SILVER CITY " Residents watched in tears as the Silver City Community Center " built as a two-room school in 1867 " burned to the ground Wednesday afternoon.
"It's the town treasure," said neighbor Betty Kaplowitz. She watched, arms folded, as the building that served first as a school, then fire station and town hall was consumed by fire.
"It's the meeting place for the town. Everything that happens here happens there. It's very sad."
A fire in the floor was reported about 1:30 p.m. Wednesday. The attic was burning by 2 p.m. The bell tower toppled over at 2:27. One minute later the roof caved in, releasing an eruption of fire and black smoke.
Although a summer children's program was in session when it started and 32 firefighters converged to battle the blaze, no injuries were reported.
The children had just finished a paper-airplane project when teachers realized the building was on fire.
"They were just about to color them and do some test flights when we smelled smoke," said Molly Allander, whose grandson Kollin, 5, was in the class. When his mother, volunteer firefighter Patricia Allander, arrived to pick him up, Molly told her about the smoke.
"We thought someone in the neighborhood was burning trash, but she saw smoke coming from where the floor meets the wall on the west side of the building and called 911."
A Lyon County crew was welding copper pipes in the basement Wednesday to install two new air conditioner units, Allander said.
"My theory is that's where the fire started and the building is so old and so dry that it's basically kindling."
Any connection to the welders is unconfirmed, said Central Lyon County Fire District chief John Gillenwater.
"The cause is still under investigation by Lyon County fire investigators and the Nevada state Fire Marshal's Office," he said.
The fire does appear to have started low in the 3,000-square-foot schoolhouse and climbed to the attic inside the walls, he said. At first his crews went inside and attacked the fire, trying to save the building.
"We did have some success in knocking it down, but the fire came right back because it was inside the walls," Gillenwater said. "We couldn't get to the base of the wall fires."
Firefighters left the building before the roof collapsed.
"By that time we had pulled back and assumed a defensive position," Gillenwater said.
No other structures were affected. Crews kept flames away from the old school's propane tank. At least one spot fire in nearby brush began.
"When the fire broke through the roof, it did spot. But we got on it right away," Gillenwater said.
Four Lyon County engines and command vehicles arrived on scene, as well as five vehicles from Storey County. Three Bureau of Land Management units were called in.
Water from their hoses flowed through the gravel lot behind the school, forming a muddy stream down Fourth Street to State Route 342. A road crew removed rocks and mud washed onto the street by the temporary stream using a grader and street sweeper.
Silver City residents worried about historic records and photographs stored in the community center, which served as a school until 1959.
"Pictures of every graduating class, all of the records, all kinds of stuff was in there," said Postmaster Sherry Mattei. "It pains me to see Nevada history destroyed."
Former town board member Chandler Laughlin helped hold hoses while firefighters fought the blaze. His wife, Lynne Hughes, led the effort to turn the old school into a community center before she died in 1993.
"This was our baby," he said of the building. "We worked on it for years."
Waving from the window of the burning schoolhouse were colored paper hand cutouts made in the children's summer program.
"This is a major historical structure," said Molly Allander. "To lose this is irreparable."
Contact Karl Horeis at firstname.lastname@example.org or 881-1219.