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Monday, November 20, 2023

Early Village Firefighting: Hard Lessons Learned


Organized around 1896, the volunteer Wells River Hose Company was equipped with hoses and a hose cart that members pulled to the scene of village fires.  Before hydrants were available, bucket brigades supplied water to be pumped.  It was typical of early organized firefighting in communities in both NH and VT. They were gradually replaced by fire engines. (Horace S. Symes)

A "great conflagration" destroyed the center of Newbury Village on June 14, 1913. It razed over 25 building on the Newbury Common and along adjacent streets. As a result of this fire, a village water system was installed within several years. (Newbury Historical Society)

Fire Sweeps Bradford. fire hoses snaked through Bradford's Main Street during a major downtown fire over 75 years ago. The east side of Bradford's business district was partially destroyed by a fire on Dec. 17, 1947. A number of area fire departments fought the fire using lines of hose pumping water from the Waits River.  Only the Bradford Fire Department could use village water as the hydrants, at the time, did not have standard-size connectors. (Bradford Historical Society) 

In the past, village centers in our area have been impacted by major fires. This column describes local fires between 1848 and 1953 that destroyed multiple structures and dramatically altered the appearance of the communities when they occurred. The emphasis is on the role of volunteer firefighters and the obstacles they faced.

Before the early 19th century, the only effort in respond to fires was spontaneous. Each household was expected to have a fire bucket handy. When a fire broke out, a bucket brigade was formed and water was passed from a nearby well or cistern in an attempt to quell the flames.

Slowly, a little more organization and preparation took hold in firefighting. Private fire companies were organized in larger communities. In Vermont the first efforts were in cities such as Burlington (1808) and Montpelier (1814). In New Hampshire, companies appeared in Concord (1807) and Keene (1808). In some communities there were more than one company.

 These were volunteer organizations with little, if any, support from local governments. Belonging to these quasi-fraternal companies was considered “a mark of social standing.” Competitive drills were held between companies, and parades gave volunteers a chance to show new uniforms and equipment.

Some large local businesses and insurance companies sponsored fire companies. The Estey Organ Company in Brattleboro and the Vermont Mutual Fire Insurance Co. of Montpelier are examples.

Larger towns began to provide tax support for equipment and hose houses. In some cases, volunteers were exempt from poll taxes. In 1852, Manchester, NH began to pay volunteers $5 a year.

 Hose companies deployed hand or horse-drawn hose carts from hose houses to the scene of fires. The hoses would be attached to hydrants if there was a municipal water system. If not, bucket brigades kept water supplied to the handpumps.

About this time, two innovations were introduced. They were steam-powered engines with greater water pressures and  chemical engines. The latter relied on a soda-acid chemical reaction in the engine that created increased water pressure.

In the early 20th century, there was a move to a paid department and motorized hose and ladder trucks in the largest communities.

The following are examples of major local fires and the impact of firefighting techniques.

 On April 19, 1848, a fire broke out in Haverhill Corner that destroyed a major portion of the business district on the west side of Main Street.

“The only defense was a long line of men and boys, old and young, standing in line from the reservoir on the South Common, passing buckets of water down to the fire.”

Notwithstanding this effort, the fire spread rapidly, fanned by a strong northerly wind, and was only stopped by tearing away small adjoining structures, creating a fire barrier.

Eight buildings were destroyed in what was called “one of the most destructive fires every witnessed in this section of the country.”

One newspaper article suggested that villages needed cisterns supplied with fresh water and a plan to “procure a good engine with apparatus, fire hooks, etc.”

In the morning of February 19, 1883, a fire broke out on Bradford’s Main Street. Described as “the great fire and a terrible conflagration,” the fire destroyed ten buildings on the west side of the business district.

There was no municipal water system and the supply of water was limited. Firemen used a hand pump to get water from cisterns until the supply was depleted.  It was reported that some even used snow to help suppress the flames.

As was the custom among firefighting in those days, saving the flaming buildings became secondary to containing the spread of the fire to other structures. The buildings north of the fire were saved only by being “enveloped in wet carpets.” 

Within two hours, the flames were under control. Only the fact that the winds calmed save the entire business area from being swept away. 

The United Opinion praised the heroic work of Waitsville Fire Engine Company firemen. They operated out of the firehouse on South Main Street. They “worked like heroes and to them in large measure is due the staying of the flames.”  Also mentioned was the work of Bradford women who helped remove items from threatened buildings.

Within a year, the brick Union Block and Stevens Block replaced the destroyed wooden buildings.  However, it was not until 1892 that the newly-formed Village of Bradford created a municipal water system with hydrants.

On September 26, 1892, a severe lightning storm caused the worse fire in the history of the village of Wells River.

“A large part of Main Street went up in flames,” reports recounted. Nine building were consumed, Including the Wells River House, livery stables and several other commercial buildings. The Wells River Hose Company, equipped with only a hose cart and supported by a volunteer “pail brigade,” fought the fire.

 The Woodsville Hose & Ladder Company and the Barnet Fire Company rendered assistance. The firefighters were hampered by the lack of a water system but helped by the continuing heavy rain.

The devastation provided a terrible lesson. Within two years a private water system was created for the village and hydrants were installed. Efforts were made to enhance the Hose Company with additional equipment.   

On December 5, 1912, a fire on the west side of Main Street destroyed Fairlee’s Opera House, library, and church. The entire town responded to the urgent ringing of the church bell. With no water system, only hand fire extinguishers were available against the rapidly developing fire. There was fear that the fire might spread to the nearby Morey Mountain.

Word was sent to surrounding towns and a total of 150 firefighters finally brought the fire under control. Within days, plans to rebuild the destroyed buildings began.

