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Recent Weymouth fire destroys Electric City artifacts, photographs and documents: ‘It’s a major setback but it’s not going to defeat us’

A major fire occurred in Weymouth in the early hours of Aug. 29. Jonathan Riley Photo
A major fire occurred in Weymouth in the early hours of Aug. 29. Jonathan Riley Photo

WEYMOUTH, N.S. – By their nature, fires are cruel and unforgiving. And a recent fire in Weymouth is no exception.

It took only a matter of hours for the fire to not only destroy two historic buildings, but to claim with it artifacts, photographs, stories and paperwork dating back to the 1800s that told and documented the story of New France’s famed Electric City.

Stacey Doucette and Hal Theriault stand in the Weymouth building where artifacts relating to Electric City were being housed as part of an interpretive centre project. That building and its contents were destroyed by an Aug. 29 fire. SARA ERICSSON
Stacey Doucette and Hal Theriault stand in the Weymouth building where artifacts relating to Electric City were being housed as part of an interpretive centre project. That building and its contents were destroyed by an Aug. 29 fire. SARA ERICSSON

These items were to be the heart of an interpretive centre. Their destruction has led to heartache instead.

But it hasn’t led to complete defeat. Those who have been working for years to bring their Electric City vision to fruition still plan to forge ahead. Admittedly, though, they are having to regroup.

Big time.

“The loss is major, for sure,” says Hal Theriault. “There are things that obviously can never be replaced.”
 

Much of what was lost had been entrusted by Stehelin family members, who were pleased to see the story and history of Electric City shared and preserved. The Stehelin family founded New France and established an innovative lumber mill complete with a train, running water and electricity. Because there was running water and electricity here long before anywhere else in Weymouth it was dubbed Electric City.

Theriault, a playwright, has written stage plays about Electric City, calling it a story that was begging to be told. Two plays were about the Stehelin family, a third was about the multicultural workforce.

Theriault and Stacey Doucette are the co-chairs of a committee to bring the Electric City past back to life through an interpretive research centre. They mapped out a multi-year development plan and a feasibility study was recently completed for potential federal funding agencies. Theriault and Doucette see tapping into Electric City as a way to revitalize the Weymouth economy. The committee recently received its non-profit status.

Things were all coming together nicely.

And then came the Aug. 29 fire.

This photo taken the night of the Aug. 29 fire in Weymouth show how destructive the blaze was. JUSTIN MACLEAN
This photo taken the night of the Aug. 29 fire in Weymouth show how destructive the blaze was. JUSTIN MACLEAN

SO MUCH GONE

“We had all of the family archives plus a number of other donations in the building that we were using,” says Theriault, which was one of the buildings destroyed by the fire – a blaze so ferocious it even damaged properties located across the street.

“We had all of our electronic records, and all of the paper work I’ve been doing to apply for funding, plus all of the hard artifacts and the thousands of written pages by Paul Stehelin’s father and also all of the pictures,” Theriault says.

There are some things that can still be accessed electronically and Theriault and Doucette also hope there’s a way to retrieve some artifacts that may be in people’s homes.

“When the family left the Electric City site they left it pretty much intact and over the years people began to camp in the buildings and use the buildings as hunting lodges, so a number of things disappeared and became part of private collections,” Theriault says, not casting any blame. “People wanted souveniers of the place. So we know there are many things out there and actually since the fire we’ve been offered some things.”

Theriault says when he spoke with Paul Stehelin the morning after the fire, his reaction was quite wonderful.

“He said no one was hurt and everything else is just material,” Theriault says. Still, everyone is heartsick by the loss. “It’s his family history and I’m sure that he’s devastated. We certainly are.”


READ PREVIOUS STORIES ABOUT ELECTRIC CITY:

2017: TAPPING INTO ELECTRIC CITY – A UNIQUE HISTORY AND OPPORTUNITY

2017: SUPPORT NEEDED FROM WEYMOUTH RESIDENTS FOR NEW FRANCE PROJECT

2017: TRAINS AND FIREY HORSEMEN: GHOST STORIES STILL HAUNT NEW FRANCE

2018: ELECTRIC CITY PROJECTS HAVE POTENTIAL TO LIGHT UP TOURISM INDUSTRY FOR WEYMOUTH


CONTINUING ON

Theriault says they’ve been offered a place for a new office and people have offered their assistance.

“So we are determined. The centre can still be because we still have the story to tell,” he says, adding he and Doucette have spent days sifting through the charred rubble following the fire. Remarkably, given how intense the fire was, there were a few things found – some paper work and “bits and pieces” of things they may be able to salvage.

Still, Theriault keeps thinking about all of the things that are gone forever.

Electric City held great interest in the past. Some of the items that were stored in the building. LAURA REDMAN/file photo
Electric City held great interest in the past. Some of the items that were stored in the building. LAURA REDMAN/file photo

“Something will pop into my head and I’ll realize that we don’t have that anymore. There were so many things that were poignant and very important to the story,” he says.

“One of my favourite things is there’s a picture in the Electric City book of the father during the First World War. He was living in Weymouth at the time and he would walk from his house to the Western Union office to look at the latest list of casualties to see if any of his five sons who were serving overseas were listed as casualties,” says Theriault. “And he has a cane in his hand. We had that cane.”

He says they also had uniforms from the war from the family and important military badges. There was an old pump organ. A chess set and domino set that were made handcrafted by Acadians for the family. And hundreds and hundreds of photographs, most of which had never been seen by the public. And the list goes on and on.

“So in order to regroup we have to decide how we can best present the story in a totally different way from what we had planned,” Theriault says, adding they’ll be turning to the community for help.

The fire in Weymouth destroyed two buildings and damaged a few nearby. Electric City artifacts kept in one of the building were lost as well. AMANDA DOUCETTE PHOTO
The fire in Weymouth destroyed two buildings and damaged a few nearby. Electric City artifacts kept in one of the building were lost as well. AMANDA DOUCETTE PHOTO

“It’s a major setback but it’s not going to defeat us.”

HAL THERIAULT

“It’s still a popular story in the area. People still have grand memories and they can talk about their grandfathers who worked there and the way they were treated and the innovations and the marvelous equality and fairness in everything that happened,” he says. “We had so many concrete connections through the artifacts. To have those gone is a real loss.”

He says if people have their own artifacts from Electric City and they would be willing to donate them or at least loan them so they can be photographed and catalogued that would be a big help. There will also have to be fundraising to replace lost office equipment.

“We sat down the other day and said no matter what we need to keep going,” says Doucette. “We need the public’s help, we’re hoping they’re going to step forward.”

Theriault says the support and response so far by email and on social media has been wonderful.

“Sometimes you don’t realize how much the community is behind you until something like this happens,” he says. “It’s a major setback but it’s not going to defeat us.”

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