SWANS ISLAND, Maine - More than 100 years worth of history went up in flames along with an island institution early Thursday morning.
Fire Chief Robert Gardner said lightning from an overnight thunderstorm is believed to have caused a fire that burned the library to the ground. Besides books, digital video disks and other library items, the building also housed the local historical collection of artifacts and served as a meeting place.
Several residents expressed shock Thursday that the building, which was built more than 100 years ago as a schoolhouse, and its special contents are gone.
“Everyone is stunned,” resident Maili Bailey said. “We’ re crying when we talk to each other.”
According to Gardner, the blaze was reported by a nearby resident at 3:40 a.m. The building was in flames by the time firefighters arrived a few minutes later, he said.
“It’ s still smoking,” Gardner said Thursday morning when reached by cell phone at the fire scene. “This is totally gone.”
Swans Island, located about five miles off Mount Desert Island, is one of the few remote ocean islands in the state with a year-round population. It has approximately 350 residents in the winter and about 1,000 in the summer.
Candis Joyce, the library’ s director, said the library contained more than 10,000 books. Historical items included records from local quarries, weather data and ferry logs, she said.
“It just goes on and on and on,” Joyce said of the items lost in the fire. “We really need to get this back. It had become a community center.”
The two-story building in the village of Atlantic was the last remaining old community schoolhouse on the island and was listed in the National Register of Historic Places, according to Joyce. She said the building served as the village school from 1903 until 1954.
The building was insured and a fund to raise money for a new library already has been opened at the Bar Harbor branch of The First bank, according to Joyce. She said checks could be made out to the Swans Island Library Fund.
Bailey was one of the volunteers who had helped put together the collection of historical items for the Swans Island Education Society, which oversaw the library and historical collection. Bailey said Thursday that thousands of items collected by the society over the past 30 years or so were destroyed in the blaze.
Photographs, letters, journals, toys and even hand-carved lobster claw pegs were among the items in the collection, she said. Much of it had been kept until recently in Seaside Hall, a local recreational hall built in 1905 for plays and dances, according to the town Web site, www.swansisland.org. The hall was sold last year, and since then many of the historical items had been moved into the library, according to Bailey.
Some artifacts, such as old photo albums and letters, had been moved into the library within the past few weeks, she said.
“The items themselves were priceless,” Bailey said. “What we’ ve been talking about this morning is the human effort that went into that place. It had such a homey feeling.”
Bailey said the building can be replaced, and island residents can go about putting together another historical collection, but that neither will ever compare to what was destroyed Thursday morning.
“People adored it,” Bailey said of the library. “It breaks our hearts.”
Sheena Kennedy, owner of the island’ s only store, said Thursday that the loss of the library would have a profound effect on the community. Yoga classes and poetry readings were held there, knitting groups gathered there, and others brought their computers to the building to use the library’ s wireless Internet access. Other residents met there for other reasons, some just to socialize and some to talk about more private issues such as substance abuse, she said.
“It’ s a big deal,” Kennedy said. “Everybody put a lot of time and money into it.”
Kennedy’ s store, Carrying Place Market, opened last year, two years after the island’ s previous store burned to the ground, possibly from an electrical malfunction. Island residents spent two years having to get their groceries from the mainland, she said, and now they will have to adjust to the loss of another island institution.
“There’ s not very much out here,” Kennedy said. “When one of the big places isn’ t here anymore, it definitely affects the whole community.”