The Barre Daily Times editorialized, “One would think that the loss there of its chief building would cause a village like Fairlee to give itself sufficient fire protection, and perhaps it will. Likewise, many another village which has been resting in fancied security about the same as Fairlee did, apparently”

About 1919, the Fairlee Fire Company was formed and was gifted a 1914 fire engine. Orford’s fire company had been in existence for decades and, by 1922, was known as the Orford Chemical Engine Company. The two neighboring companies supported each other as well as other area towns. 

An example of this cooperation occurred in November 1922 when the United Opinion building on Bradford’s Main Street caught fire. Initially, it looked as though this fire would do to the east side of the street what the 1883 fire had done to the west side.

The alarm brought a quick response from the local hose company, who together with volunteers, fought the flames. Outside assistance was called for and the Orford and Fairlee Chemical Companies responded.

At one time, the local company had four streams of water on different parts of the building. The Chemical Companies’ efforts confined the flames to the single building.  At the time, successes were few and far between.

“The ‘great conflagration” that destroyed the center of Newbury village on June 14, 1913 was one of the most devastating fires in the area’s history.  Beginning in a blacksmith shop, the fire, fanned by brisk winds, spread to adjacent buildings.

The village was without a water system and “totally unprepared to cope with so large a fire.” The United Opinion’s coverage of the fire described how, “the men fought valiantly but had practically no weapons that were adequate. While men were fighting the fire away from their own homes, they would turn and see these same homes burning fiercely, so rapidly did the fire spread.  For a time, it appeared as if the entire village might be destroyed.”

 The fire destroyed over 25 structures on the Newbur yCommon and along the adjacent streets. The historic Methodist church was saved when horses were used to pull away the adjoining wooden sheds. There was help from neighboring towns, “but the reinforcements arrived only to stand by as helpless.”

The newspaper went on, “When the buildings are again restored, it is safe to say that Newbury will have a town water system before many years.” In August, rebuilding had begun to replace the destroyed buildings. 

Although the need for a reliable water source was recognized, it was several years before a system was created with a storage reservoir and a series of hydrants appropriately spaced throughout the village. 

The volunteers began to develop a fire department with equipment and a hose house. By 1919, five hose houses were placed around the village.

No community has been more permanently affected by fire than the village of West Fairlee. At the turn of the 20th century, it was a “bustling place, with several general stores, a hotel, a drug store, a jeweler and a several large commercial blocks. This activity was in major part due to the nearby copper mines. 

 Three fires between 1908 and 1917 caused most of those buildings to disappear with few replacements. “West Fairlee Burned” was the headline in The Opinion report on the fire of September 29, 1908 night. “It was a hard fire for that little village as it completely wiped out the business portion of the place.”

West Fairlee had no organized fire department, little or no water, and no fire apparatus, so all that could be done was to let the fire burn itself out. Four companies from neighboring towns responded to the call for help, but arrived too late.

On September 25 of the following year, a second fire started in the Whitney Block and spread along Main Street. There was still no organized fire protection. In 1917, a third fire destroyed the Eastman block and two residences.  While some buildings were built on the vacant lots, the face of West Fairlee village was changed forever. The lessons of having inadequate fire protection were learned, and in 1921, a volunteer fire company was organized.    

No community was safe from disastrous fires. On September 6, 1934, a fire destroyed Piermont’s library and Gould’s store and damaged several residencies.

Five departments from surrounding towns responded to assist the Piermont volunteers. By the time the Fairlee and Bradford Chemical Companies arrived the fire in the library building was out of control. South Ryegate and Warren companies also came, but too late. A pumper from Hanover, using water from the nearby stream, “was largely responsible for checking the flames.”

The first newspaper mention of a Piermont fire department was in 1936.  In the years after that, the department responded to calls for help in the several of the communities that had helped them in 1934. 

“Fire Sweeps Bradford In the Worst Disaster on Record” was the headline that described the blaze that gutted the east side of Bradford’s business district on December 17, 1947. Six businesses, including three grocery stores, were destroyed in the section north of the Post Office, now the Colatina Exit. High winds fanned the blaze. 

The Bradford Fire Company responded to the alarm and was aided by departments from Wells River, Piermont, North Haverhill, Woodsville, and Fairlee. When the Hanover Department arrived, their highly-trained personnel were given charge of the combined efforts. Even high school students on their way to school, were pressed into service, pulling hoses.

The out-of-town firefighters were delayed in using their hose because the Bradford hydrants did not have standard-size connectors. Four lines of hose to the Waits River pumped water on the flames.  The newspaper reported, “It was with superhuman strength that the firemen were able to stop the flames” short of the Post Office and the rest of the business district.  “Down But Not Out” was the familiar refrain as plans were quickly made to rebuild the destroyed buildings.

On Friday, July 31, 1953, a fire broke out that threatened to wipe out the village of Waits River. The fire started in the Flint Brother’s Bobbin mill along the north side of the Waits River. A “gusty wind” sent the fire up the hill to envelope the general store and threat the nearby church.

As the village had no fire company, equipment from neighboring towns augmented by a privately-owned engine from East Orange and passing motorists fought the blaze. Workers at mills in Bradford and East Corinth were released to join the fight.  Embers spread forest and grass fires several miles away. 

The Waits River fire was an expensive lesson, but without it, public interest might never have been aroused sufficiently to enable the Tri-Village Fire Association to become a reality. 

 Hundreds of local individual structures have been destroyed by fire in the past 250 years. Some have been important business or public buildings; others have been homes or barns.

What is essential to the fires mentioned above is that there was no loss of life. What is to be recalled is that, in most cases, towns people rallied to support those who suffered loss. They also supported the development of modern fire companies.  What is to be celebrated is that many looked beyond the immediate disaster to rebuild their village centers. They learned from lessons, hard learned.