Great Fires Of 1915 and 1921

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"Our Town" By James W. Tucker

Hampton Union

Thursday, January 31, 1952

We were target shooting on the soft sand of the beach opposite the head of D street. It was a beautiful fall afternoon. The date was September 23, 1915; thirty-seven years ago. Suddenly, Clara Dudley yelled "fire !" Then she started running toward her home on C street. We looked around and saw a great plume of black smoke, billowing upwards against a background of bright blue sky. Dropping the rifle in the sand, we ran toward the start of the greatest fire in Hampton's history. But was not until two weeks after the great conflagration that we remembered exactly what we did at the outset. Later, we found that other minds were also shocked into a temporary blankness by the awfulness of that terrible catastrophe that destroyed about $400,000 worth of recreational property and left that night at least ten acres of barren, blackened and smoking wasteland from which stark chimneys arose like gravestones in a deserted cemetery.

Volunteer Fire Company

There had been other serious fires at Hampton Beach. The first one of which we have seen a record, occurred in the early summer of 1885. In the fall of 1903, property of Charles N. Dodge, the Dudley & White Photo Studio and Restaurant and the Little & Singleton cottage were burned. And there was the big blaze of November 13, 1911 which destroyed the Pentucket House and three cottages, the "Priscilla," "Josephine" and "Stanwood." Hampton Beach was becoming conscious of the need for more efficient fire protection and so in 1915,there was a volunteer fire company with minimum equipment which included a combination hose and chemical. and a hose reel, which were quartered in the Ross Barn. Luckily,hydrants had been installed along the boulevard. in the center of the beach.

Started On B Street

But the local department was not at the scene when we ran across the Boulevard and pulled up in front of Dan Mahoney's Barbershop on the south side of B street and just a little west of the corner of B street and the Boulevard. Directly across the street was a blazing cottage which belonged to James Garland. The cottage was directly in the rear of the Garland Hotel which occupied the site of the present Fairview. Under a veranda of this cottage had been stored some empty containers in which blankets had been shipped which were disposed of during the first annual Hampton Beach Carnival of the previous Labor Day Week. And here the fire got its fast and furious start.

One Man Bucket Brigade

Dan Mahoney had set out two buckets of water in front of his shop. We grabbed one of them, took it across the street and threw it on one corner of the blazing building. We had only time to return the empty pail and start across the street with the second full bucket when the back of the hotel and the adjoining cottage to the west began to blaze. When we were dashing the second pail of water on the fire we appreciated the futility of such puny efforts and began to realize that the fire was completely out of hand. So we ran for home, which, at the time was in the Ashworth Cottage adjacent to the hotel. The family, which included three small children had already began to pack, if throwing belongings into sheets and then knotting the corners, can be called packing. Father and Mother were visiting us at the time and Dad returned with me to the fire, after the packing was well under way.

Outside Departments Respond

The volunteer firemen had arrived and hose had been attached to nearby hydrants. Departments in nearby towns had been notified and asked to send help, for by this time the conflagration was roaring northward across A street. We did what little we could to help. I remember of pushing a piano, which we had taken out of the Ferncroft Dance Hall on A street, up the boulevard and leaving it near Jenkin's Grocery. It was afterwards moved across the boulevard and onto the soft sand of the beach where it eventually burned completely. Then we borrowed a wheelbarrow and started home to move our belongings. With the women folks and children safely parked out of harm's way on the steps of St. Patrick's church; with Dad, a veteran fireman of the Concord Fire Department, helping as best he could at the scene of the blaze, we began moving trunks and bundles on the borrowed wheelbarrow. And before they were temporarily stored for the night in one of Mr. Purdy's cottages on Highland Avenue, we had moved them to six different locations, each a little further removed from the steadily advancing conflagration, the roaring of which could be heard a quarter of a mile away.

Building's Were Dynamited

Steadily and inexorably the fire continued its northward course in spite of the best efforts of firemen from several nearby communities and a crew of dynamiters. Cottages were consumed spontaneously. The fire leaped across Marsh avenue and Nudd avenue and consumed the Ashworth [Hotel]. Then our home of that summer and the DeLancey Hotel were dynamited in a partially successful effort to stop the blaze which, however, leaped over Highland Avenue. The Episcopal church, St. Peter's By The Sea, caught fire and began to burn. Later, we happened to be passing when the steeple collapsed and the bell gave one last doleful clang as it tumbled into the burned ruins. But the church marked the northernmost extent of the fire ravages. From B street to Highland avenue; more than half of the entire business section of Hampton Beach and all of the cottages, hotels and guest-houses in the rear of this part of the business section, had been completely destroyed.

Repeat Performance in 1921

The rebuilt section between B street and the Ashworth stood for exactly five seasons. Then in June 1921, it happened again. The second big fire started in the same section -- in a B street restaurant if our memory is correct, and razed everything as far north as the Ashworth. Here, a combination of happy circumstance ended the conflagration. First, the wind lessened and changed direction; second, asphalt shingles which covered a cottage occupied by Billy Lamb proved an efficient fire-stop and third, a group of Newburyport firemen, shielded by doors, stood in the intersection of Marsh avenue and the boulevard and continued to play two lines of hose on the blazing building at the corner, where the Delta Block is now, in spite of heat so intense that the sides of the door shields toward the fire blazed occasionally and had to be continually wet down by firemen stationed with a line of hose on the boulevard, just south of the intersection.

Loss As Great As In 1915

This fire covered an area of seven or eight acres and the losses aggregated fully as much as in 1915, for all the business places were stocked for the opening of the 1921 season and the buildings were more substantial than those destroyed six years previously. Before the 1921 ruins were done smoking, the Chamber of Commerce had caused a great sign to be erected in front of the ruins near the head of B street. On it, in letters two feet high had been painted the old slogan of the Salvation Army, "Down, But Not Out!" And under that in even larger letters: "Watch Us Grow!"

And since that time, those who have watched certainly have seen growth. Moreover, although there have been a few serious fires in the interim, it was not until July 14, 1950 that there has been any type of conflagration which could even be compared with the great fire of 1915 and 1921. On that day we had the "C Street Corner Fire" which destroyed several business blocks and cottages. This last blaze would have been more nearly comparable with '15 and '21 had it not been for an efficient fire department a new salt-water hydrant system which was pressed into active service, even before completion.

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