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Fire destroys Deltaville Maritime Museum

Updated: July 25, 1:10 p.m.

Fire destroyed the main building and the John’s Pavilion at the Deltaville Maritime Museum in Deltaville Wednesday, July 18.

(photo by Larry S. Chowning)

by Larry S. Chowning

Becky Ferrell bent over and, with both hands over her face, wept as the Deltaville Maritime Museum burned on Wednesday, July 18.

The sight was more than many of the museum volunteers, such as Ferrell, could stand to watch. Her emotions spoke to the helplessness of the situation—years of work and thousands of volunteer hours going up in smoke.

The fire started at about 6 p.m. At about 5:30 p.m. that day museum curator Raynell Smith said she had inspected the museum grounds after a day of the Family Boatbuilding Week program. “I walked all over the grounds and didn’t see or smell anything. I just can’t believe this,” she said at the fire scene in a half-stunned manner.

The first 911 call came from Bobby Faulkner who was across the creek and saw flames at about 6:15 p.m., said Smith. The museum’s fire alarm system went off a few minutes later.

“We had the alarm system tied to the main building and the fact the fire started outside in the pavilion slowed the alarm notification process,” she said.

(photo by Larry S. Chowning)

The pavilion was already in flames when Faulkner’s 911 call reached the sheriff’s office dispatcher, said Jimmy Walden, chief of the Lower Middlesex Volunteer Fire Department (LMVFD) of Deltaville.

Museum volunteer Bob Walker was one of the first at the fire scene. He saw smoke coming from the John’s Pavilion portion of the museum, which is directly behind the main museum building. “When I went around to the pavilion I could not believe my eyes,” he said. “I knew we were in big trouble. The fire had already advanced to the roof.”

The pavilion was quickly engulfed in flames and smoke. The nearly century-old “W.A. Johns,” a historic three-log-bottom canoe stored under the pavilion burned in a flash. The boat had been donated to the museum by the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels, Maryland.

All eight of the nearly-completed “Wright skiffs” built during Family Boatbuilding Week and stored in the pavilion also were quickly destroyed.

As fire reached the main building and smoke streamed from around the eaves on the backside, firemen went on the roof near the front and began to cut through the roof with axes. As heavier and darker smoke began to rise from inside, the firemen got off the roof—just in the nick of time. Only minutes later, fire dramatically broke through the roof and soared skyward.

The ladder truck of the LMVFD was extended to full height as it sprayed water across the roof. Firemen installed a containment pool at the scene for use by the ladder truck. Smaller tanker trucks moved frequently along the driveway, arriving full of water from the Deltaville swimming pool and unloading it into the containment pool, and then going back for more.

People were standing everywhere and, unlike most fires, no one seemed to be telling anyone to stand back. “Be careful,” they’d say.

The bystanders showed a reverence toward the burning building, such as when one’s own home is on fire, or when a relative is dying. There was a sense that no one wanted to be there, but that they were supposed to be there, and should be close.

Firefighters and trucks responded from seven fire companies in the region. Mathews, Gloucester, Deltaville, Hartfield, Water View and Urbanna were directly involved, and White Stone firefighters stood by at the Hartfield Firehouse, ready to respond to any other fires in the county.

Members of the Middlesex County Volunteer Rescue Squad from Deltaville provided water and beverages to the firemen taking breaks from the fire’s intense heat on a hot summer evening.

(photo by Larry S. Chowning)

Museum founder and board member Gene Ruark stood with many community members. Finding some hope in the situation, Ruark said, “You know we were considering expanding the main building. Now we will have to rethink it all—but it will be all right.

“We need to be thankful too that no one was in that building,” said Ruark as a reminder that things could be worse.

No one was physically harmed by the fire.

The origin of the fire is unknown but it appears to have started under the pavilion, perhaps electrical in nature, said Smith, who noted there were no paint or other flammables under the shelter.

Deltaville Maritime Museum president Chuck McGhinnis reported Tuesday that the museum has insurance coverage but as to how much, and for what, is being determined. Insurance adjusters and investigators have been on the scene and a settlement statement is expected soon, he said.

After the fire was almost extinguished that evening, some wooden boat models in the museum were saved. Also, a fire safe protected the museum’s main documents, and the hard drive on the museum’s computer appeared to be okay, said Smith.

(photo by Stephen Blue)

The portrait of John Coe in the front portion of the building was saved and many of the family artifacts of the Wright family and Willis Wilson were saved along with some antique tools. “It’s incredible that anything was saved at all,” said Smith.

Smith said she was concerned for the families building the skiffs and how they might take the loss of their work. “They were more devastated that we had lost our building,” she said.

“We want to thank everyone who came and helped us,” she said. “The firefighters and rescue squad members worked hard in the hottest of conditions and were able to save some priceless artifacts.”

The outdoor events that have been scheduled for the maritime park will continue, said Matt Holloway, president of the Deltaville Maritime Museum and Holly Point Nature Park.

The Deltaville Farmers’ Market, including a boat cruise to Stingray Point, on Saturday, July 28, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m and the “BJ Leiderman and Friends” concert from 6 to 8 p.m. that evening will proceed as scheduled.

It was another tragedy for the small community of Deltaville, which is still rebuilding from a tornado that destroyed or damaged several homes, the Zoar Baptist Church building, the Deltaville Community Association building and community swimming pool in April 2011.

“We will rebuild and come back stronger and better,” said Smith. 

“How can I help?”

To support the Deltaville Maritime Museum’s rebuilding efforts after the tragic fire, please consider becoming a Member of the Museum or, if you prefer, you may make a general donation to the Museum.

Single Adult Membership (Ages 18 and above)$15.00
Family Membership (Two adults plus children up to 17 years of age)$25.00 - $50.00
Student Membership (Must present valid Student I.D.)$5.00
Sustaining Membership$100.00 - $150.00
Patron Membership$250.00 - $300.00
Sponsor Membership$500.00
Benefactor Membership$1000.00

Memberships and general donations can be made by cash, check or PayPal. Checks may be made out to: Deltaville Maritime Museum and mailed to P.O. Box 466, Deltaville, VA 23043.

If you have loaned photos and/or films to the Museum before (that were copied and used in the displays), please begin to look for those items so the displays can be recreated. 

(photo by Elizabeth Jordan)

posted 07.25.2012

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