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The blaze early Sunday morning, as captured by a SLU student. Photo: Madeleine Young, courtesy St. Lawrence University
The blaze early Sunday morning, as captured by a SLU student. Photo: Madeleine Young, courtesy St. Lawrence University

Fire damages historic SLU steeple

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UPDATE: St. Lawrence University officials confirm this morning that the fire-damaged steeple of Gunnison Memorial Chapel has fallen.

A festive weekend in Canton was marred early Sunday morning by a fire that severely damaged the steeple and bell tower of St. Lawrence University's historic chapel. No one was injured.

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Reported by

David Sommerstein
Reporter/ Producer

The damage to the Gunnison Chapel steeple, erected in 1926. Photo courtesy St. Lawrence University.
The damage to the Gunnison Chapel steeple, erected in 1926. Photo courtesy St. Lawrence University.
Officials believe an electrical short may have sparked the fire that occurred in the middle of SLU's parents weekend.

There was still a whiff of burnt metal Sunday afternoon on St. Lawrence University’s campus. Crews were hauling buckets of water out of Gunnison Memorial Chapel, water from the fire hoses that helped extinguish the blaze around daybreak.

But at the time, firefighters weren’t quite ready to say the fire was out. Brian McCluskey is Canton’s assistant fire chief.

The concern is the upper portion of the steeple, there are some embers still dropping. We don’t want to rekindle… “Has anybody been up there?” We got guys in the general vicinity, but they can’t get all the way up to it. We’re having an issue trying to reach it.

The bells are still intact. They're fine. Probably with a little bit of cleanup, they'll still work.
The chapel was built in 1926. Its tolling bells are a staple of campus life. The wooden beam that held the bells burned, but luckily the bells came to rest on the tower’s concrete floor.

The bells are still intact. They’re fine. Probably with a little bit of cleanup, they’ll still work.

Dan Seaman is St. Lawrence University’s chief facilities officer. He says an investigation into the fire’s cause is ongoing, but preliminary indications point to an electrical failure.

Workers around the fallen top of the spire Monday morning. Photo: Tara Freeman, courtesy, St. Lawrence University
Workers around the fallen top of the spire Monday morning. Photo: Tara Freeman, courtesy, St. Lawrence University
Seaman says parts of the chapel sustained water damage, including a ceiling that collapsed in the main foyer. He says a structural engineer will inspect the steeple as early as today to determine whether it needs to be disassembled.

My guess is that we’ll be advised to bring a crane in and pluck it off the chapel and bring it down, and we’ll have to evaluate what we’ll do next in terms of replacing it.

Seaman says the damage is a big loss for one of the university’s –and the village’s – signature buildings.

It is seen from many miles around. In fact, I’ve heard reports from people who could see the fire from four or five miles away, so it is the iconic structure on campus, so a lot of people can identify with it.

Classes resume as normal today at St. Lawrence. Seaman says the chapel will remain closed, and the area around it cordoned off. There’s still concern that parts of the steeple could fall to the ground.

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