Out of the Ashes. A History of Fires at Hampton Beach

By Amanda Milkovits, Staff Writer

Foster's Sunday Citizen

Sunday, June 20, 1999

HAMPTON - Hampton Beach is no stranger to terrible fires.

The massive conflagrations of 1915, 1921 and 1950 left behind acres of burned rubble and charred wreckage of hotels and shops. Owners of destroyed businesses struggled at the edge of debt and frustrated firefighters beseeched town officials and residents for more manpower and better equipment.

Wednesday's five-alarm fire showed that those days are over.

About 200 firefighters determinedly battled the blaze at the Old Salt restaurant, the Beach Walk, and the Springfield motel for hours, narrowly keeping it from spreading to wooden cottages and businesses standing just a few feet away. Call it a miracle - but give the credit to cooperative work among the 23 fire agencies, a bit of luck with a dying wind - and hard-earned experience.

"The whole theory of knowing how to fight fires has changed a lot in 30 years," said Hampton Fire Capt. Jack Goodwin.

Today's firefighters have come a long way from their volunteer counterparts from the turn of the century. They are well-trained, they use up-to-date equipment, and they have immediate help from other fire departments.

"We have a very efficient mutual aid system and we have a lot of permanent fire departments in the area, so when we call on mutual aid, we're getting an immediate response," Goodwin said. Yet the danger always remains. Stiff ocean breezes off Hampton Beach fan the flames, heavy beach traffic slows fire trucks from reaching the scene, and there's always the chance that people are trapped inside the burning buildings. Many of the wood-frame buildings at the beach are about two-arms length away; few have sprinkler systems.

Small fires can rage out of control quickly. When Wednesday's fire started, it looked small enough to be doused by a water bottle, according to one onlooker - minutes before it tore through the three buildings.

One unchangeable fact: There's never room for error when fighting fires at Hampton Beach.

This week's Hampton Beach fire (of June 16, 1999) was bad,
but nothing compared to 1915, 1921, or 1950 ...

Before the 1915 fire

After the 1915 fire
HAMPTON BEACH, as much a summer attraction in 1915 as
it is now, was once leveled by fire. The photo of Hampton's
Ocean Boulevard, at top, was taken 15 days before the Sept.
23 [1915] blaze leveled 10 acres and 60 buildings.
During the 1915 fire
FIRST OF THREE: Flames and smoke erupted from the four-story Janvrin Hotel (center) and moved swiftly across the beach. All the buildings to the right of the smoke were destroyed. Children playing with matches were blamed for starting the fast-moving fire of 1915, which destroyed 10 acres of property at Hampton. Newburyport Daily News 1915 fire headline
THE LOSSES: The 1915 fire destroyed hotels, shops and the Episcopal church, yet the disaster would be repeated with the fires of 1921 and 1950.

In the summer of 1915, Hampton Beach just had volunteer firefighters, who were reduced to seeking donations to furnish a firemen's hall. Their ladders, a hose and other equipment were stored in a barn. They were also pushing to establish a permanent fire department with three paid firefighters and a motorized fire truck, as recounted in Peter Randall's book "Hampton: A Century of Town and Beach."

The proof that they needed those things came on Sept. 23. A small fire started in a pile of rubbish on B Street and grew terrible enough to roar through 10 acres of buildings - seven hotels including the Ashworth-by-the-Sea (which had been rebuilt after a 1913 fire), two theaters, 10 stores, 40 cottages and St. Peter's-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church.

Residents were dumping pails of water on the flames. Others were pulling furniture out of the buildings and piling them on the beach. They saved the furnishings of the church, including the bell that had been rung just a few hours before to alert people of the fire.

During the 1915 fire After the 1915 fire HAMPTON'S WORST: Flames rip from the Fairview and smoke heavily obscures the Janvrin hotel, as people pull furniture from the burning buildings to the safety of the beach. It was the worst fire Hampton Beach had seen, and it was a preview of the devastating fires of 1921 and 1950. Spectators later walked along Ocean Boulevard, stepping over the ash and debris from the burned buildings.

A southerly wind blew the sparks north, taking down wooden structures in its path. Firefighters from Portsmouth, Exeter and the Massachusetts towns of Salisbury and Amesbury con-verged on the scene but were frustrated with poor water pressure. It was Walter Farmer, the owner of Applecrest Orchards in Hampton Falls, who came up with the idea to stop it. He saw the smoke from his farm and raced to the beach with a pile of explosives. It took him three hours to persuade fire officials to use the explosives to blow up the buildings near the fire to create a block. Once the Ashworth cottage and DeLancey Hotel were dynamited, the fire was halted.

Never again, residents said, and appointed their first permanent fire chief and bought the town's first motorized fire apparatus in the spring. All but two of the destroyed businesses were rebuilt, according to Randall's book.

In six years, Hampton Beach would be tested again.

Before the 1921 fire

BEFORE AND AFTER: It was near the beginning of the summer season at Hampton, and tourists filled the boardwalk. After the 1921 fire, this view to Church Street shows the destruction. [Editorial note: This picture that appeared in the original newspaper article is of the 1915 fire, not the 1921 fire. There are very few existing pictures of the 1921 fire.]
After the 1921 fire
Boston Daily Globe headline of the 1921 fire

SECOND IN THREE: Only six years after the first major fire, the famous resort town of Hampton Beach was struck again. Tourists narrowly escaped from the fire, which broke out before dawn. Once again, firefighters complained that poor water pressure made it difficult for them to stop the blaze.

