The Most Lucky or the Least Lucky House in St. Paul?

© Jerry F. Couch

Jerry CouchNo, this isn’t a contest.  It’s the story of a building that experienced some calamitous events over the years.

The Vance building (its actual name was Riverside Café) was the only restaurant in its particular section of St. Paul to be continuously owned and operated by the same family throughout its years of existence.  It was built upon property purchased in 1921 by Garfield Vance just one month after the St. Paul Land Company began offering additional lots for sale adjacent to the town’s colloquially known “Western Front.”

When the Vance building was constructed, its neighbors on the other side of the highway [location of the present-day Oxbow Center] were three rowdy juke joints mostly patronized by local laborers.  HEREIN LIES A SEPARATE AND INTERESTING STORY:  One of these establishments was also a notorious whorehouse.  Its giddy presence so outraged members of the Womans Club of St. Paul that they marched off en masse to confront their businessmen husbands and order them to “Do something about that place.”

The husbands, some of whom served as elected officers of the town, capitulated rather than face the portentous wrath of the shadow government.  Some of these husbands were shareholders in the company that owned the buildings in question.  Ironic, huh?  In those days, wives often knew little about their husband’s business affairs, so it’s possible the good ladies weren’t aware of this.  Shortly afterwards, the whorehouse migrated to the more accommodating town of Norton and the three buildings were demolished.

Shown below is a ca. 1930 photo of the interior of the Vance building.  Pictured are Elizabeth “Lizzie” Vance (right) and her daughter, Ethel Vance [Branson].  The woman standing in the kitchen doorway at left is unidentified.  When this picture was taken, the Great Depression already held St. Paul firmly in its grip – and the worst was yet to come.

Elizabeth Vance and Ethel Vance Branson watermarked

During WWII, the country was on the move.  Trains and buses were packed with travelers and so were St. Paul’s restaurants.  By 1950, the prosperity had started to cool.  However, it revived in 1957 when construction began at Appalachian Power’s generation facility at Carbo.  The Vance building and other St. Paul restaurants had upstairs rooms to rent and filling them with construction worker boarders was no trouble at all.

Unfortunately, 1957 was also the year of a major flood on the Clinch River.  The floodwaters were high enough to enter the Vance building and its neighbors.  Here’s a picture of the Vance building (left) taken after the water began to recede, leaving behind mud, bacterial contamination, and debris.

Vance's Restaurant 1957

Unlike other towns in our area, St. Paul has never experienced a fire that wiped out an entire street or block.  In part, we have the St. Paul Volunteer Fire Department to thank for that fortunate circumstance.  In the days of solid fuel heating, fire was an ever-present danger.  Listed below are several businesses near the Vance building that were either damaged or destroyed by fire over the years:

Charlie Dean’s restaurant and service station (the last building to be constructed on the Western Front) was gutted by fire around 1950.  For many years, its burned-out shell remained standing a short distance from the Vance cafe.

Charlie Dean building ruins

February 1958 — Porter Auto Sales narrowly escaped destruction by a disastrous fire that also threatened nearby buildings.  Like the Vance building, Porter Auto Sales had sustained flood damage the previous year.

Porter Auto Sales Fire February 4, 1957 watermarked.jpg

January 1961 — “The Roost,” a popular eating (and drinking) establishment near the Vance building, was destroyed by fire.  The picture below was taken shortly before it burned.

Roost Burns

August 1973 — Tri-County Tire Service was destroyed by fire.  Burning tires created an inferno.  Firefighters were kept busy dousing neighboring buildings and extinguishing flaming debris that landed on roofs.  The Vance building is pictured at center.

NimoFilm_1441 Tri-County Tire fire

March 1989 — A large pile of used tires near the Vance building caught fire.  It, too, might have gone up in smoke had it not been for the quick and effective action of the St. Paul Volunteer Fire Department.  In the photo below, the Vance building (right) is illuminated by the flames.

Fire - March 1989 Vance Building.jpg

Other Perils

WRECK Sept 6, 1977

September 1977 — A runaway truck loaded with railroad ties came barreling down St. Paul Hill.  Unable to stop, and after hitting several cars, it struck the front of the Vance building broadside.   Though the accident involved several motorists, no one was killed.  Afterwards, the Vance building was repaired.

NOTE:  The wreck has been covered in detail on the CVT’s webpage.  If you haven’t already viewed the story, copy and paste this link in your browser:

September 11, 1981 [Transcribed from a Clinch Valley Times article] Five cars of a Clinchfield train traveling from Erwin, Tennessee to Shelby, Kentucky were derailed in an accident in St. Paul on Friday morning about 7:30.  The train, loaded with freight, was headed from the St. Paul depot toward Boody when the derailment occurred on the Clinchfield track directly behind the Vance residence on Rt. 58.

NimoFilm_4140 derailment - watermarked.jpg

According to Bob Thomas, Assistant Superintendent for Clinchfield Railroad, the cause of the accident has not yet been determined and is still under investigation.

Two boxcars and three gondolas were involved in the derailment.  One boxcar, evidently the first to encounter trouble, apparently ran perpendicular to the track, falling on its side on the adjacent N & W Railway track, then righting itself, but coming up with a section of N & W rail across its roof.  The boxcar carried rolls of newsprint, twelve of which were thrown from the car.

NimoFilm_4123 Watermarked.jpg

The second boxcar landed on its side on the sloping backyard of Mrs. Vance’s home, the same house which was heavily damaged in the front by a runaway truck in a highway accident four years ago.  The gondolas, loaded with what appeared to be gravel, were askew on the track.

By 2:30 p.m., a crew from Hulcher Emergency Service, Inc., Princeton, WV, arrived with heavy equipment to begin the job of clearing the area.  The crew, working with an almost delicate precision, righted the cars, positioned them on the tracks, replaced their wheels, and cut away damaged portions of the tracks themselves, replacing them with 39-foot prefabricated rail sections.  By 11:30 p.m. traffic was resumed on the two tracks.

Neither an estimate of damage nor the cost of the accident was available on Tuesday morning, according to Thomas.




I think the answer is “no.”  In fact, it may have been one of the luckiest houses in St. Paul.  Although fires destroyed its neighbors, the Vance cafe did not burn.  It provided space for a small business that generated income for the Vance family.  It was also a home where Mr. and Mrs. Vance could bring up their children – all of whom were good people.  Having escaped various perils while serving its occupants and customers well for nearly 70 years, the building was eventually demolished as part of the effort to flood-proof Riverside Drive.  The picture below was taken in 1989 during its final days.

Vance Building - last days

In 2019 the site once occupied by the Vance building is the Oxbow Center parking lot.  Nothing is so inevitable as change.

4 thoughts on “The Most Lucky or the Least Lucky House in St. Paul?

  1. Thanks Jerry Couch. Riverside Café was owned by my maternal grandparents – have many happy memories of time spent there.

  2. I inherited a China cabinet from my grandparents that used to sit in the house just behind the main cafe room. I have the same photo of Elizabeth and Ethel and it sits on top of the China cabinet in their honor. They were my great grandmother and my great great grandmother. Thank you for sharing more of the history!

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