Smith & Gilmore Hopes to Rise Out of the Ashes
By M. I. MacDonald
Atlantic News, Thursday, April 15, 1999
HAMPTON -- On the evening of Saturday, April 10, a fire at Smith & Gilmore Fishing Pier caused extensive damage to the businesses at the pier in Hampton. At press time the cause of the fire had not yet been determined, but the determination of the families who earn their livelihoods from the long-time Seacoast landmark was clear: New England fishermen are no strangers to hardship, and they intend to surmount this latest tragedy.
Reports indicate that the fire was initially discovered in the lobster pound area on the property. The lobster pound and the tackle shop, located to the middle-rear of the building, are expected to be a total loss. The main pier building has considerable damage. All of Smith & Gilmore's electronic gear, life saving equipment, rods, and other gear for the boats are most likely a total loss.
"Thanks to a very diligent and aggressive fire-fighting effort by area towns," said Susan Foote, a member of the close-knit group of family, friends, and business partners at the heart of the pier, "the walkway and the boats in the boatyard, plus the boat tied to the end of the pier, were not affected by the blaze. But a historic landmark will never be the same," she continues, "even if we can manage to salvage the main building."
Fortunately all people involved -- the family and friends who rushed to the scene, as well as the heroic firefighters -- survived with little or no injuries. And in the face of tragedy, and the aftermath of the blaze, perhaps some fences, or pilings at least, will be mended in the competitive arena of the fisheries businesses.
"We've had a lot of fellow businesses on the beach and uptown call and say, 'If you need anything, I've got some extra supplies, let me know.' Several different places that have lobster pounds have offered to help store our lobsters," even though they don't have the room, affirmed Foote.
And with the unique understanding that the fire and police departments in the area have of the nature of the Seacoast and the challenges faced by its residents who make their livelihoods from the cold waters of the Atlantic, "As soon as they knocked down the fire in the lobster pound, they managed to get in and rescue two crates of lobsters."
In a move that truly demonstrates the enigmatic web of both loyalties and the sometimes competitive relationships that characterize the local business scene, as generations-old fishing businesses struggle to compete not only with each other but with the sea itself and the larger businesses that often gobble up what business there is to be made from the sea, some of Smith & Gilmore's competitors have come forward to lend a hand. Or a rod and reel, at the very least.
The Gauron and Eastman fishing fleets, who have over the years maintained business relations with the Smith & Gilmores, have offered to loan equipment such as rods and reels, and lifesaving equipment if needed, to Smith & Gilmore, since the S&G equipment was all but wiped out in the fire. This is only one of the stories of neighbors helping neighbors, and local businesses helping out local businesses, that may yet come out of this inferno.
Smith & Gilmore itself is already busy conferring with the businesses that leased property or equipment from them in the pier complex and they, too, are doing what they can to pool resources and help each other out, as the beginning of the busy season looms in a time in which they would normally be getting ready for another year's work.
[Atlantic News Photo by McGee]
"We're looking to set up some little sheds to get Salty's up and running if he wants to, as well as the ParaSail company. They're already getting new sail cut for them [to replace lost inventory from the fire], and we will be making room for them or allowing them to sell tickets from our booth. The same with the jet ski company," confirmed Foote.
What does the future hold for Smith & Gilmore and the other businesses that populate the pier? It looks as though each will tread a different path, and it's likely to be a long and sooty one. With the cause of the fire still under investigation, and labeled as "suspicious," there are sure to be legal, financial, and insurance investigations ongoing as the smoke clears, and the complexity of the network of businesses involved could be an indicator that only the strong will survive.
But Smith & Gilmore won't wait long to get on with the business their family has been pursuing for roughly 70 years.
"Smith & Gilmore will be opening as scheduled on April 17. We will be selling tickets from the front office and a pick-up truck parked in front of the building," was Foote's firm comment.
"This is our 70th year in business, and we have faced adversity in the past and continued on, as we plan to do now," she said.
One path that S&G will most likely pursue in the course of redefining the business, rebuilding, and regrouping, focuses on the historic nature of the business and the building itself. Foote indicated in conversation that she had been in the process of filing for, Historic Register status for the building at the time of the fire.
"I found out yesterday that the big beams that are in the building came from the Mile Long Bridge in the 1890s, back when they were repairing the bridge," said Foote. "The timbers were apparently restored and used in the Hampton Harbor Yacht Club."
So there's a lot to work on, and the business owners of the complex will face a long spring as they try to dig out from the debris, which can be as costly, estimates indicate, as the rebuilding process itself.
"And then when the tragedy's over," as Foote says, "it's back to business as usual."