The blaze destroyed the First Union church on West Denney's Road.
Investigators with the Delaware State Fire Marshal’s Office and federal Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agents spent the first hours of Dec. 31 probing the cause of a fire that destroyed the historic Little Union Methodist Church at 5083 West Denney’s Road, near Cheswold.
Three firefighters were slightly injured tackling the blaze.
Chief Deputy State Marshal Scott Bullock and three investigators were on the scene at about 10 a.m., six hours after the blaze was extinguished. The men were probing a rear corner of the church, where the fire, which completely destroyed the small building, may have originated.
Bullock said it would take some time to definitely establish the origin of the fire, which he estimated caused about $100,000 in damage.
The blaze was reported at about 1 a.m. Monday by a passing driver, Bullock said.
Cheswold Volunteer Fire Company Chief Joshua Dempsey said his crews arrived to find heavy fire coming from the windows of the single-story church.
In addition to Cheswold, firefighters from Dover and Leipsic also responded to the alarm, plus ambulances from Dover and Camden-Wyoming.
Several firefighters were working to put down the blaze from the inside of the church when its western wall collapsed, bringing the roof down on top of them. Another firefighter outside the building was hurt as the wall fell outward, Dempsey said.
“My heart dropped,” Dempsey said when the wall and roof caved in.
The injured personnel, two from Dover and one from Cheswold, were taken to the Kent campus of Bayhealth Hospital, where they were treated and released shortly afterward, he said.
Dempsey said slippery ground from recent rains and water used to fight the blaze made work difficult, as crews took care not to damage any of the headstones surrounding the church. The ground behind the church was severely singed as a result of heavy fire coming from the rear; several headstones in the burned grass appeared to have escaped damage.
One stone, on the side of the structure marking the grave of Civil War veteran William Carney, also was untouched; a bouquet of flowers placed there also escaped the flames, which melted the vinyl siding from the outside walls.
Inside, the destruction was total, with almost nothing of the interior left untouched by fire.
Cheswold-area resident Richard “Dickie” Durham, said he did not think the building had been in active use for several years. The building had been associated with the nearby Immanuel Union Church, where he serves as a trustee and church historian.
According to the Delaware Public Archives, the congregation, then known as the Little Union Colored Church, was organized in 1850 by the Rev. Silas W. Murray, with the first building being a small shanty. The current structure was built in 1883.
Bullock said additional information will be released once the fire marshal’s office completes its investigation.