Reminiscences Of Conflagrations

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"Our Town" By James W. Tucker

Hampton Union

Thursday, February 7, 1952

In connection with the great conflagrations at Hampton Beach in 1915 and in 1921, there were many incidents which may prove of general interest. In the first place, 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 twenty 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., The roar of a great conflagration can be heard half a mile away and burning sparks and 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.

Fire Danger Still Exists

If, through a combination of unfortunate circumstances, a fire should get a head start on M street, for instance, when a brisk wind was blowing from the south, it is possible that the resulting blaze would make the conflagrations of 1915 and 1921 look like puny bonfires. Such a disaster is possible because of the flimsy type of construction of many buildings in the area and because of the dangerous way in which they are crowded together. Such a fire is highly improbably 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 here.

Astride Their Ridgepoles

In 1915, all types of household furnishings were moved across the Boulevard and onto the soft sand of the beach. But a combination of the intense heat and falling embers set several of the more combustible articles on fire and soon all of the furnishings, including one piano, which had been thought to be far removed from danger, were entirely consumed. At the time all available firemen had much more urgent and important business to attend to, so no attention could be paid to a comparatively small amount of burning furniture.

And many home owners in the area north of Highland Avenue spent that September afternoon in 1915 astride the ridgepoles of their roofs. They were armed with brooms, pails of water and garden hose and their job was to make certain that their own homes were not consumed by flying embers. And a small detail of firemen, with hand chemicals and a ladder, also patrolled the area to prevent further outbreaks of fire. Exactly the same thing happened again in 1921, except that there were more people around that year because the fire occurred on June 26, only a few days before the Fourth of July.

Low Hydrant Pressure

In 1915, there was only a volunteer fire department and a dozen or so low-pressure hydrants along the main beach front. As we told in this column last week, the great fire on September 23 of that year, started on B street and soon spread to the Garland Hotel on the corner. Just north of the Garland on the front was the Strand Theatre, a high wooden structure which towered over all other nearby buildings. It seemed very essential to keep the south side of this theatre wet down and my Dad and I were in there with a line and hose for that purpose. The heat was pretty intense on the south side of alleyway where we stood so we yanked off a swinging wooden door for protection. We were unable to reach the top of the theatre with our stream of water because the pressure was too low and it was being constantly lessened as other lines were attached to the hydrants. Help, including pumping engines, had not yet arrived at the beach and, as the stream from our nozzle diminished, the west corner of the south side of the theatre caught fire and soon the entire building was wrapped in flames. That did it. Even though help arrived, it was many hours before the fire was brought under control.

How Ashworth [Hotel] Was Saved

Last week we stated that the 1921 fire started on B street. This was an error. The fire in 1921 on June 26 began in the early morning in a bowling alley and pool room, owned by Carl Mitchell and located on the Boulevard just north of B street. It spread rapidly in two directions, but it did not get beyond B street on the south for what little wind there was, blew toward the north. It was in this direction that the fire spread with great rapidity until it was stopped just short of the Ashworth. George Ashworth had built the first Ashworth in the early 1900's. It had not been built many years when it burned to the ground. It had been rebuilt only to be burned flat again in 1915. Now, it seemed fated to be burned for the third time. All of the easy-to-move furniture had been taken from the hotel. Afterward, we stood with George and a few firemen at the south end of the wide front veranda. A block to the southward, a roaring firewall was advancing rapidly northwards. If we had had $100 in our pocket and George had offered to sell us the hotel for $25, we would not have bought it. Even George felt certain that he was going to lose his third Ashworth. He said, "Well, if it burns, I can build it again!" But, it didn't burn. The happy combination of unusual circumstances, related last week in this pillar, together with a change in the direction of the wind which we forgot to mention, saved the Ashworth. But we have never forgotten that indomitable George was prepared to build for the fourth time if it had been necessary.

Crowds Not Helpful

A great conflagration attracts crowds. In 1915, and again in 1921, curious people flocked to Hampton Beach by the thousands. Not one in a hundred would give assistance. In 1915, we saw people stand idly by and watch hose burn up -- too indifferent to pull it out of harm's way. Not a soul ever offered to help us load a heavy trunk on a wheelbarrow, but they were willing to give advice on how best to distribute a load so that it would wheel easily. And most of the onlookers merely looked at men who were carrying the best pieces of furniture out of houses destined to be burned; they never offered to help. One experience having to do with these "fire visitors" remains vividly in my mind.

"Spectacular," Not "Beautiful"

The 1915 fire was nearly over. We were wheeling our wheelbarrow southward along the Boulevard. Clara Dudley, who had been with her children and ours on the steps of St. Patrick's church, was with us on her way home. We noted a big auto parked next to the electric car track on the Boulevard about opposite Highland avenue. Two women, carefully wrapped in furs against the chill of the late September afternoon, were seated in the back seat of the open car. But car and occupants made no particular impression as we passed, head down, tired and bedraggled.

Suddenly, we heard a woman's voice raised in anger and at the same time we noted that Clara Dudley was no longer trudging along beside us. Dropping the wheelbarrow, we turned around and there, perched on the running board of the big touring car, was Clara and she was shaking a trembling finger directly under the noses of the two fur-wrapped women. Finally, we were able to pry the small and very angry lady off the running board and get the story. Clara had overheard one of the women make a remark about what a "beautiful sight" the fire had been. To this, the popular and spunky wife of one of the beach's most popular business men, took immediately and vehement exception. "If your home or your business had been burned up, you wouldn't call it a beautiful sight," cried Clara.

But when we arrived at the scene of the altercation, the two women were properly apologetic. They were sorry for having carelessly chosen a wrong word. They had meant that the fire had been "spectacular" and "awesome," not beautiful and they were apparently sincere in their protestations. So, with proper apologies on both sides, we continued on our way by the blackened fire ruins of the entire north half of Hampton's business section. Clara Dudley -- like her husband, Joe -- loved Hampton Beach until the day of her death.

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