(Editor’s note: Jack Fowler, longtime executive director of the Point Pleasant River Museum, passed away this week. Over the years, Fowler had spoken with the Point Pleasant Register about everything from his beloved Point Pleasant High School to all things having to do with “the river.” At the end of 2018, Fowler spoke with the Register once more, about a year which saw a fire devastate the museum’s former home on First Street but more importantly, about his hope to resurrect what had amounted to decades of work to preserve local history, by not only himself but many others he always acknowledged. In tribute to Fowler, and keeping his dream alive, that conversation is being reprinted here.)
POINT PLEASANT — “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 after pickup 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.”
Fowler said he’s anxious to begin work on the new building, 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.
“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.”
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.”
Plans are currently underway to construct the river museum’s new home in the 300-block of Main Street.
Beth Sergent is editor of Ohio Valley Publishing.