It was June 28, 1921, the first big weekend of the summer. And the scene was unbearably familiar.

Before sunrise that Sunday, another fire sparked, then blew through the main business area between B Street and Nudd Avenue. It raced through the Lawrence House and (newly rebuilt) Janvrin Hotel in short time, and tore through the rest of the block. The fire created $400,000 in damage, destroying several hotels, a theater, garage, dance pavilion, 13 stores, the post office, cottages and apartments.

The fire destroyed nearly the same area as in 1915, with an exception - because the rebuilt buildings were better constructed, the fire didn't spread as far. Still, firefighters struggled with poor water pressure, and half of the beach's businesses and residences were destroyed.

Hampton Beach went on. Some rebuilt immediately. Others, like Mrs. Florence Munsey, who'd lost her Janvrin hotel twice to fire, donated money for an advertising campaign for the beach, according to Randall's book.

Voters had the fire in mind when they decided at special town meetings in July to appoint a building inspector and established building regulations. In 1922, the Beach Precinct approved buying a pumper-ladder fire truck. But the real problem of low water pressure at the beach still wasn't solved. That would come to haunt Hampton Beach a quarter-century later.

Before the 1950 fire

UP IN SMOKE: It had been more than 25 years since the last great fire. Then flames whipped through several blocks at Hampton Beach in 1950, causing $500,000 in damage.
During the 1950 fire
During the 1950 fire

THIRD IN THREE: Onlookers watched as flames leapt from building to building at Hampton Beach. Harold Fernald, who was a cook at a beach grill then, remembered feeling helpless as he watched the buildings burn. Firefighters were hampered by poor water pressure.

Late afternoon on July 14, 1950, Harold Fernald was working as a cook at Neut's Grill, on the corner of C Street and Ocean Boulevard at the beach.

He was just 18, a freshman at Plymouth Teachers College, but the now-retired teacher from Winnacunnet High School still remembers that day vividly - when he saw the Color Spot Photo Shop across the street suddenly explode into flames. "It just took off," Fernald said. Flames darted from the building, reaching across the street in a matter of short minutes.

Everyone rushed out of their buildings, Fernald remembered, some grabbing garden hoses to help the firemen battle the fire, others struggling to pull furniture and belongings out of the nearby cottages.

A new saltwater main system, to be used in fighting fires, hadn't been completed yet, but fire-fighters were able to use an engine to pump water from the Hampton River to the mains for firefighters to use at the scene. But water pressure was too low to stop the fire, and it whipped through the beach buildings.

"What little water they had didn't last long," Fernald said.

The heat raged so fiercely that some firemen wrapped themselves in water-soaked sheets in order to inch closer to the blaze. A Northeast Airlines pilot on a return flight to Boston said later that he saw the flames leaping as high as 100 feet in the air, according to one news report.

"All we could do was stand there and watch," Fernald said. "It took everything." Flames leapt from building to building, tearing through the wood-frame structures quickly from C Street to D and B streets. Residents and firefighters anxiously awaited the fire trucks from the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, but it took an hour for them to arrive down the busy beach, Fernald remembered. "It was such a helpless feeling," he said.

At last, the shipyard fire trucks pulled in. They backed onto the sand, pumping water directly from the ocean onto the flames. As the tide washed in, wrecker trucks eased the fire trucks up out of the water.

When the flames subsided into dry ash, the heavy equipment rumbled in to clean up the debris. Fernald remembered seeing the big machines scooping up masses of coins that had melted together in the fire at the old Playland Arcade. All told, the 1950 fire wiped out four hotels, several cottages and scores of businesses, causing $500,000 in damage.

The blaze that left 92 people without residences and destroyed about 100 renting rooms had started in a pile of rubbish near the photo shop. Fire had neared the walls of the Ashworth-by-the-Sea but, this time, didn't claim it. This fire was the turning point in getting better water pressure at the beach, Fernald believes. Firefighters had struggled with low water pressure at the beach - at times barely pumping 1,000 gallons a minute.

But that would change. Separate water systems were tied in together, allowing better water pressure. (On Wednesday, firefighters were able to use the nine nearby fire hydrants - pumping 4,000 to 5,000 gallons of water a minute, Goodwin said.)

Once again, Hampton Beach business owners stared at the burned hulks of their stores and motels - and vowed to build again. "Fireproofing is sure to be a feature in future construction," Edwin Batchelder, associate in the Hampton Beach Improvement Co., told one reporter then.

The day after the fire, Henry Dupuis, whose business had burned, posted a "Henry's Real Estate" sign with an arrow pointing to his desk on the still-standing Ocean House porch, according to Randall's book.

Three days later, the Hobbs family held a cornerstone-laying ceremony on the corner of C Street and Ocean Boulevard as a symbol that they would rebuild - using cement, steel and brick fireproof construction. The Playland Arcade was also rebuilt and is once again a land-mark at the beach.

Today, as the business owners sift through the ruins of their buildings, they talk through their despair of rebuilding.

That is one eternal truth of Hampton Beach: Like a phoenix, it always rises back up from the ashes.


For more on the history of Hampton fires see this special article on the history of the Hampton Fire Department from the Atlantic News and this additional series of Hampton Fire Department history.