PITTSBORO — History lay drying Tuesday on the rough-hewn floors of Chatham Mills, spared by the fire that last week nearly destroyed the town's landmark courthouse.
Hundreds of artifacts filled neat rows on landscaping fabric and insulation boards to protect them from the dirty floors. Fans kept the air circulating to prevent mold.
State preservation expert David Goist said the group has saved many important records and documents, including a yellowing, brittle town map from 1870 that workers placed between pieces of tissue paper and cardboard. Other artifacts include tintype and daguerreotype photos of Chatham County area families and downtown buildings, books and letters, even a tattered, crumbling ledger from the old Pittsboro jail.
But while police and volunteers rescued much from the building, town and county leaders still don't know whether they can save the nearly 130-year-old landmark.
Chatham County Fire Marshal Thomas Bender said officials now know the fire started when a construction worker using a soldering iron to repair copper gutters accidentally sparked a blaze in the eaves. The fire quickly spread to the clock tower, whipped by the wind and the dry heart-pine timbers in the courthouse attic, Bender said.
On Tuesday, the clock tower remains lay on the south side of the courthouse loop. Nearby, blackened copper roofing was crumpled and twisted with the remnants of the building's top floors.
"A lot of people, both the public and government officials, want to save this building," Bender said.
A formal report from the State Bureau of Investigation is expected within a few weeks.
Carolyn Miller, acting town spokeswoman, said the western side of the building was largely protected and inspectors think it can be repaired. They haven't been able to get into the eastern side, though, because it is unstable. It may be a week before they can determine the full extent of the damage, she said.
"We want to make sure it's done right and it's done safely," Miller said. "It really struck me how bad it was. Seeing nothing up there is such an awful feeling."
Artifacts largely saved
Water was the biggest problem for the Chatham County Historical Association, which is working with state Department of Cultural Resources experts and an emergency response team from the American Institute for Conservation.
Association President Barbara Pugh said the group was thankful that the damage to the museum's contents wasn't any worse. Many of the historic artifacts were protected because the first-floor museum's ceiling remained intact. Photos were still hanging on the walls, glass cases were unbroken, and most of the damage was from the water used to put out the fire.
Once the documents are dry, Pugh said, they will be stored in freezers to inhibit mold growth until the group can find a new museum site. Several members now are trying to find a vacant storefront or another visible location, she said.
"We can't say that we lost anything at this point," Pugh said. "We salvaged everything that was in there, and have taken the necessary action to save it."
Meanwhile, the district attorney's office and Superior Court officials continued waiting for word about their files. District Attorney Jim Woodall said most of the offices on the eastern side of the building were crushed when the heating and air-conditioning system fell through.
Superior Court will continue at 10 a.m. today in the District Courtroom, across the street in the annex building, Judge Allen Baddour said. District Court is continuing as normal, he added.
"We can do everything but try cases," Baddour said. "We're going to be in fine shape with anything [else] that needs to go through a session. We don't anticipate any backlogs."
The next move depends on the district attorney's ability to re-create missing files, he said.
"Given the magnitude of what we saw last week, we could not be any closer to being on track," Baddour said.
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