By John Robert
Memories of the summer of 1987 in Trenton are still clouded by the billowing smoke that rose over the famed Mulias and Ellias store, which was destroyed by flames that began to engulf it during the early evening hours of June 24.
Now, 25 years later, the block where it once stood has new life as the home to a popular barbecue restaurant. But the night that Mulias and Ellias burned, it took a lot of the city’s history with it, and left an emptiness that lingered for several years.
The origins of the department store near the corner of West Jefferson and West stretched back to the early 20th century, and it had evolved into a staple of the community and served as one of the city’s most familiar landmarks.
It was a place where anything could be bought, as a sign inside the store boasted, “If we don’t have it, you don’t need it.”
The fire started in the evening — right around the time many residents likely were preparing to eat dinner — in two spots in the basement. The basement contained a considerable amount of excess stock, including things that were not on display in the store, but could still be requested.
By starting there, it grew unnoticed, and rapidly expanding every minute. On that day, most of what could go wrong, did.
“There was a problem with the alarm; we didn’t get the alarm right away,” said Russ Stahl, who was Trenton’s fire chief at the time. The alarm had come via a private alarm company in Woodhaven. “So by the time they got it, then it got to us … It was pretty well engulfed by the time the Fire Department got there,” even though the trucks made great time in responding.
There was initial concern that employees, many of whom were retirees working there part-time, still may have been inside. Only a few of the first-responding fire fighters went inside, making sure no one was there. The smoke from the fire did cause two fire fighters to suffer from smoke inhalation when they had trouble finding their way out of the basement.
The basement was “like a maze,” Stahl said, thanks to all the aisles holding products. Immediately after the fire, Stahl said, he was misquoted saying it was a “mess” in the basement — something he said he never intended.
Another firefighter got stuck upstairs, and was forced to break a window and jump to safety. Fortunately, besides those who were hospitalized from smoke inhalation and recovered, there were no other injuries on that night.
Glenn Spry, the fire marshal at the time, said “the flame was rolling; it was all over the place.” He also called the basement a “maze,” which seems certainly to be why the fire could grow for so long without anyone noticing.
“They called in several other departments,” Stahl said. Responders from nearby included Grosse Ile, Riverview and Woodhaven. But with all the trucks converging on downtown Trenton came another problem.
“There wasn’t enough water in the mains to take care of all the trucks they had there,” as they pumped out nearly 2,000 gallons of water a minute. This included a few trucks near the river, pumping up the hill ineffectively. “So we had the Detroit fireboat come down, and that gave us all the water we’d need.”
After the first responders were drawn out of the building, and all the people were evacuated, the only option was to fight the blaze from the streets, though it was by this point near-uncontrollable. Floors had begun to collapse, and the building rapidly deteriorated. Flames licked every wall, eventually advancing the fire down the block, destroying all but a couple stores that were protected by a firewall dividing them from the rest of the street.
When Stahl heard about the fire, he was at home on vacation, and also preparing for his retirement, which was only two weeks away. He was in the basement, framing pictures (a hobby of his), when he received the call. “I was upset that it had taken so long for me to get the call,” was his immediate reaction.
When he left his house, he could see the smoke billowing across the sky, and he arrived to a crowd. “Lot of gawkers around. Across the street, and all over the area. They came from all over,” Stahl recalled. It was an odd sight, people who had come from miles around to buy things from Mulias and Ellias were now coming to see the tragedy unfold.
The fire had to be fought throughout the night and even into the early morning, with food eventually needing to be brought in to feed the weary firefighters battling the blaze.
“I don’t know how much worse it could have got — without the fireboat,” Stahl said. “It probably would have just burnt itself out.”
As the community entered something of a state of mourning, the investigation into the fire began.
Spry said “it was suspected to be arson,” but the investigation eventually was handed up to the State Police, and he never heard any conclusion to it. When he retired, “it was still up in the air,” though the devastation had made pinpointing the cause, or the culprit, difficult, and nothing seems to have ever come of it.
The loss left Trenton with a huge hole on the block, and many people felt as if the city had lost part of its identity as a community. While the grief has faded and the block has come to life again with new businesses, some still mourn the demise of the independent, family run department store, which had already begun to disappear from the business landscape before the fire, and continued to do so afterward.
But while the others usually had going-out-of-business sales or prolonged closings that allowed longtime customers a chance to visit and leisurely say goodbye, the abrupt departure of Mulias and Ellias never afforded its customers that opportunity.
The customers who came out to watch the blaze saw history in the making, but also saw one of their favorite parts of it come to an end.