The Year of the Fires: 1915

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(And It Wasn't To Be The Last)

By Aggie Dowd

Rockingham County Newspapers

"Looking Back" -- March 22-24, 1989
Emile Dumont of Hampton Falls is an amateur historian who has spent considerable time, effort and resources to amass a fine collection of old postcards. As a longtime resident and property owner of Hampton Beach, Dumont's particular fascination has been the series of fires that devastated that resort during the first quarter of the 20the century.

So it was to him, as well as to back issues of The Hamptons [spelled with an 's' in those early days] Union, that we turned for particulars on the fires of 1915, 1921 and 1923.

The year 1915 could be called The Year of the Fires. In April, Exeter experienced a notable fire at Phillips Exeter Academy. Six students were driven from their rooms by flames which "destroyed the undertaking rooms (run by Frank L. Junkins), the furniture store and adjoining boarding house of Mrs. M. L. Field," reported The Hamptons Union. No one was hurt in the conflagration but, as was often the case in those days, most of the $10,000 loss was not covered by insurance.

In May, the two-story dwelling, barn and adjoining outbuildings of Moses Philbrick of Rye were totally destroyed by a fire "of mysterious origin." According to The Hamptons Union of May 13, Philbrick was able to save some furniture and a small bungalow to the rear of the main buildings on his property. His estimated loss, however, was over $3,000, a severe blow because "he carried but $500 insurance."

The Rye fire was a spectacular one. According to the reporter, "the reflection of the blaze could be seen for miles around, and automobiles were soon arriving from all directions." But the biggest fire occurred on Sept. 23, 1915 when fully one-third of the Hampton Beach resort area was devastated by a fast-moving blaze.

Said by the Boston Post to have been started by children playing with matches, the fire began in the rear of the B Street cottage owned by James B. Garland of Manchester. Fanned by high winds, the blaze quickly traveled northward, leveling the entire beachfront area from the Casino to High Avenue. The four-hour battle with flames driven by changeable, hurricane-force winds took on the attributes of a frontier war. Heroism and courage was the stuff of that cruel evening when women and children helped the men in bucket brigades by carrying water from the ocean as well as from nearby houses.

Though firefighters from Portsmouth, Amesbury, Salisbury and Exeter rushed to the scene, their efforts were severely undermined by feeble water pressure and the wooden structures that leapt into flames like tinderboxes. Cottage after cottage was blown up by dynamite in a vain effort to check the blaze, but only when the wind shifted oceanward did the destruction come to a halt. By then gone were St. Peter's Episcopal Church, The Ashworth, the Grand View, Fairview, DeLancey and Janvrin Hotels. The new Strand Theater (which had just been rebuilt in June) and the Olympia Theater were also razed. A total of 42 buildings were lost.

In an ironic twist of fate, Fire Chief L. C. Ring suffered the heaviest losses with the destruction of an entire block of his enterprises, including a store, hotel (the Grand View), theater (Olympia), cottage and the Ferncroft Gardens.

It is a tribute to the tenacity of those businessmen and women of long ago that work rebuilding the resort began almost immediately. Despite damage amounting to $250,000, most of the buildings were rebuilt, larger and better than before, by year's end. The following summer, Hampton Beach enjoyed a record-breaking season.

But the reconstructed resort was not to remain unscathed for long. Shortly after the start of the 1921 summer season, fire once again swept the business area of Hampton Beach, from B Street on the South to Nudd Avenue on the North. Once again the Janvrin and Fairview Hotels were destroyed, along with the Olympia Theater.

Defective kitchen wiring at the new Strand Hotel (which was built five years earlier on the site of the old Strand Theater) was believed to be the cause of the blaze.

The fire caused a loss of some $400,000, but because of the wind shift, this time the Ashworth was spared. According to press accounts, losses from the 1921 fire were much greater than those from the 1915 fire because the rebuilt structures were much larger and better constructed than their older counterparts. In addition, the percentage of insurance coverage this time was much smaller.

Once again, a shift in the wind's direction finally halted the fire's devastation. And this time, although water pressure was a problem early on, it later revived and became an important help to the firefighters who traveled from distant communities.

Once more, the Hampton Beach business community immediately began the process of rebuilding, prompting The Hamptons Union to editorialize: "The spirit of the phoenix, which is reputed to have arisen from the ashes, fills everybody ...... There (is) enough hurrah and cheerfulness ...... to win another World War."

For the remainder of that 1921 season, temporary structures were built on the oceanfront to house the burned out businesses. Permanent rebuilding began after Labor Day that year.

But fate was persistent. On the second anniversary of the 1921 fire, Hampton Beach was once again visited by fire. An overheated car in the Bristol Garage on the corner of Marsh Avenue and C Street burst into flames one Sunday morning at about 2:30, destroying 22 cars, the Wilbert Hotel and two cottages on Marsh Avenue.

This time, the fire was confined to a much smaller area, and as a result, the loss was only $80,000. (The $15,000 Wilbert Hotel suffered the greatest loss because inexplicably, it had no insurance coverage.) But the worn out business community had learned well the lesson of the previous fires.

As The Hamptons Union reported, "The material used in reconstruction by the Hampton Beach summer residents and business people had been largely of fireproof nature. This fact in a great measure prevented another lamentable disaster. It is a source of price for the Hampton Beach resident to know that the fire was stopped and under control before help from outside arrived."

Looking back at Seacoast roots, then, can be more than a fascinating journey. As the old proverb puts it, "Those who do not know history are bound to repeat it."

[For more information on the 1915 and other Hampton fires, check out the History of the Hampton Fire Department on this website as well as this article from Foster's Sunday Citizen in 1999, and also, James
Tucker's column "Our Town", 'Great Fires of 1915 & 1921'. Check them out.]
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