Like the South proclaimed after the Civil War, St. Clair Historical Museum President Carol Radford said, “We will rise again!”
Radford made her statement about 12 hours after a two-alarm fire swept through the museum, 280 Hibbard St., and destroyed the building and the majority of its contents Sunday night. Firefighters first were called to the scene at about 9 p.m. and found heavy smoke and fire pouring out of the building.
St. Clair House 1, 470 E. North St., is located about a block from the museum. Firefighters working the Sunday night shift could see the smoke and fire from the back door of their facility as the calls were being dispatched and they prepared to go to the scene, Chief Les Crews said.
They arrived within a minute or two and began fighting the fire. Other St. Clair crews and fire personnel from other districts also arrived as quickly as possible.
“I’m still shell-shocked,” Radford told The Missourian on Monday morning. “It’s now just starting to hit me what has happened. We lost a lot of irreplaceable items — things that never can be replaced.
“But just like the South, we will rise again.”
The building was razed late Monday afternoon for safety reasons.
Crews said the fire appeared to be accidental and electrical in nature. An investigation continues.
Franklin County Arson Investigator Jim Schuhmacher told The Missourian on Monday afternoon that the fire, indeed, was electrical.
“It looks like it started between the first and second floor in the middle of the building in a void between the floors,” he said. “It was an electrical ballast light fixture. There is nothing suspicious about the fire.”
Schuhmacher also said the fire could have burned for quite a while before being detected, and that’s probably a reason the damage was so extensive.
The museum was housed in a 100-plus-year-old building.
No one was inside the museum when the fire started, and there were no injuries. As news of the blaze spread and more and more fire crews arrived, St. Clair residents and passersby gathered at the scene.
“The first call went out at about 9 p.m. for heavy fire,” Crews told The Missourian. “The second alarm was called right away because we knew we had a large fire in the building.”
Firefighters initially saw fire lapping from the upper-floor windows on the south side of the building. After they tried to knock the flames down there, personnel entered the structure from the main entrance.
However, by that time, there was so much smoke and fire inside that the firefighters had to exit the building.
“The heat and smoke was just too intense,” Crews said. “And we also were concerned with the heavy fire upstairs about a roof and ceiling collapse as well as the (main level) floor beneath.”
Shortly thereafter, flames were visible from all four sides of the building as well as through the roof. Flames reached several feet in the air on the back side of the structure during the height of the fire.
People at the scene said they could see flames and smoke from several blocks away.
Two snorkel trucks were used to help battle the blaze.
It took about 2 1/2 hours to bring the fire under control. Firefighters remained on the scene at least another couple of hours after that for cleanup and salvage.
Fire crews returned Monday to continue cleanup work.
“Early this morning, we were able to pull a lot of stuff from the first floor,” Radford said on Monday, adding that some displays that were housed in glass casings may be able to be saved.
“But I’d say the top floor is a total loss. It will take us a few days to sift through everything to see what we have.”
Among the possible surviving items, however, was the St. Clair diorama that showed the city as it looked in 1917. It was inside a glass casing on the bottom floor.
“That may have survived,” Radford said. “I sure hope so.”
Radford said a pair of file cabinets that contained some of the city’s vital historical documents and records were removed from the building and appear to be basically intact. Also rescued was a large but old big leather-bound Bible.
Later in the day Monday, before the building was torn down, Radford said she and some others were able to get inside and salvage a few more things, “including the $2 in the donation box.”
“The devastation was unbelievable,” she said.
The main level of the museum featured an old general store exhibit, information and artifacts about historic Route 66, an area mining exhibit and included a new Black History Month display.
On the top floor was an exhibit centering on the old International Shoe Factory as well as displays that featured a Victorian parlor and an old-time kitchen, school, laundry room and doctor’s office. Some Indian artifacts were also upstairs.
Radford said she and fellow historian and Missourian columnist Sue Blesi had scanned most of the museum’s photos that were on display, so at least those images remain and are stored in backup form.
“But, we’re thinking it’s just about a total loss,” Radford said. “There is no way we’ll be able to refurbish or replace or remodel what was lost. This is a horrible tragedy.”
St. Clair Mayor Ron Blum, who was at the scene late Sunday night, echoed Radford’s sentiments.
“This is a tragic loss for our community,” he said. “There was so much history in there. A lot of information was lost. Many of the things in there are irreplaceable.”
The museum had been open on Saturday and Sunday because of the special exhibit recognizing February as Black History Month. Radford said about 50 guests had visited on Sunday and that she locked up and headed for home shortly after 4:30 p.m.
Police Chief Bill Hammack told The Missourian on Monday morning that the museum’s audible alarm had sounded about an hour before the fire was reported.
“It’s sounded several times before,” he said. “A neighbor called it in. Officers responded and checked the doors and windows, and everything was secure.”
Hammack said officers would have noticed or smelled smoke at the time if there was any.
“They didn’t report anything,” he said.
“It’s a shame,” Hammack said of the fire. “When we lose items like that, when something like this happens, it’s heartbreaking.”
Crews said at the peak of the fire, about 60 to 70 firefighters were on the scene. Mutual aid came from Union, Boles, Pacific, Sullivan and Cedar Hill.
“Everyone did an outstanding job with this fire,” Crews said. “Considering the nature of this fire and the circumstances, everyone did a fantastic job.”
For the time being, Pat Todd is serving as the museum contact. She can be reached at 314-541-3684.
Radford said the museum’s officers will take some time to see what truly has survived and go from there. In the meantime, she is hoping someone volunteers a location where the remaining artifacts can be housed.
“We’ll see how much space we think we need,” she said. “We’re hoping someone comes forward to help us and at least give us a temporary place to house what remains. Eventually, we’ll need another permanent structure to recreate the museum as best we can.
“We will get through this. We’re thankful that we were able to salvage some things, and, of course, we’re thankful everyone is OK and that the fire didn’t spread.
“We’ll be back.”