HOULTON, Maine — Investigators from the State Fire Marshal’s Office on Tuesday declared the fire that ravaged the Elm Tree Diner an accident.
Sgt. Tim York of the Fire Marshal’s Office released the news late Tuesday morning.
“It was accidental,” he confirmed of the fire that started in the kitchen just before 10:50 p.m. Sunday. “The fire was caused by an electrical malfunction in the building’s electrical system.”
When the Houlton Fire Department arrived at the Bangor Street restaurant, which many in the town considered a landmark, smoke was coming from a window in the kitchen area.
Houlton Fire Chief Milton Cone said renovations to the building created hidden voids that made extinguishing the fire more difficult.
Despite the firefighters having the blaze under control in 45 minutes, the building had extensive smoke and water damage. While the outside of the building was not severely damaged and is still standing, some of the siding on the restaurant melted and portions of the exterior were blackened.
Firefighters returned to their station at 1:45 p.m. Sunday. No injuries were reported.
Serving food seven days a week, the restaurant was packed at every mealtime during the height of its popularity. It was not uncommon to swing open the door of the diner and see hungry patrons lined along the counter area, waiting for others to finish so they could have their seats. Many of the customers were regulars who frequented the diner for its baked beans, homemade turkey and ham dinners, hearty soups and oversized desserts.
Visitors who were in town looking for a place to eat were commonly directed to the restaurant by hotel clerks. A big bulletin board near the restaurant’s front door advertised coming events, local businesses, the services of area handymen and searches for lost animals.
The diner is owned by Gary Dwyer and was insured.
Ironically, restaurant business was on the agenda at the Houlton Town Council meeting Monday evening, as Dwyer had applied for a renewal of the diner’s liquor license. Councilors unanimously approved the license in the hopes of the diner reopening.
Councilors were saddened about the fire and urged that the restaurant be rebuilt.
Town Manager Douglas Hazlett said during the meeting that the town would “do everything in its power” to support Dwyer if he did intend to re-establish the business.
Dwyer could not be reached for comment Tuesday to determine his plans or how many employees were working for the business at the time of the fire.
York said he was not sure whether it was a spark from the malfunctioning system that ultimately set the blaze.
“It was just some malfunction in the restaurant’s wiring,” York said. “What that malfunction was we will never know.”
Before Dwyer owned the diner, Brenda and Caleb Bell owned it for 34 years. They sold the business in 2006 to an entrepreneur from Nevada who ran the diner for just a few months before Dwyer took over ownership.
Reached by phone late Tuesday afternoon, Bell said she and her husband were “deeply saddened” on hearing news of the fire.
“It has been a landmark in town for so many years,” she said. “We met so many people there and everyone knew us as the owners and showed their appreciation to us for so long. I would love to know the number of people we employed there over the years. We educated our three children by running the restaurant and we helped a number of our employees put themselves through school by working there. When we sold it, we were glad to see it reopen and we were glad when Gary [Dwyer] took over ownership. This is just so sad.”
Bell said she spoke to Dwyer just after the fire. She said Dwyer stated that he was not sure what he would do next.
“I think he is just overwhelmed,” she acknowledged. “It is a tough business right now, but I certainly do hope it opens up again.”