By Norma C. Adams
Thursday, July 9, 1986
Two devastating fires literally leveled the main section of Hampton Beach at a time when fires were fought with bucket brigades and pumping apparatus. Miraculously, no one was killed in either blaze but drama does not always involve death.
The first big fire, considered the worst, occurred on Thursday, September 23, 1915. The second was almost six years later, on Sunday, June 21, 1921.
Both were inviting beach days with warm sea breezes. In the 1915 fire, many people were enjoying an extended each season because of the unscheduled hot weather that often visits before fall sets in.
In 1921, merchants and residents were preparing for a busy season, and many summer-people were in residence preparing for the Fourth of July celebration and the sixth annual Hampton Beach Carnival.
Both fires ravaged the sections of the beach north of B Street to Nudd Avenue, and in 1915 the Ashworth Hotel was lost. Just two years earlier, it had burned and had been rebuilt at a cost of $60,000, a huge sum at the time.
Total damage in the 1915 fire was estimated at $150,000, according to old newspapers reports, though some later figures were given at $400,000. At least 10 prime acres of beach property had been left a black wasteland.
The 1921 fire damage was also estimated at $400,000. The rebuilt structures were much larger, according to published reports, and better constructed. The Ashworth Hotel did not burn in the 1921 fire, though it had a very close call.
after the 1915 fire at the beach.
(Photo courtesy of Tuck Memorial Museum)
The 1915 fire destroyed 42 buildings, including five hotels, 10 stores, the Episcopal Chapel known as St. Peter's-by-the-Sea, and dozens of cottages. Had it had not been for a wind shift to the west, the Casino too would have been lost to the leaping flames.
Newspaper accounts of the day reported that the 1915 blaze probably started with boys playing with matches near a box of rubbish in the rear of a B Street cottage. Driven by strong sea winds that Thursday afternoon, flames shot north to Highland Avenue, and in less than half an hour,the blaze was out of control.
"Showers of sparks started scores of roof fires far ahead of the main fire," a 1915 newspaper account reads, "... Great Boars Head was threatened by firebrands borne by the wind."
In an account written by an eye- witness to the 1915 fire, published in 1952, historian James "Jim" Tucker wrote:
"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: 37 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 ... we ... were shocked into a temporary blankness by the awfulness of that terrible catastrophe ... 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 ... in the rear of the Garland Hotel ... here the fire got its fast and furious start."
Tucker goes on in the article to describe the chaos that followed.
People ran for buckets of water, only to discover the futility of their efforts as the fire spread to adjoining buildings. Others ran to their cottages and started removing furnishings, clothing -- some tied in sheets and knotted -— and dumped belongings on the beach away from the flaming winds.
Some tried to rescue their belongings in wheelbarrows, only to lose them in the end to the advancing fires.
People stationed themselves on rooftops with pails of water and garden hoses to wet down their houses to thwart the spitting flames and encroaching heat.
Volunteer firefighters began to arrive with hoses to attach to hydrants — but this was before the salt water main was installed at the beach — and pressure was very low. Also, there were very few hydrants.
burned to the ground in the great fire of 1915.
(Photo courtesy of Tuck Memorial Museum)
As the fire moved on -— consuming everything in its path — the roar of the blaze could be heard a quarter of a mile away, the account says. Flames were clearly visible from Little Boars Head in North Hampton and further north.
Assistance from surrounding towns was enlisted. Special effort to stop the flames at Nudd Avenue and save the Ashworth was in vain. Flames jumped across what was then Marsh (now Ashworth) and Nudd avenues and consumed the new hotel.
Fifteen buildings were dynamited north of the blaze to contain it but it was not until the wind shifted, blowing the flames out to sea, that the drama subsided — only to be repeated six years later.
Meanwhile, hundreds, thousands, of curious sight-seers came to the beach in the following weeks to view the devastated resort area.
In a newspaper account of the day, it was stated that had the Ashworth caught fire, the flames would probably have wiped out the resort completely.
The 1921 fire started in almost the same area of the beach, between B Street and Nudd Avenue on the north -— reportedly the result of defective wiring in the Strand Hotel.
One account, however, stated that the fire started north of B Street in a bowling alley and a pool room on the boulevard.
The fire began in the early morning hours and spread rapidly, forcing guests out the windows to safety.
The fire spread in three directions, south to B Street, west to Marsh [Ashworth] Avenue and north to Nudd Avenue. In this fire, however, the winds shifted, containing the destruction.
Several nights after the conflagration, 500 beach residents and businessmen met at the Ashworth Hotel to initiate proceedings for incorporating more stringent building codes and appointment of a building inspector.
A newspaper account stated that one-half of the beach businesses and residential territory of the summer resort had been" wiped out" ... and this "did not mitigate enthusiasm."
Out of the fire "the spirit of the phoenix fills everyone," the account stated.
One beach business woman -— whose tea room had been destroyed -- demonstrated enterprise after the fire by setting up shop on the sands under a canvas shelter.
The account stated that the womans' attitude "was another straw that shows the way the wind of enterprise is blowing."
But referring to the great fires at Hampton Beach of 1915 and 1921, Tucker wrote in 1952:
" ... only a few people realize how truly terrible a great fire can be, because only a comparatively few people have been involved in one. In the Hampton Beach conflagrations, 20 or more buildings would be burning at once. The heat was so intense that cottages and hotels in the path of the fire would be consumed spontaneously. They would seem to explode with a muffled roar and disappear almost instantly before your very eyes.
" ... sizeable embers are sometimes carried more than a mile. And once it has secured a good start, the speed at which a conflagration moves is almost incomprehensible.
"If, through a combination of unfortunate circumstances, a fire should get a head start on M Street ... when a brisk wind was blowing from the south, ... the resulting blaze would make the conflagrations of 1915 and 1921 look like puny bonfires.
"Such a disaster is possible because of many buildings in the area and because of the dangerous way in which they are crowded together.
"Such a fire is highly improbable because of thorough police patrol and an efficient fire department which would extinguish the blaze before it got the necessary head start.
"But no official should lose sight of the fact that it might happen."