POINT PLEASANT, W.Va. — “This is going to be a real disaster. We’re going to lose an awful lot here today.”
These were the words of Jack Fowler as he described the moment he realized a fire that started in the third floor attic of the Point Pleasant River Museum and Learning Center on July 1, broke through the roof and would have a profound impact on himself, and the facility.
Fowler, the director of the museum, said that hot day this past summer, he was in the Bridge 1 pilothouse simulator with a couple visiting from Parkersburg and their children. When he began walking back to his office on the second floor, Ruth Fout, museum staff member, alerted him the fire alarm sounded. He simultaneously noticed the hanging light in the Jean-Ann pilothouse replica went off and quickly discerned the two were related. Fowler swiftly made his way to the pilothouse and just as he entered the door, fire literally broke through the top of the ceiling from the third floor, jetting out above his head.
“I knew then, we’ve got a problem,” Fowler said.
Around that time, local riverboat pilot Mark Kincaid, was traveling up the stairs from the first floor, grabbing a fire extinguisher and entering the pilothouse replica, the only place where the fire would break through to the second floor.
With Kincaid in the pilothouse, Fowler and staff immediately advised visitors in the building (estimated to be around 15 in number) to exit as Martha Fout, another staff member at the museum, called 911 for help. Ruth grabbed her belongings from her second floor office, noticing a soot-like material landing on her arms as she left. Fowler then pulled down the retractable stairs from the attic to allow firefighters access to the fire but when they arrived, Fowler said the smoke was already so thick, they would not be able to battle the fire from that vantage point. The fire would have to be fought pumping water onto the roof in an effort to save the building and contain the blaze.
Fowler guessed the fire had been burning for some time before it reached the point of breaking through the pilothouse ceiling and due to circular roof vents pulling the smoke out, no one smelled the smoke or knew what was happening in the 135-year old structure until the fire alarm sounded that July afternoon.
“Nineteen years working on that building and then to have it all just disappear like that…it was difficult to watch,” Fowler said about that fateful day.
The third floor attic in the museum contained Waterways Journals from 1923 to the mid-1980s, as well as other items in storage and once the flames hit those items, “it took off,” Fowler guessed, adding it appears the fire was electrical in nature.
“It was all afternoon before flames came through the roof…that’s when you realized that it’s not a little fire, it’s ruined,” Ruth said.
For Fowler, the building which housed the museum had been a part of his entire life, having been born two blocks away on First Street. As a child, his mother would take he and his brother to the building, then a grocery store, where he would get sticks of black licorice as a treat.
“That building has been a part of my life forever, so when we were able to restore it, I was really proud and happy with it,” he explained.
In what Fowler described as a heroic effort, though the losses were many, thanks to the efforts of the firefighters as well as volunteers helping to carry out the artifacts and exhibits in the moments and days after the fire, the loss wasn’t as severe as it could have been.
When it came to the helpless feeling of possibly losing all those items that day of the fire, Fowler said, “so many things that went through my mind that day…’can I get to it, can we get someone to it?’”
Volunteers filled pickup truck after pickup truck to get the items and materials out of the museum almost as soon as word spread about the fire.
“We didn’t even know some of the people,” Ruth said.
Many of the artifacts were taken to the City of Point Pleasant’s Youth Center to be cleaned.
“When I saw all the people there working to clean and salvage…that touched me,” Fowler said. “To know that many people really cared. It was amazing how they responded.”
This week, standing in a room full of those very items in their temporary home in the 200-block of Main Street, Fowler, Martha and Ruth said those people carrying out that material basically saved the museum that day because without the pieces, there is nothing to exhibit.
The museum is also known for connecting people to not only the past but the present. It has been about linking individuals in the form of finding relatives, finding boats named after loved ones, finding that old friend in a photograph and more, Ruth said.
“Its been one thing after the other and it continues on,” Ruth added. “I’m constantly telling people stories about how the river museum made a connection for someone that meant a lot to them.”
When asked whether or not they had gotten discouraged this year, Ruth said, “I remember that night (of the fire) telling Jack, ‘we can’t stop, we’re selling tickets (for the annual river cruise), we’ve got to go on. We can’t quit.’”
Then, after the cruise, it was the recent Christmas concert/fundraiser with Landau Murphy, Jr. and now they’ve already raised over $4,000 in prizes for the annual Shanty Boat Night for 2019.
“You don’t have time to stop and say ‘we can’t do that,’” Ruth said. “You just keep moving.”
Moving towards the goal of rebuilding the museum has recently gained steam with the City of Point Pleasant receiving its insurance settlement – the city owns the actual building.
“We are going to work as quick as we can to rebuild this treasured part of our river history,” Mayor Brian Billings said.
City Clerk Amber Tatterson reported after a $10,000 deductible and $207,000 going to Servpro, which is a fire and water cleanup and restoration franchise, the overall amount received to go towards rebuilding will be $1.8 million. This settlement is meant to finance engineering services, demolition of the old building and the rebuilding of a new, upgraded facility which meets current code requirements, as well as specifications in the city’s historic district. City Council will have to approve the various details of this process but this will be a joint-effort with the river museum, Tatterson stressed.
“The river museum is a big part of our community,” Tatterson said when explaining the city would work to put a new facility back in its original homeplace to pay homage to its historic significance.
Fowler said he’s anxious to begin work, and though there may’ve been times he was discouraged at this process, he is energized by the fact he’s done this before and has a plan to put it back together. He won’t be starting from square one. He’s done this before.
“It’s going to be an attractive museum when we put it all back together,” he said. “I just hope we can build something the community can be proud of.”
Though the city is working to get a building built, the museum and its supporters are working to fill it back up. As previously reported, in an effort to help with the interior restoration and to help with the replacement of equipment within the river museum building, the board of directors of the museum’s foundation have kicked off a $350,000 fundraising effort and representatives of Thomas Do It Center were the first to give a donation. The funds raised will not only help towards interior restoration and equipment replacement, but will also help with matching funds for various grants. Fowler explained the board of directors are preparing to submit several grants in the first quarter of 2019.
For those who wish to donate to this effort, they may contact the museum at 304-674-0144. Donations can be made by credit/debit card, cash, or by check. The Point Pleasant River Museum Foundation is a 501c3 organization, so any check donation can be used as a tax deduction.
For now, staff are making plans to move forward into 2019 with optimism. At its temporary home sits a replica of the Delta Queen. The Delta Queen, after being sent to pasture so to speak, has itself experienced a rebirth and its been reported it will cruise again, as will the river museum…so to speak.
When asked if he thinks there’s a purpose for everything, particularly the year the museum has had, Fowler said, “There’s a purpose. I don’t know what it is yet, but it’ll show.”
Beth Sergent is editor of Ohio Valley Publishing.