Fire destroys historic barn in Princeton

The Times
30 May, 1992

Fire destroys historic barn in Princeton

PRINCETON BOROUGH— A century-old barn burned “like a match” yesterday afternoon, and fire officials here called in the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office to help find out how the blaze started.

Bill Drake, borough fire official, said after more than two hours of searching, investigators found some. thing in the rubble that “may or may not be suspicious.”

“At that point, I have to call in the prosecutor’s office,” Drake said around 6 p.m. yesterday. He would not my what he found.

The barn, used as a storage area by The Medical Center at Princeton, sat back from Bayard Lane behind John Street, roughly 1,500 feet be-hind the hospital’s Merwick Unit, a nursing home. No one worked in the barn, and there were no injuries.

Hospital spokeswoman Jane Kerney said she did not know the value of the building or its contents, but she noted 250 garbage cans to be used at the hospital’s upcoming June Fete were destroyed.

Drake said he did not know how long the barn burned before the first call came in at 1:16 p.m. It was extinguished two hours later. He said a Merwick maintenance worker, Peter Root, had filled a lawn-mower in the barn with gasoline about 12:50 p.m. but did not notice anything.

THE BARN collapsed in a heap of flames about 20 minutes after fire-fighters arrived. Before it fell, flames shot more than 70 feet in the air, singeing nearby trees and draw-ing scores of onlookers from the nearby YWCA and John Street areas, as well as downtown offices.

Firefighters probably couldn’t have saved the old structure, Fire Chief Joe Meyers said, but low water pressure hampered efforts to get the blaze out quickly. He said the first hydrant tapped flowed with only 20 to 90 pounds of pressure, well below the normal 80 to 100 pounds. Later, Drake said this made his investigation tougher because the building was so heavily damaged.

Despite the age of some water mains in the area, “We haven’t had problems with water pressure,” Meyers said.

Donna Yukob, spokeswoman for the Elizabethtown Water Company that serves the Princeton, said yesterday investigators were still trying to reach firefighters to find out what caused the pressure problems.

Meyers said he was on the scene within minutes of the call but the barn was already engulfed. Quickly, 35 firefighters from Princeton’s three volunteer companies were on hand, with companies from neigh-boring towns backing them up. But the manpower was no match for the fast-burning building.

“The wood is so old and so dry it’s just like a match,’ Meyers said.

PRINCETON resident Toshi Pope saw the fire after leaving the YWCA building around 1:15 p.m. “It was mostly on the first floor at first,” she said, saying the flames appeared concentrated in the barn’s north-west corner, which Drake later said was the focus of his investigation. Suddenly, Pope said, flame seemed to shoot through the entire building. It collapsed around 1:40 p.m. with only the brick chimney standing. The chimney then tum-bled, brick by brick, under the blast of fire hoses.

Flames fed on gasoline for lawn mowers and old paint stored in the barn, Drake said. The heat generated posed a problem to firefighters, who took turns resting on gurneys and sucking down water after stints battling the blaze. Even after the barn fell, firefighters kept their cherry picker fully raised because of the intense heat.

Kerney said the barn was built “around the turn of the century.” The medical center acquired it in the 1950s with the rest of the Mer-wick property, part of which dates to the 1700s. Drake cited the Mer-wick Unit for 65 fire code violations earlier this year, which the hospital is trying to correct. Kerney said the barn was not cited. Meyers said he’d been told by his grandfather that the barn once housed a blacksmith shop.

Besides the garbage cans, the barn housed cables, lawn and maintenance equipment and electrical poles, Kerney said. She said the annual June Fete would not be affected by the fire. “It’s annoying but not overwhelming,” she said.

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