to meet near the charred rubble of her devastated building.
"I have nothing to complain about," she said. "I just have to look at that mess every day, and it just breaks my heart."
Welton said she has "no idea" what might have caused the fire, which Gresham Fire & Emergency Services and Corbett Fire District 14 investigators said started in the restaurant's second-floor office and storage area just before 5 a.m. on Jan. 17.
Corbett crews were first on scene, just after 5, and were soon joined by Gresham crews and several water tenders. A nearby hydrant, fed by the Corbett Water District, provided insufficient flow to quell the blaze, noted Corbett Fire Chief Dave Flood.
"All I know is, about 3 in the morning there was a call about the burglar alarm," Welton recalled. "(Multnomah County Sheriff's) deputies went out to see it and thought it was OK and left."
For Welton, everything changed sometime between 5 and 5:30 a.m.
"I was about to walk out the door and heard (on TV) 'the Columbia River Highway is closed.' I stopped and thought, 'What's going on?'"
Assuming there was a landslide blocking the road, she turned left from the Stark Street Bridge and got a shocking surprise from the ODOT crew member at the roadblock.
"I said, 'I have to get to my restaurant.' He said, 'Where's that?' And that's when I found out my (damn) restaurant was on fire. And that started a nightmare."
For Welton, the timing of the disaster was particularly unfortunate, given that she and six of her employees had just given the Tippy one of its periodic deep cleanings.
"Twice a year we close down for four days (and clean) from ceiling to floor. It had just been done the week before," she said. "What a lot of damn work for nothing. Oh my gosh."
Deja vu all over again
Welton's devotion to running a tight ship goes back to the mid-1960s. With her then-husband Sam, she started Sam's Hollywood Billiards in Northeast Portland's Hollywood District.
"My daughter-in-law has it now," Welton said. "It was lovely. I started it in 1964, then Sam died and I went to the beach and stayed 35 years."
Her coastal hospitality-based ventures — in Lincoln City and Newport — included The Town House, Sip and Sand and, finally, Shirley's On D Bay.
"The Town House was a fancy dinner house," she recalled. "When I bought it, it was kinda like the Tippy — a dump — so I renovated it."
Also like the Tippy, the Town House and later the Sip and Sand, caught fire.
"I put new heating and air conditioning in the Town House," she explained. "But they never took the old furnace out. It was still lit. (One time it) burned through the ceiling, and that was it."
She blamed the subsequent Sip and Sand fire on a heating-control malfunction.
"Again, these are old buildings. Old electrical things get fried," she said. "That stopped everything, but we still rebuilt."
The Tippy, Welton said, could conceivably come back to life within a year.
"Once I get all the permits and get everything going and they're OK'd, it could (get going) in a matter of months."
While waiting to hear the fire investigation results, Welton takes comfort in the support and encouragement she receives from friends, customers and employees.
"I have some lovely letters and things from customers," she said. "I started out when I was 21. People kind of follow along with you. It's like a family. It sounds corny, but it's true.
"It's a real good feeling," she added. "A lot of people don't have that opportunity."
* * *
The fire that destroyed the famous Shirley's Tippy Canoe on Jan. 17 near Troutdale has been labeled "suspicious in nature" by fire investigators, but the exact cause of the blaze has not been determined.
Corbett Fire District 14 responded to a report of a restaurant on fire at 28242 E. Historic Columbia River Highway on Jan. 17, with Gresham Fire and Clackamas County Fire District 1 also responding.
Upon arrival, firefighters found the Tippy Canoe, a two-story restaurant, with fire throughout the second floor and spaces between additions and remodels. The first floor had high heat and heavy black smoke to the floor.
The fire was quickly determined to be "defensive" in nature and crews applied water from the outside.
The restaurant and its contents were a total loss, with the combined loss likely exceeding $1 million, Corbett Fire reported.
"(The) fire cause determination started before the flames were fully extinguished with Gresham Fire Investigators taking the lead, and substantial help from Multnomah County Sheriff's Office detectives," Corbett Fire reported in a press release issued on Thursday, Feb. 6. "Corbett Fire sincerely appreciates the hard work of both agencies in this investigation.
The fire is still under active investigation and the cause is yet to be definitively determined. Investigators are calling the fire "suspicious in nature" due to several unusual circumstances that occurred in the days and hours leading up to the fire.
"We cannot disclose or discuss these circumstances but want to let the public know that we will work diligently to determine the cause of this fire," said Fire Chief Dave Flood in the press release. "There is no indication that the public should take extra precautions at this time."
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