By Steve Jusseaume
The Hampton Union - Herald Sunday, Sunday, December 15, 2002
HAMPTON - Since early in the 19th century, fires have regularly changed the face of Hampton, particularly at the beach. But two fires in the downtown area, both on wintry nights, in the late 1940s and early '90s, altered the village landscape.
Most recently, in the summer of 1999, The Old Salt burned down at Hampton Beach. Four businesses were lost, and the popular beachfront restaurant was destroyed. The Higgins family, owners of the restaurant, subsequently moved the eatery to Lamie's Tavern at the corner of Exeter Road and Route 1.
Beach fires also destroyed acres of buildings in 1915, in 1921, and again in 1950.
But as far as winter fires go, two of the largest occurred in or near downtown.
On the night of Jan. 27, 1990, the Odd Fellows block on Lafayette Road burned. Then-fire chief Skip Sullivan recalled the blaze recently.
"There were two retail stores on the first floor and the Odd Fellows hall was upstairs. I remember we had two very cold days before and after that night, but on the night of the fire the air temperatures were warmer than usual," Sullivan said.
"The fire started in the basement; it was called in at midnight or 1 p.m. By the time we got there, it was out of control. There was fire everywhere in the building. We finally got it under control by daybreak, but through the night it burned. It was so out of control we had to pull all our firefighters out of the building early on."
The blaze quickly went to five alarms. Two Hampton ladders fought the fire - one from the beach and the other from Station 2 on Winnacunnet Road, as well as other local equipment. Ladder trucks from Newburyport, Mass., and Portsmouth assisted at the scene, as well as fire apparatus from towns all along the Seacoast.
The wood-frame building, built in 1896, partially collapsed during the night, and the morning light unveiled a destroyed five-story structure, though the tower had not collapsed fully. A massive clock - with wood faces and iron and metal workings in the top of the tower - was saved, and now sits in five crates in the basement of the Town Office building on Winnacunnet Road.
The building was demolished and the site remains empty to this day.
"I think it was the biggest fire ever to hit the downtown," Sullivan said.
The other notable winter fire occurred on the night of March 19, 1949, when the Town Hall on Winnacunnet Road was hit. Historian Peter Randall called the pre-dawn blaze the "most serious Village fire" in his 1989 history of the town.
"Mrs. Katherine Janvrin Dickerman, who lived across the street, was awakened by an explosion and looked out to see the front doors blown open and flames on the west side of the building," Randall wrote.
"The permanent firefighter on duty in the fire station next door apparently was not awakened by the noise, so the flames had a 15-minute start before the department could respond. By that time, little could be done to save the building, and efforts were directed toward protecting nearby property."
Vital town records tucked away in the town safe were saved, and someone rescued the so-called "$80,000 clock," so named because it was the sole remaining asset left from the town's ill-advised venture in the early part of the century in mass transportation - the street railway company.
The building was a total loss. The business of the community relocated to a small two-story building at approximately the same location. In the late 1990s, the town purchased a former bank 100 yards west of the original town hall on Winnacunnet Road, and renovated it for use as the new Town Office building.