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Fire at First Baptist Church

A 1965 photo shows the church burning. (Photo courtesy of Marquette Regional History Center)

MARQUETTE — An historic Marquette sandstone building met its end by fire 55 years ago this past Sunday, a few days after the new year of 1965. A crowd estimated by one observer at almost 1,000 people gathered to watch the structure burn.

Some even brought a picnic lunch.

The First Baptist Church, which called the intersection of Front and Ridge streets home for over 100 years, was at its beginning a small wooden building. John Burt donated the land for that first church on the southwest corner of the intersection, which was dedicated on July 13, 1863. (It was on the site of the Marquette Regional History Center’s old building next to Peter White Library)

Because of its (at the time) remote location on the very northern edge of Marquette, the building survived the fire of 1868, although the church offices, which were located on Washington Street, did not.

As the city grew so did membership in the church and in 1884 construction was started on a much bigger sandstone building across the street to the east. When it was finished, it held 700 people, and had as its centerpiece a Hook & Hastings steam powered organ, one of the first in the state of Michigan. The organ was donated by Burt and W.S. Westlake.

The organ was the heart of the church, even if wasn’t always the most reliable piece of equipment. In a Mining Journal article on the history of the congregation members fondly recalled that they would be in the midst of singing a hymn and the organ would suddenly quit working, either because the steam that powered the organ ran out or the water pressure on top of Front Street hill fell to too low of a level.

Despite all that, the organ was still the pride and joy of church members.

The church served its congregation for 80 years, although by the 1950s the building was starting to show its age. The organ no longer functioned properly, while heating the structure during the winter was problematic, as well. In fact, as officials later discovered, the fire that destroyed the building started due to an overheated smoke pipe leading from the church’s coal-burning furnace.

At 2:53 on the afternoon of Tuesday, Jan. 5, 1965 the Marquette Fire Department received a call from the Northland Hotel next door that the church was on fire. Several trucks showed up just minutes later, but by then the fire quickly spread. The Marquette City Fire Department didn’t have enough manpower to battle the blaze, so additional units were called in from the Marquette Branch Prison and K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base. In the end, over 40 firefighters were on scene.

As word spread of the fire, a large crowd of area residents gathered to watch the blaze and the firefighting efforts. One Marquette Fire Department official estimated that “hundreds” of residents watched from the steps of the Peter White Public Library or from the safety of West Ridge Street. Another estimate, from the Marquette City Police, had the crowd of onlookers at 1,000. The Alpha Phi Omega fraternity from NMU was even brought in to keep the crowd of onlookers under control.

And despite the fact that it was early January, that didn’t stop the onlookers from making a day out of it. Several people who were there that day in person recall stopping by downtown restaurants before making their way to the blaze, so they would have sandwiches and coffee for sustenance while watching the action.

Close to 6 that evening, the fire was eventually brought under control, mostly because what could burn had, although firefighters were on the scene until 8:30 that evening. Thankfully, the wind was blowing from the south that day. If it had been blowing from the north, there was a real danger that the flames would have jumped over to the Northland Hotel.

Loss of the structure and its contents, including the organ, was estimated at $400,000 (over $3.2 million in today’s money). The church’s insurance only covered 20% of the loss.

The structure sat on the corner, in its half-razed state, for over a year. What was left of the building, mostly the sandstone walls, was razed on June 7, 1966. Don Britton Construction, which performed the demolition, then sold some of the sandstone from the old church. The rest was tossed in the landfill.

Members of the church had by then embarked on a campaign to raise funds for a new facility, which was eventually opened in 1967 on the corner of Fair Avenue and Eighth Street in Marquette, right across from Northern Michigan University. That building is still in use today.