PORT DEPOSIT — Fire ripped through the vacant Old Tome School Building early Sunday morning, engulfing all thee stories of the historic Georgian-style structure that, with its clock tower and other ornate features, served as a landmark on that Bainbridge property.
“It’s pretty much a burnt shell now. There’s nothing left but granite and cement,” said Wayne Tome, Sr., an EMS chief with the Water With Volunteer Fire Co. of Port Deposit, one of several volunteer fire companies that battled the blaze.
The first alarm came about 2:45 a.m., after a passerby saw the flames and called 9-1-1, fire officials said. Approximately 50 firefighters with volunteer fire companies from Perryville, Rising Sun, North East, as well as Harford County and southern Pennsylvania, responded to the scene, fire officials added. No one was injured.
Crews on numerous tankers drafted water from the Town of Port Deposit water supply and shuttled it to the burning building, which, also known as Memorial Hall, stands on a bluff overlooking the Susquehanna River and the town.
“We used a boatload of tankers. There is no water in the hydrant system (on the Bainbridge Property),” Tome said, noting that the property, after going through several incarnations, has been unused for several years.
It took firefighters about three hours to bring the blaze under control, according to the Maryland State Fire Marshal’s Office, which sent fire detectives to the scene as part of an investigation to determine where and how the raging blaze started.
The blaze consumed the vacant, 50-foot-by-100-foot, stone and mortar building, which is rich in history, reported Deputy State Fire Marshal Bruce D. Bouch, a MSFO spokesman.
The building was originally constructed in 1901 as the Tome School for Boys and later the property was operated as the U.S. Naval Training Center Bainbridge, from 1942 to 1976. It was officially closed for Department of the Navy use in 1986. Some of the facilities were then operated by the U.S. Department of Labor as a Job Corps Center until 1990. The property now falls under the Bainbridge Development Corporation for renovations.
“This is a sad, sad day for Port Deposit. It was the anchor building of the property,” Tome said, explaining that town officials had remained hopeful that they would someday be able to restore and repurpose the building, as well as others on the property, despite a slew of hurdles, including environmental concerns.
Now, while the building still could be replicated, it cannot be restored, Tome believes.
Tome noted that the Old Tome Building and others on that property do not have electricity and other utilities.
At one time, the Old Tome School Building was the centerpiece building on the campus of Tome School for Boys — a prep school with a list of distinguished graduates that includes R.J. Reyolds, Jr., son of the cigarette mogul, and members of Mellon and Carnegie families.
The school, which became part of the Bainbridge Naval Center, now lays in disrepair.
But even so, the dilapidated granite buildings dotting what was once a thriving campus still, somehow, appear stately, reflecting the bold design of William A. Boring and Edwin L. Tilton, the same New York-based architects whose long list of projects includes the U.S. Immigration Station on Ellis Island.
Memorial Hall was the main classroom building for the Tome School for Boys. Built entirely of Port Deposit granite with dressed Indiana limestone, it was state-of-the-art when it opened in 1901 after a rushed and impressive construction phase of only two years.
It was one of the first buildings started at the campus on the bluff above Port Deposit — the other two being the headmaster’s house and the Tome Inn, which was also known as the Chesapeake Inn and Van Buren House.
Memorial Hall was dedicated in honor of Jacob Tome as a lasting memory to him for it was his largesse that allowed the school on the hill campus to be erected after he founded the free school known as Jacob Tome Institute in Port Deposit.
Memorial Hall housed school offices, all of the classrooms, shop classes in the basement, the school library, 500-seat auditorium and chapel. It had two sweeping curved staircases between the first and second floors with 32 arm chandeliers and columned architecture. The exterior walls were of dressed Port Deposit granite with an interior brick wall then a horse hair plaster interior wall. All of these materials were hauled up the hill to the construction site by horsedrawn wagons and carts.
The entire campus cost just under $1 million to build at the turn of the century.
The Tome School Clean Up Volunteers began repairing the property in 1997 and continued to do so every weekend from May through October until the year 2000, when the Bainbridge Development Corporation was appointed and the property turned over to the State of Maryland as owners, with the BDC serving as the state’s agents to redevelop the property.
At that point, the BDC determined professionals were needed on the property rather than volunteers and amateurs to maintain the historic property and structures and would no longer allow the volunteer group to continue their labor after three years. The Tome School Clean-Up Volunteers consisted of community volunteers from Port Deposit and environs, Navy veterans, Tome alumni, and was spearheaded by the Port Deposit Heritage Corporation.
The buildings at Tome School for Boys have long been the victims of vandalism — spray painting, windows knocked out to serve as a massive deer stand for poaching deer, thefts of what little remained within the structure, and even small fires set by poachers and others who broke into the building.
Hosts of people have breached the property and buildings to photograph the abandoned condemned structures for upload to abandoned building sites or haunted history websites. Often vandals broke into the building to try to find copper wiring and pipes to resell or architectural elements that could be sold quickly and easily for scrap metal or at antique shops or online. Finding little, if anything of value, they would then resort to smashing porcelain sinks and toilets while they remained, tossing radiators down slate stairs and other senseless destruction.