Ocmulgee National Monument fire ruled arson

A 154-year-old house that survived a Civil War raid was nearly destroyed in an arson early Wednesday at the Ocmulgee National Monument.

Macon police arrested a man with cuts on his hands who was watching the commotion as crews battled the blaze.

Just before 3:40 a.m., a fire alarm alerted firefighters, who arrived to find the back side of the superintendent’s house on fire near the entrance to the park.

The man who used to live there, current Ocmulgee National Monument Superintendent Jim David, moved his family off the property more than four years ago. The house had been vacant since the fall when a law enforcement ranger left, David said.

“Investigators have no question it was arson,” David said. “The individual started a fire in one of the back rooms.”

Dwight Donald Davis, 57, of Macon, is charged with arson, burglary and criminal trespass, according to the Bibb County Sheriff’s Office. He is being held at the Bibb County jail without bond, said Sgt. Sean DeFoe, sheriff’s office spokesman.

The sheriff’s office, federal law enforcement rangers and the Macon-Bibb County Fire Department are investigating the fire, he said.

Flames heavily damaged two rooms, but firefighters were able to save the walls, roof and outside of the house, David said.

“You can see inside the house the heat was melting things and peeling paint, so it was just about ready to flash over,” David said.

If the alarm hadn’t sounded or if firefighters were delayed, David thinks the house would have been engulfed in flames. The cold night also kept temperatures down in the attic, which slowed progression of the fire, David said.

The house was built in 1857 as a wedding present from the bride’s parents when Mary Burge married Capt. Sam Dunlap.

It’s a fact that Macon Councilman Rick Hutto knows well.

He spent years researching the family for a book he wrote that detailed the sordid and murderous tale of Chester Burge.

Hutto said the family is credited with saving Macon from the flames during the Civil War. Union Gen. George Stoneman seized the house during his raid in the Battle of Macon in 1865.

When the Works Progress Administration excavated the park in the 1930s, the building housed the on-site headquarters for the Smithsonian Institute during the project, David said.

Due to the historical significance of the building, David said an historic preservation crew from his regional office is expected Thursday to begin evaluating how to rebuild.

He said officials likely will consider restoring the house to include its original high ceilings that were lowered years ago.

“We are very, very lucky,” David said. “We came close to losing it.”

Writer Amy Leigh Womack contributed to this report.

To contact writer Liz Fabian, call 744-4303.