Point Pleasant River Museum director details plans to rebuild after fire damage

July 29, 2018
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Submitted photo Exhibits at the Point Pleasant River Museum are pictured after a fire broke out in the museum's attic Sunday, July 1, 2018.

POINT PLEASANT, W.Va. — In a steady growth mode since it opened in 2003, more than $1 million in improvements had been added to the Point Pleasant River Museum and Learning Center by the end of June and construction of a new addition was being contemplated.

The museum had become a must-see attraction for visitors to the Mason County, West Virginia, river town, including thousands of passengers on shore excursions while traveling the Ohio aboard giant riverboats like the American Queen and Queen of the Mississippi.

But on July 1, the museum’s future appeared to have gone up in smoke when a fire broke out in its attic, tore through its roof and rained burning debris and torrents of water from fire hoses into the interior of the 1854 former mercantile building that housed it.

The museum contained exhibits that, among other topics, traced the history of navigation on the two rivers, detailed Point Pleasant’s role as a 20th century boat-building center, and told the story of the 1967 Silver Bridge collapse, using artifacts, photos and newsreel footage and video clips.

The museum occupied only the ground floor of the mercantile when it opened 15 years ago. A second floor of exhibits opened in 2004, and a 2,400-gallon aquarium displaying fish species of the Ohio and Kanawha rivers was added in 2008. Later, two U.S. Coast Guard-certified towboat pilothouse simulators were added for use by towboat pilots to demonstrate their maneuvering skills while taking part in three-day license renewal classes, creating a revenue stream for the museum. Museum visitors could also use the simulators to get a feel for what operating a towboat feels like in some of America’s busiest river ports.

On July 1, Jack Fowler, executive director of the museum, was in one of the simulators, showing a couple from Parkersburg, West Virginia, how to operate it, when an alarm sounded.

“Before I got to the office, the lights went out and then fire started breaking through the ceiling,” he said.

After getting the Parkersburg couple and 14 other museum guests out of the building and killing the ground floor lights, Fowler began fighting the fire with an extinguisher and was soon joined by an extinguisher-wielding riverboat captain who was nearby when the fire began.

Firefighters arrived at the scene and began pumping water onto the roof to knock down flames.

“The fire department had a hard time getting to the fire,” Fowler said.

The building filled with thick, black smoke and by the time the blaze was extinguished, much of the roof had collapsed and the museum was filled with water and debris.

No one was injured in the fire, believed to have been caused by an electrical issue in the attic, Fowler said.

But when the smoke cleared, volunteers took action.

“The people of Point Pleasant and the surrounding area started hauling salvageable things from the museum up to the youth center. Kids there were cleaning up the stuff that came in. A lot of the exhibit items were sent to Columbus,” he said, where experts were available to perform detailed restoration work.

Fowler estimated that 85 percent of the non-paper, non-photo exhibits have been or can be salvaged, while water and smoke took a heavy toll on the flimsier and more easily combustible items.

“The people in the area have been great,” Fowler said. “Right from the start, they have helped us keep growing and stay debt-free. Now, they’re helping to save what was in the museum, and so many are calling in offering money to get us back on our feet.”

While the museum’s future is not certain, “I feel very confident that we will be back,” Fowler said. “The insurance people still need to to a survey to make sure we’re in a building that’s sound, but I think we will be able to rebuild right where we are. The brick is seven to eight inches thick, built on a sandstone foundation, with steel H-beams for support.”

Fowler said the museum’s board and staff will soon start work on putting together a plan on how to rebuild the museum and let the public know how they can help.

“We’ll be back,” he said. “It may take 12 or 15 months or longer, but we’ll get there.”

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-5169 or follow @rsteelhammer on Twitter.

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