The week when Dave Waterman, 26, was scheduled to open Top of the Hill Bar and Grill in the town of Johnstown, was the same week in 2020 when bars and restaurants in New York state were forced to shut down because of the pandemic. Still, the young owner said he wasn’t deterred. He waited a full year, finally opening Top of the Hill in the spring of 2021.
And things were going well. In June, Waterman, who also owns his own construction business, renovated the exterior of the building, which had once been the Rockwood Tavern. And last week the bar, which has more than 2,000 likes on Facebook, hosted one of its biggest events yet: a Halloween party with about 50 or 60 people — not an insignificant turnout for a hometown bar in upstate New York.
“It was crazy. We had a lot of people,” said Top of the Hill’s only bartender, Katelyn Kwiatkowski. The 22-year-old is also Waterman’s girlfriend. She said people danced and put great effort into their costumes. One guy dressed as Old Spice deodorant; another guy as a bag of Wonder Bread. Kwiatkowski and Waterman wore matching cowboy and cowgirl outfits. And even though it was difficult keeping up with all the food and drink orders — Waterman is also Top of the Hill’s cook — Kwiatkowski said, “It was one of our best nights.”
Six nights later, on Thursday, November 4, Top of the Hill, at 4700 State Highway 29, experienced a fire that destroyed its kitchen and damaged the bar area, according to Fulton County Emergency Management Director Steven Santa Maria. No one was hurt, and the cause remains under investigation by the county’s investigative team, but the Top of the Hill fire followed a catastrophic fire that destroyed another beloved Fulton County business earlier in the week.
That fire on Sunday completely leveled Colonial Overhead Doors, on State Route 67 in the town of Johnstown, which had been open since 1989. The property owner Michael McGregor said news of the fire made him sick to his stomach.
The Top of the Hill fire, just an 8-minute drive from the site of Colonial Overhead Doors, was just as heartbreaking.
“It’s just unfortunate for the area,” Santa Maria said. “Let’s face it, times are not 100% great right now. We’re still reeling from the pandemic a little bit, so for a person to start up a business and try to build something in Fulton County, that’s a marvelous thing.”
To see two Fulton County businesses severely impacted by fires in a week?
“It’s always devastating,” Santa Maria said. “They are putting their necks on the line trying to make a go of things, and they want to be involved in the community. It’s always tough.”
The night of the fire was surreal for Kwiatkowski and Waterman. They’d been at the bar just an hour before they got word of flames, Waterman said. It’d been a slow night, as many weeknights are, so they’d closed at about 9 p.m.
Fulton County Office of Emergency and Fire Deputy Sheriff Christopher Ortlieb discovered the fire at about 10 p.m. when he saw smoke and flames coming from the back of the building, according to Steven Santa Maria. Ortlieb walked around the building to assess the extent of the fire and to see if anyone was inside. Thankfully, nobody was.
Ortlieb reported the fire to the Fulton County 911 Dispatch Center, which promptly sent the Rockwood-Garoga-Lassellsville Station (RGL) Volunteer Fire Company to the scene. The RGL Fire Department responded under the direction of RGL Fire Chief and Fulton County EMS Coordinator Mark Souza, according to Santa Maria. Deputy Fire Coordinator Ralph Palcovic was next to arrive on the scene and reported heavy fire in the rear of the building, where the kitchen was, with flames through the roof in that same area, Santa Maria said. Palcovic immediately requested the Ephratah Volunteer Fire Company to the scene with manpower and equipment, according to Santa Maria. Seconds later RGL Chief Souza arrived and immediately requested additional resources from the Caroga Lake Volunteer Fire Company to the scene. Several more units eventually joined the fight, according to Santa Maria.
While all this was happening, Waterman and Kwiatkowski were getting calls about the fire from friends. The couple raced back from Fort Plain. The 25-minute drive had never felt so long, Kwiatkowski said.
When they got back to the bar they didn’t see flames, just heavy smoke and lots of flashing lights.
“My heart sank. I felt like throwing up. I was just heartbroken,” Kwiatkowski said.
Waterman said, “it took a toll. Honestly, we’re still kind of grasping it.”
The flames had been quickly snuffed out because of fast action and sound tactics, Santa Maria said, with crews entering the building from the unburned front portion and working their way toward the kitchen in the back.
“As soon as crews got there, they went to work. The guys did a phenomenal job. Really the fire never progressed any further than it was when they arrived. They did all the right things. They attacked it from the right side,” Santa Maria said. “They went in and went after it.”
Firefighters climbed into the attic to fight fire that had spread up there, and they remained on the scene until about 3:15 a.m., extinguishing hot spots, ventilating the building and providing support to the investigation, according to Santa Maria. The fire is believed to have started in the kitchen, he said.
The building’s kitchen, rear and attic space were severely damaged, but the rest of the building only sustained heat, smoke and water damage.
“The kitchen area sustained the most damage. The bar area got some smoke and some heat damage,” Santa Maria said. “It’s going to be kind of what the insurance company and the owners decide to do. I think it could be saved, but sometimes it’s cheaper to start over.”
Though Waterman said, “It’s a pretty good mess,” he also said the plan is to rebuild with the help of insurance.
If and when that occurs and Top of the Hill finally reopens, Kwiatkowski said her heart will be mended.
“That piece that broke last night will almost be healed because we’ll be able to do what we like doing once again,” she said. “We’ll be happy that we can do it again and see everybody’s faces again. That piece will almost be filled.”
Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] or at 518-417-9338.
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