Someone purposely set a blaze that destroyed a log cabin venerated as one of the oldest buildings in Howard County, fire officials said yesterday.
Preservationists, depressed to hear that the Sunday morning fire was the act of an arsonist, are mourning the loss, noting that estimates date the structure's origins to the late 1600s. That would have made the humble, hand-built cabin old when the United States sprang to life.
It survived war, weather and neglect - only to fall in flames a few weeks after the county Department of Recreation and Parks began restoring it as a museum.
"I can't imagine why anybody would set out to purposely destroy a 300-year-old log cabin," said Mary Catherine Cochran, president of Preservation Howard County, which included the structure on its Top 10 Endangered Sites list in May. "It's such a blow that it's gone. I have a hard time believing that anybody would be that malicious.
"It was a settler's cabin," she added. "We just don't have enough of those buildings."
Historians disagree about the log cabin's age. Some believe its construction suggests 19th-century workmanship. But according to one source - Howard County's historic inventory - the original structure, made of hand-hewn logs, was built between 1696 and 1710. An addition, including a loft, was built about 1845, the inventory states.
"If it was really 300 years old, it would be one of the oldest log buildings left in the state of Maryland," said Orlando Ridout, an architectural historian for the Maryland Historical Trust.
Originally in North Laurel, the building was moved to Rockburn Branch Park in Elkridge about 15 years ago.
Whether it's the rare nature of very old buildings or the inclination of arsonists to leave them alone, relatively few fires the Maryland fire marshal investigates involve historic places, spokesman W. Faron Taylor said.
The log cabin blaze, reported about 6:30 a.m. Sunday, took 27 firefighters from Howard and Baltimore counties 45 minutes to control. Taylor said he cannot reveal how the fire was set.
"Right now, only the investigators and the person responsible know," he said. "It's a crucial part of the case."
What's left of the cabin is a jumble of blackened wood on the ground, unrecognizable as a former house.
The acrid smell of day-old ashes lingered. A puddle of muddy water was visible underneath.
Nearby are the remains of a campfire, circled by stones and bricks. But investigators ruled that out as the cause, determining that the fire started inside the log cabin on the first floor, Taylor said.
Clara Gouin, a park planner with Howard County, expressed disappointment upon seeing the ruins and realizing nothing could be salvaged.
"We had put so much time and effort and money into this project, and it was finally under way," she said, noting that workers recently had moved the building to a permanent foundation and replaced rotten logs.
Cochran thinks it might be easier for people to destroy historic buildings that - like the log cabin - don't look impressive. Often small and decrepit old cabins, barns and slave quarters do not appear significant to the untrained eye.
"Until that word trickles down, I think these buildings are going to be much more vulnerable to this kind of treatment," she said.
But people who visited the log cabin with an understanding of its significance saw history hidden in its shacklike appearance.
Columbia resident Carolyn Adams, who is spending her retirement indulging her love of historic things, helped Preservation Howard County confirm the exact location of the cabin in November amid a tangle of trees and undergrowth at Rockburn Branch. She braved thorny bushes to get a closer look.
"You can see where the steps came down, and the fireplace," she said at the time, glancing inside the open door.
"To think it made it 300 years - and to have that fate befall it," Adams said yesterday. "Oh, it's really discouraging."
County officials intended to include the cabin in a heritage complex with other buildings they are restoring: an 18th-century brick farmhouse with 19th-century additions; Pfeiffer's Corner School, a 19th-century, one-room schoolhouse; and a barn built from logs in the 1860s.
Adams is thankful that firefighters prevented flames from reaching the barn, which stands yards from the log cabin. "I don't know how they kept it from spreading," she said.
For Cochran, the fire is a reminder of a sad fact her organization has grappled with.
"Publicity for old buildings is a double-edged sword," she said. "You want folks to know they exist ... but at the same time it does tend to make them targets."