By Karen Woodmansee
Appeal Staff Writer
In the end, it was firewater that saved the Historic Fourth Ward School Museum in Virginia City from fire. That, along with a top-of-the-line sprinkler system and a quick response from the local fire department.
A small fire caused by the spontaneous combustion of construction materials early Friday morning could have destroyed the 131-year-old building if not for a fundraising campaign by Jack Daniel's Distillery, which paid for a sprinkler system.
The museum, which from 1876 to 1936 served as the Fourth Ward School, educated generations of children on the Comstock during its heyday.
Executive Director Barbara Mackey said the fire began in a room adjacent to one undergoing renovation as a waterproof, fireproof, climate-controlled vault to store the historic mining town's archives for use by students and historians.
It didn't even burn through the floorboards before the sprinkler system, purchased from State Fire Protection Co. of Reno, activated and three sprinklers put the flames out before any damage could be done.
There was very little water damage, Mackey said, since the room where the fire began used to be a home economics classroom and had drain holes in the floor.
The Jack Daniel's connection began in spring of 1988, when they pledged a percentage of the purchase of each bottle of Jack Daniel's products sold that month to go toward restoring the Historic Fourth Ward School Museum.
A company representative couldn't be reached for comment, and Mackey said she didn't know how much the effort raised, but it was enough to purchase and install the sprinkler system, which, when tested in January 1989, proved effective, as it did Friday.
The sprinkler system probably cost "$50,000 to $60,000 in that time," said Jeff Schauer of the State Fire Protection Co.
He said today a sprinkler system that size would cost more than $100,000.
Local historian Chic DiFrancia said the whole building would be gone without the sprinklers and the effort from Jack Daniel's.
"That building is like kindling," he said. 'There's a lot of wood in that building, and old wood too."
Though Mackey said the county, which owns the building, did some work on it in the 1960s and 1970s, it wasn't until 1988 when the school became a museum that the restoration effort began in earnest. More than $3 million has been raised and spent on restoration so far, she said.
Mackey has served as executive director since 2001, and said the fire was "my biggest nightmare."
"We can't lose our national treasure," she said. "Nowhere else tells us the stories of the Comstock like the Fourth Ward."
She pointed out the wear on the floors and scuff marks on the banisters where school students used to slide down when adults weren't looking.
"To be able to walk in the footsteps of people who lived on the Comstock, literally," she said.
The building contains items and documents from 1876, and some from before that, she said.
"We have a letter written from the battlefield of the Civil War to someone in Virginia City," she said. "But the greatest artifact is the building."
When the sprinklers went off, Mackey was notified by the alarm system at the same time as the fire department.
"My undying gratitude and thanks go to the Storey County Fire Department and the sprinklers," she said. "And it's very good advertising for having a sprinkler system in your historic building."
Mackey said the financial loss would not even begin to describe the devastation she and others would have felt had the building been lost.
"It's not just the financial investment; it has been all those years of blood sweat and tears and raising money and people working on it,"Mackey said. "It's very emotional."