Local News

Artifacts salvaged from fire-hit Chatham County courthouse

Posted March 28, 2010 9:03 p.m. EDT
Updated March 29, 2010 10:39 a.m. EDT

— Since it appears that the structure of a 129-year-old North Carolina courthouse might be saved, officials have turned toward trying to save documents and artifacts inside the building.

There were hundreds of criminal case files in the district attorney's first-floor office at the Chatham County courthouse, and a museum had photographs, books and historic county records.

Crews went inside the courthouse Sunday to see what they could save. They pulled out two courtroom benches from the second floor.

"I was amazed that there were two (benches) that were in that good of condition,” said Kenneth Crabtree, a board member with the Chatham County Historical Association.

Crews on Sunday took everything out of the Chatham Historical Museum that was housed in the bottom floor of the courthouse. Water damage was found on some items, but no fire damage.

“We are hoping for smoke damage and maybe a little water damage,” Crabtree said.

The fire started Thursday and raged for hours. The courthouse's clock tower fell and the upper floor collapsed, but fire officials said the debris might have protected documents and artifacts on the lower floors.

"Fortunately, all of the court records are kept in the vault in the clerk's office, so the court records are almost 100 percent intact,” former Superior Court Judge Wade Barber said.

Contractors were renovating part of the courthouse, but investigators have yet to determine a cause for the fire.

An engineer surveying the damage said the building's structure wasn't damaged as bad as it first appeared.

Workers spent Friday installing computer systems and phone lines in the new temporary offices for the district attorney. State computers have basic information on cases, but items like witness lists, warrants, and interviews are in files in the rubble of the courthouse.

County officials haven't decided what to do with the courthouse, which was built in 1881. Chatham County already had plans to start building a new justice center in a few months.