ABERDEEN — Much of Aberdeen’s tangible historic record drifted away Saturday morning in a towering column of smoke as fire destroyed the Aberdeen Armory, home of the Aberdeen Museum of History.
The building at 117 E. Third St. takes up most of a city block. It also housed the Coastal Community Action Program offices, which administer key social services to the area, and the Aberdeen Senior Center.
The fire was initially reported at 9:26 a.m. When Aberdeen firefighters arrived on the scene, they found large billowing flames and dark smoke coming from the building.
The only known injury was to a fireman with a cut finger, but firefighters were still trying to put the fire out as this story was being written.
Dave Golding, the Aberdeen Fire Department Battalion Chief, said they didn’t yet know what caused the fire, but they would know more once investigators were able to go inside.
Golding said firefighters initially attempted to enter the building, but pulled back for safety reasons. “Upon initial arrival, the crews did attempt an interior attack, but due to the conditions and some interior ceiling collapse, we opted to pull out and apply a full defensive attack.”
Before the fire spread to the entire building, most of the flames were coming from the southern side, where the museum is primarily located. Golding said it’s probable the fire started on that side of the structure.
“One of the guys mentioned there was a lot of flame on the alley side of the building,” said Golding. “Back in that general location is probably where you’re looking at a primary start area.”
Early photographs of the fire seem to indicate that it was concentrated near the southeast corner.
The building is owned by the City of Aberdeen. Mayor Erik Larson said the city would work to find new housing for CCAP, and to assist in salvaging things from the museum.
“We’ll be working with the museum to help them with any salvage work, and save anything we can that represents Aberdeen’s history,” said Larson. “The building was insured, but a lot of the things in there can’t be replaced, so it’s a sad day for Aberdeen.”
Hundreds of people gathered to watch the fire from a safe distance. The building’s exterior is made of concrete. It was constructed in 1922 for use as an armory and was used that way until the National Guard moved to its location on Clemons Road in 1978. It was then purchased by the Swanson family, which owned grocery stores in Aberdeen, and then donated to the city of Aberdeen, which owns it now. The non-profit museum was established in the early 1980s.
One of the onlookers was Dave Morris, the museum’s executive director. “I’m sad, beyond devastated, and very, very angry,” he said. “Thirty-five years in this location, up in smoke. All the archives, everything.”
The museum housed documents from the town’s founding and thousands of other irreplaceable records.
Roy Vataja, a local historian and former museum board member posted this message on his Facebook page:
“The Aberdeen Museum appears to be pretty much gutted. I don’t want to speculate but between the fire and water things look bleak. The artifacts are irreplaceable but I foresee a future where Aberdeen will once again have a museum.”
An extensive photographic collection was stored in the building’s basement.
People familiar with the museum were hopeful that the damage to the photo archive, which includes some images from the Jones Historical Photo Collection, would be limited to water damage, which might mean some of it could be restored.
Dann Sears was the museum director for many years, until Morris took over a couple of years ago. He still works at the museum, mainly with the photo collection. “There’s stuff we’re never going to be able to replace if it gets damaged, like Sam Benn’s naturalization papers,” said Sears. “There’s 100-year-old stained glass in there. With the amount of water, I’m sure my photos downstairs are ruined.”
Ironically, two of the museum’s show pieces were firefighting machines from the 1903 Black Friday fire that burned seven downtown blocks and 140 buildings. One, called “Old Tiger,” was built in 1855 and was shipped around Cape Horn to the Northwest. Aberdeen acquired it in 1888. It had to be pulled by about a dozen men; the second, commissioned near the turn of the century, was pulled by a three-horse team.
Mayor Larson was at the scene Saturday morning and said that people from the museum and CCAP had already reached out to professionals who deal with the cleanup and restoration.
Of immediate concern will be the fallout from losing the CCAP offices. “Coastal Community Action Program works with low income individuals and families to remove the barriers that prevent them from achieving economic stability in Grays Harbor and Pacific Counties,” its website says.
The agency serves thousands of people on the Twin Harbors. It helps administer rent and energy subsidies and provides in-home care services, senior nutrition programs such as Meals on Wheels, job training programs and several other functions.
CCAP Executive Director Craig Dublanko said the agency has 180 employees.
The agency posted this message on its Facebook page:
“CCAP is suffering a major loss right now with the destruction of the Armory building. Our hearts go out to all of our employees, the Aberdeen Senior Center and the Aberdeen Museum. CCAP WILL rise from the ashes. We have great leadership who are already putting a plan in place to get things back in order. Thank you to those who have already reached out to offer support of many kinds.”
“The management team is already working to get a plan in place. The agency will be meeting first thing Monday morning,” said Shawna Murphy Myers, CCAP’s employment services coordinator. “The community has already rallied to offer up locations and support. Feeling blessed to be a part of this amazing community and how it comes together during tragic events.”
Several local nonprofits, including A Center For Healthy Families in Montesano and the Crisis Support Network in Hoquiam, have already offered desk space on a temporary basis.
The United Way of Grays Harbor and Pacific Counties has set up an account to receive donations to help CCAP clients. Donations can be made at unitedwaygraysharbor.org.
United Way tweeted this message Saturday: “Our hearts are with those at CCAP. This is just heartbreaking. Such an important part of our community. We have a special account already set up for CCAP. … 100% will go straight to them! Thanks for your help and prayers!”
Fire departments from several surrounding communities — including Hoquiam, Cosmopolis, Westport, Montesano, South Beach, Fire District 2, and Thurston County — assisted in putting out the fire.
Doug Barker, Kat Bryant, Dave Haerle, Dan Hammock and Louis Krauss contributed to this report.
This story was first published in the Aberdeen Daily World.