Town loses part of history to fire

Published 12:00 am Monday, August 16, 1999

PORT GIBSON – The city Union Gen. Ulysses Grant is said to have called &uot;too beautiful to burn&uot; lost two of its oldest buildings to fire early Monday.

&uot;When you lose all you have, it’s a sad feeling,&uot;&160;said Roscoe Howard, owner of H&H Office Equipment. &uot;You can’t cry, you can’t hide … you can’t do nothing except just stand there and watch it burn.&uot;

At 3:45 a.m., the Port Gibson Fire Department received a call that a fire had started in a Market Street building that housed Smitty’s Furniture, H&H and a vacant upstairs apartment.

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The fire gutted that building and spread to the next structure, Haworth Home Health, gutting most of that building as well, said Fire Chief Edward Bryant.

Bricks from those buildings and water caused moderate damage to the library’s roof, ceiling and walls. Between 35 and 40 firefighters from Port Gibson, Vicksburg and surrounding volunteer fire departments battled the blaze for four hours. No one was injured.

As of Monday afternoon, the state Fire Marshal’s Office had not yet determined the fire’s cause, Bryant said.

Monday’s fire ranks among Port Gibson’s worst, said Libby Hollingsworth, whose family has lived in the town since the 1780s. The worst fire gutted the west side of Market Street in 1839 – the year before the three buildings damaged Monday were built – and a hotel on the street burned in the early 1980s, she said.

&uot;But these buildings, which were in the Greek Revival style, were Mississippi landmarks,&uot;&160;Hollingsworth said. &uot;They were the anchor of Market Street.&uot;

&uot;It’s an irreplaceable loss,&uot;&160;said Mayor James Beesley. &uot;They were significant buildings, … ones we hate to lose. But all we can do is pick up the pieces and move on.&uot;

By the time Howard arrived at 4:10 a.m., the space where he sold and serviced office machines was engulfed in flames. Howard left the scene at mid-morning, walking to the Claiborne County Courthouse to tell workers that one of their machines had been burned.

&uot;The good thing is, only four customers’ machines were in there,&uot;&160;he said.

Daniel Gregory, who managed Smitty’s Furniture and co-owned it with his father, W.D. Smith, arrived to open the shop at 9 a.m., only to find all but part of the building’s front facade destroyed.

&uot;We’ve only been in that building for two years,&uot;&160;Gregory said an hour later, watching city firefighters continue to douse the smoking remains. &uot;Now we’ve lost everything.&uot;

At mid-morning, workers from Haworth Home Health, which was near the end of a five-year lease for its downtown building, were trying to look on the bright side.

&uot;The Vicksburg firefighters managed to save our files, which was a blessing,&uot;&160;said office manager Martha Dotson.

&uot;We’re still going to see patients today,&uot;&160;said owner Ida Haworth. &uot;And we’re already looking for a new space.&uot;

But the library hopes to reopen in two days, once a support has been put in place under a sagging portion of the ceiling. Librarian Director Nancy Butler hopes damage can be totally repaired in the next two months.

&uot;I’m relieved the damage wasn’t worse, and thankful that nobody was hurt,&uot;&160;Butler said.

The library has been located on Market Street since 1994, in a building that previously housed drug, fabric and furniture stores and a pool hall.

A telephone cable was also burned. BellSouth received more than 30 reports of service interruptions. The company restored service to most customers by mid-afternoon, with the rest expected to receive phone service by the end of Monday, said Patricia Howard, district manager for BellSouth.

The library, a Moose Lodge and an apartment complex asked Entergy to cut their power until the buildings could have their wiring inspected. No other outages were reported, said Forest Persons, customer service manager.