PORT DEPOSIT — Fire investigators have concluded that arson is the cause of a blaze that ripped through the vacant Old Tome School Building last month, engulfing all three stories of the historic structure that, with its clock tower and other ornate features, served as a landmark on that Bainbridge property.
The Maryland State Fire Marshal’s Office released the cause of the Sept. 21 blaze late Wednesday afternoon.
“Investigators determined a person or persons gained entry and intentionally ignited the interior of the school. An estimated damage in loss could not be determined, due to the structure being a historic landmark,” Senior Deputy State Fire Marshal Oliver J. Alkire reported.
Now, investigators are trying to identify and arrest the person or people responsible for torching the building.
Anyone with information that might help investigators is asked to call the MSFO’s Northeast Regional Office at 410-838-4844 or the Arson Hotline at 1-800-492-7529.
Also, investigators are seeking photographs of the building before, during and after the fire. Photographs may be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.
In the wake of the fire, local officials had reported to the media that they believed other intentionally set fires on that property could be related to the Tome School Building blaze, Alkire noted, before commenting, “Investigators have no evidence this fire or any other incendiary (intentionally set) fires are connected and each fire has been a lone act by separate individuals or remains under investigation.”
The first alarm came about 2:45 a.m. on Sept. 21, after a passerby saw the flames and called 9-1-1, fire officials said. Approximately 35 firefighters with volunteer fire companies from Port Deposit, Perryville, Rising Sun and 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.
It took firefighters about three hours to bring the blaze under control, fire officials said. However, fires continued to burn inside the “extensively damaged” building for about a week after the initial blaze and, as a result, sections of the structure collapsed, according to Alkire.
The blaze consumed the vacant, 50-foot-by-100-foot, stone and mortar building, which is rich in history, fire officials reported. That building did not have utilities, which is the case with the other vacant structures on that property, fire officials reported.
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.
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 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. It 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 horse-drawn 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, 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.