"From a family perspective and just a historical perspective, it was just devastating," Port Deposit's mayor says of the fire early Sunday that gutted the iconic building that was once Memorial Hall of the Tome School for Boys.
Wayne Tome, who in addition to being the town's mayor is a longtime paid and volunteer firefighter, said he was on the first fire engine that made it to the blaze on the old Bainbridge Naval Training Center site, which he said must have burning for hours before anyone noticed it.
"There was no water there, so we had to truck water in," he said. "It was pretty much consumed when we got the call because of the remoteness [of the site]," he said.
Tome, who said he suspects arson, added that it was very difficult "just seeing that history go up in flames."
No one was injured in the fire, which was discovered at 2:45 a.m. Sunday, and took about 35 firefighters three hours to contain, according to a news release from the Office of the State Fire Marshal. Companies responded from Cecil and Harford counties and southern Pennsylvania.
A sixth-generation Cecil County resident, who is a descendant of the Tome school's founder, Wayne Tome has been trying to keep Port Deposit financially afloat and struggling to stem its population loss for years.
The loss of the Bainbridge building, an "icon" for the town, "is just another setback," he said. "It's disheartening to see."
Tome also sounded angered by the idea that someone could have set the fire.
"Hopefully they got their jollies out of burning an icon," he said, adding that arson "is the only thing it could be. Obviously it's a very suspicious fire."
The building has no electricity and is not occupied, he noted.
"Obviously there's an arsonist running around Cecil County," Tome, a career Baltimore County firefighter, said. He explained that there was a house fire early Saturday on Horseshoe Road in Rising Sun that investigators believe was deliberately set.
Bruce Bouch, spokesman for the Office of the State Fire Marshal, said Monday afternoon it was too soon to say if arson is a possibility.
He said investigators were still on the scene and were trying to determine what facilities or utilities may have been present.
Bouch did not have an estimate on the loss as of Monday afternoon.
Memorial Hall, a three-story building constructed from Port Deposit granite, dated to 1901-02, when the original home of the Tome School for Boys, founded in 1889 by wealthy Cecil County merchant and banker Jacob Tome, moved from Port Deposit proper to a larger site just east of town on the bluffs overlooking the Susquehanna River.
The building became the centerpiece of the campus that was laid out by the prominent landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, according to the website of the Bainbridge Development Corporation, the current owner of the property. Memorial Hall and several other of the original buildings were designed in the beaux arts style by architects William Boring and Edward Lippincott Tilton.
The Navy appropriated the Tome School campus in 1942 for use as a training base during World War II. The base operated until 1976 and the Navy retained control of the property until 1986. The U.S. Department of Labor used part of the property for a job training center until 1990.
Following a lengthy clean-up process for the 1,200 acres that included demolition of many of the World War II era structures, the Bainbridge Development Corporation, a quasi-public organization authorized by the Maryland General Assembly in 1999, took over ownership for the purpose of redeveloping the property.
A contract for a mixed used development was signed with a private developer several years ago, but the deal has encountered several snags, among them legal, environmental and economic.
Memorial Hall was one of a dozen of the original Tome School for Boys buildings remaining at Bainbridge. The campus of The Tome School, as it is now known, moved to North East years ago, where it serves boys and girls in kindergarten through 12th grade.
Donna Tapley, head of the corporation's board, thanked the volunteer firefighters "for their hard work and bravery" in a statement issued Tuesday.
"This is a detrimental loss to all of us, especially the Town of Port Deposit, Cecil County, BDC and the redevelopment efforts," Tapley wrote in the statement. "Memorial Hall is the central focus of the Tome Campus and holds a significant place in national, architectural and educational history."
Tapley said the BDC remains dedicated to protecting and restoring the building and has been in contact with area officials.
"The Tome School Campus remains private property and any trespassers caught on the property will be turned over to the police," Tapley added.
Wayne Tome said he had no idea why someone would set the Bainbridge building on fire and expressed concern about the safety of other buildings on the site. He added, however, that security measures are not financially realistic.
Tome said the building could be re-used to a certain extent and re-built, but "all the cupola and all that was pretty much burnt away."
"It's just going to cost more money for anyone who comes to fix it up," he said. "To this day, the area up there was really pristine, and the Navy left it to decay."
Anyone with information on the incident is asked to call 410-836-4844 or 1-800-492-7529.