Company owner feels 'heartbreak' after fire damages historic Saint John landmark

·3 min read
Barbour's General Store, a historic Saint John landmark, was damaged by a fire Tuesday morning. (Roger Cosman/CBC - image credit)
Barbour's General Store, a historic Saint John landmark, was damaged by a fire Tuesday morning. (Roger Cosman/CBC - image credit)

Fire heavily damaged a Saint John landmark and tourist attraction on Tuesday.

Barbour's General Store, an authentic building from the late 1860s, was given to the city in 1967 by the founder of G. E. Barbour as part of Canada's Centennial celebrations, said company president Sylvia MacVey.

"Heartbreak was my first reaction," she said of hearing the news of the fire.

The Saint John police major crime unit and the fire department are investigating the fire in the building at the bottom of King Street. Police described it as a "set fire.'

Not known if fire was deliberate

"Further investigation is going to determine if the fire was set intentionally or accidentally," said a statement from Staff-Sgt. Sean Rocca.

Platoon chief Josh Hennessy said the Saint John Fire Department was called to building shortly after 3 a.m. About seven fire trucks and 30 firefighters responded.

They found heavy smoke and fire, said Hennessy, and the fire was in the first floor as well as the attic space.

They worked for two hours before they knocked down the flames, he said.

The fire was high risk, said Hennessy, because there's an electrical substation for the city's southern peninsula in the basement and the building is a historical landmark. The substation was not damaged, he said.

That section of King Street was closed, along with St. Patrick Street, Water Street, Prince William Street and Chipman Hill.

As of 8:30 a.m. Saint John Fire Department crews remained on scene, but most streets had reopened, except for a section of Prince William Street.

Julia Wright/CBC
Julia Wright/CBC

Store brought down river

MacVey's grandfather floated the store down the St. John River by barge from Sheffield, east of Fredericton, to Market Slip, she said.

"It was an old general store in Sheffield," she said. "And when my grandfather found it, it was actually a chicken coop.

"I think it was his way of connecting the past to the present at the time to let people know that, you know, this was this was the way things were done."

Roger Cosman/CBC
Roger Cosman/CBC

The landmark is owned by G. E. Barbour and operated by the city, said MacVey.

It was officially reopened as a tourist centre and retail store in 2015. It would be open seasonally as a information centre, where people can shop and book tours.

MacVey said she doesn't know what will happen to the store after the fire, as she hasn't gotten a report of its condition.

Roger Cosman/CBC
Roger Cosman/CBC

Hennessy said the building is usually secured at the end of the tourist season and remains empty and locked until the next year.

"It certainly had its challenges associated with the older construction," he said.

No one was found inside the building or nearby, said Hennessy, and the doors were locked.

"We did have to breach entry in the structure," he said. "Always a good indication when we have to force doors, as they are locked. ... The building was secured when we arrived on scene."

Java Moose, a neighbouring business, posted photos of the fire on social media and expressed sadness about the damage.

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