Saturday, 11 February 2012


At 2:30 A.M. Sunday, February 11, 1990, Roland Choiselat, the curator, telephoned me to report the ultimate had happened, the Museum was burning. We didn't talk long.  We couldn't talk long.

It was no use going back to bed, too many things were running around in my head. My mother put on a pot of coffiee and I sat and wrote note to myself for two hours.

As stated in this article, it was cold. This will melt out to be "something".
We had a lot of somethings brought in to the arena.
The CCI and MMC girls thawed them out as we kept bringing them over from the Museum site.

Note number one said, "Save the pieces."

Sad iron in Kitchen Room.

Note number two was, "Call Gerry Noble." (curator of Thunder Bay Museum). That was a good note because he too came to realize how hard it was to get anybody on a weekend.

Not knowing how much would be destroyed I listed priority items to look for. Then I listed items I knew wouldn't burn up, or so I thought. One of our curling rocks split in half when it thawed. It will now be a new display showing what inside of an old curling stone looks like.

By 11 A.M. Roland had been in the Museum with the firemen and rescued eight boxes of bottles and our trade axes. Fish-line was used to fasten them to their display plywood. The glass panels shattered and they fell out of their cabinet. In other displays the fish-line withstood the heat.  In this room the backing material burnt in all cabinets.

This was in the logging display area,
also had the Beardmore Relics Display case
about where I am standing to take this photo.

After 11 A.M. I started my phone calls, the first being to Gerry Noble asking for addresses of the Canadian Conservation Institute and Bill Ross (Regional Archaeologist, Thunder Bay). Well, good fellow that he is, Gerry called them up for me and had them call me back.

Tom Stone of CCI called and gave me some general instructions: freezing temperatures were the best for us  (that day the temperature was like -30F so that was good?); find temporary storage areas and stabilize contents; find freezing compartments (our arena had been condemned so it was freezing in the rink part); find milk cases for carrying wet things (they are open plastic grid); pump out the basement to make quicker access (the fire department flooded the basement to drown that part of the fire); wall hangings dry out quicker with fans if needed; freeze photos (personal freezers were put to use at local homes); use hair dryer on metal but not wood.  He promised to call Monday at 10:15 A.M. with information on who would be coming to Nipigon to help us.

The plastic milk carton holders from Zachner's store.

Befor I went in town to see the remains for myself I phoned Buzz Lein in Midland. Buzz had gathered us all together twenty years ago to create a museum in Nipigon. By 1973 we opened  our doors.  Now they were closing, temorarily (until 2004). I had to tell him that his pride and joy, an original Hudson's Bay Company flag, had burnt.

Portable heater blowing in to raise the temperature for workers.

At 3:30 P.M. the Museum started smoking again and the firemen were there with their hoses. As soon as it was deemed safe they let Roland and myself in to clear the Archaeological Room and the Nipigon/Nepigon Room, with firemen at our sides and helmets on our heads. Most of the glass panels on the cabinets shattered when they were moved, but they had stayed intact through the blaze. Items inside were sooted on the up-side but not burned in any way. We then went into the Gun Room and took out the three guns and the Snake-side-plate.

The Gun Room. We also had our wahing machines in here,
and the Cradleboard.

We were not allowed back in for rescue proper until the fire marshal had been through the building. As he had to see the basement it had to be pumped out in the following two days by the Town Works Department.

Sunday night I telephoned our member of Provincial Parliament, Giles Pouliot, to inform him of our disaster. Then I phoned our retired former MPP Jack Stokes who had helped us get established back in the early '70's.

Black and white photography took on a whole new meaning.
It still had a beauty about it.

Monday morning we woke up to the reality and I discovered that I couldn't talk to anyone about the Museum. I left all the interviews and explanations to Roland. By late afternoon ROland was running down and I was all together again. That's the way it went for the first week. By evening I would have my spirit up but the mornings were terrifically hard because I liked to sit with my coffee and think. Now my thinking always ended up with our losses in the fire. By evening I would have dreams of new displays or possible ways we could save something.

This high-chair scrubbed up fairly well in 2004.

The nightmares stopped after I sat up till 1 A.M. Tuesday night and drew out the floor plan of the Museum as it had been and listed everything that was in each room and where to look for it.

Upstairs is an unknown disaster as we have only been able to reach the Curator's Room where we saved our Donor file, a pile of wet frozen papers in which we found a photograph in a Mylar sleeve, only burnt on one end, and two carousels for the slide projector, now burnt.

Stairway to Hell.
The Curator's Room is at the top.

On Wednesday, Janet Mason, CCI and Sandra Lougheed, of MCC, arrived to help us in our rescue. They were with us until Friday night. They dried out a huge photograph album (E.C. Everett's), and all our wood planes and many more of our recued items in that time. They said they'd come back later with wood experts and show us what to do once things were dry. Also treatment of metal was a high priority for us as all our logging tools and chains were in the fire or flooded basement.

This was originally a wallpaper sample album.
Converted by E.C. Everett into a photo album.
We have since removed the photos, scanned them
and put them in  new album pages.

As of March 6th we estimate about 4000 items have been rescued from the main floor and basement. Over half the main floor can not be reached until the outer walls are pulled away and the roof lifted off the floor. The up-stairs storage still has a floor but the roof has fallen in there too. The research room fell through to the main floor but the rug seems to have kept the flames from some parts until the floor burnt out from under it.

Some plastic grocery bags fell through the mess of timbers and didn't burn so I could thaw out the odd items with only the edge of the paper scorched. Acid free folders seem almost fire-resistant, the same as acid free tissue paper seemed to stop the fire from burning through to the backside of the felt leggings (of course all the bead work was in the front part) and leather gauntlets. It charred a bit but stayed put.

Our museum has always had a reputation for its sense of humour. It has lived up to that even in tragedy. The wall behind the toilet burnt to ashes as well as the display case that was on it. The toilet tank is leaning back at an awkward angle and the toilet seat has burnt up but, there on the wall beside it, pretty as you please, is a full roll of toilet paper ready to use. It has the be the most photographed roll of toilet paper in history. The brilliant orange, plastic waste basket is full of ice in the corner two feet away.

We could only laugh.

Then there are the Beardmore Relic replicas that the R.O.M. made for us back in 1980. Their case burnt right to a frazzle and they showed nary a blister. The same goes for the McCollum replicas made by the then Museum of Man in the early '70's. They didn't get into the fire but they were in the Archaeology Room where it was hot enough to warp 1/4 inch glass.

We have heavy equipment coming in on the 10th of March to pull out some walls. That's when we'll know if 20 years of research went up in smoke and if 4000 photographs in Mylar sleeves packed into metal drawers can withstand a four hour bonfire and 8 hours of slow-cooking.

Community volunteer.

Community support has been with us from the first hour of our need.  Than You all.

Written by Betty Brill, February 1990
published in OMA Currently 1990
published in The Nipigon Gazette 1990
published in "Betty Brill's Cry at the Edge of Forever" 2005

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