HOULTON, Maine — It’s a safe bet that most local residents have sat down for a meal at the Elm Tree Diner, which opened in 1945 and caught fire Sunday night, Fire Chief Milton Cone said Monday afternoon.
The landmark restaurant was extensively damaged by fire Sunday night and is not expected to reopen anytime soon, if at all.
The Fire Department got the call for help at 10:50 p.m. Sunday, and when crews arrived at the Bangor Street restaurant, “we found fire coming out of the kitchen window,” Cone said.
“The fire damage was to the kitchen area but there is smoke and heat damage throughout the building,” he said. “There is extensive damage. The building is probably totally destroyed. It’s still standing, but I’m not sure it can be rebuilt.”
The fire was elusive at times, the 26-year firefighting veteran said.
“Due to the renovations throughout the years, there was some hidden voids” where the fire persisted, keeping firefighters busy until after midnight, Cone said.
Gary Dwyer, the diner owner, was at the scene Sunday night watching the flames eat away at his business. He has insurance, the fire chief said.
The restaurant served 700 meals a day and employed around 50 part-time and full-time employees, according to a previous story published in the Bangor Daily News.
The diner was a place where waitresses knew the regulars by their first names and usually knew what they wanted for breakfast without asking.
Local senior citizens, who gathered at the diner every day for a meal and fellowship, will surely miss the place.
“We are a small community and the diner is a big meeting place. It’s an institution,” Jeannie Hill, a hostess, said in a 1991 Bangor Daily News article. “They’ll read the Bangor Daily News here, but it doesn’t give them all their local news. People here get that over a cup of coffee.”
Fire investigators were in town Monday going through the building’s debris searching for the fire’s origin and its cause, Sgt. Tim York of the State Fire Marshal’s Office said Monday.
It appears the blaze was caused by an electrical problem, Cone said.
“The fire started in the kitchen, at or above the ceiling level, and it appears it’s electrical, but we’re not able to specify what may have been the origin of the fire,” he said.
Firefighters knocked the blaze down by 12:45 a.m., and crews returned to their station at 1:45 a.m. No injuries were reported.
More than just a building was lost in the conflagration, said Cone, who added that it is “a pretty safe bet” that most people from the area have stopped for a meal at the longtime diner.
“It definitely was a landmark,” he said.