HAMPTON: A CENTURY OF TOWN AND BEACH, 1888-1988
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Fire Departments for the Village and the Beach
Between 1885 and the end of the century, the only mention of fires in town reports was for the occasional payment to individuals for "watching fires," the task of keeping an eye on the smoking ruins of a building to make sure the fire didn't break out again. The payments were listed under the Miscellaneous section of the town treasurer's report; there was no mention of a fire department. For example, Jacob T. Godfrey, George W. Godfrey, and W. H. Blake were each paid $1.50 for watching fires at the Beach in 1885.
In 1893, O. L. Blake was paid $1.00 for watching a fire at Mrs. Godfrey's, and John A. Moulton and Herbert E. Lamprey got $2.00 each for watching a fire at Boar's Head. According to the Exeter News-Letter of November 11, the fire at Mrs. Jonathan Godfrey's unoccupied house "very mysteriously started in the barn containing hay." The two-story house with ell and the 36-square-foot barn were destroyed, a loss of $2,000 with only $1,275 worth of insurance.
A fire on February 27, 1893, was extinguished through the efforts of Howard G. Lane, who, while passing the home of Mrs. Thomas Ward on Lafayette Road, saw the roof on fire. According to the News-Letter, "He at once got on the roof, and Mrs. Ward, though aged and feeble, pumped water, and Miss Mary Batchelder carried it up to him .... If Mr. Lane had arrived a few minutes later all of the buildings would have been consumed."
The potential for disaster was evident in a fire on August 17, 1899, which destroyed the two-story house of J. A. Towle, occupied by Harry Brown, located in the center of town west of the Exeter Road railroad crossing. In describing "what came close to being the worst conflagration in the history of Hampton," the Portsmouth Journal reported that the Hood Milk Company icehouse was only 25 feet from the burning building, and behind the icehouse were the home of T. N. Chase and the Franklin Hotel, all three of which had to be kept wet. "Had the ice house burned, nothing could have saved the six dwellings on an almost direct line with the burning buildings. Such heroism among men is seldom seen. Brown had several hundred milk cans which were turned into pails, then a few force pumps were used and doubtless helped to avoid the spread of the flames."
Clearly, the time to provide some sort of fire protection for the Village had arrived. The Portsmouth Herald said on February 19, 1900, "...The town is sadly in need of fire protection," and plans were being made for a town meeting article that would appropriate $500 to purchase "a chemical engine furnished by the Underwriter company." Voters, however, chose to pass over the article and no engine was purchased.
Writing in the November 9, 1983, Hampton Union, Horace Eastow Hobbs described the fire that destroyed his family's "new" barn at 188 Winnacunnet Road in 1905:
"I must have been six years old at the time, when in the darkness of early morning, I was awakened by noises and flashing light through the windows. When I looked out, there was 'the New Barn' all in flames. Bedlam was loose! There were the combined noises made by the crackle of the fire as the flames leaped high into the air, the whinnying of the horses before the fire reached them, mingled with the mooing of the cows, the cackling of the hens slightly removed from the building, and the squealing of the pigs, loose in the outside pens. As Dad put it afterward, it sounded as if 'all Hell had broken loose.'
In those days, there was no organized fire department, and no running pressurized water system. Fires were fought by buckets of water thrown on the fire. Water had to be pumped by hand while, literally, 'Rome burned.' Such was the case this dark morning. I can see my good mother now standing by the kitchen sink, pumping water furiously as the sweat ran off her brow and the tears ran down her cheeks.
From this lone supply, there was an endless chain of men from the house to the barn, passing pails of water along, one to the other, until it finally reached three or four men on the ridgepole of the old barn, pouring the water down the wooden-shingled roof. Once in a while, some brave soul would dash in between the old barn and the New Barn thirty feet away and douse the side shingles which were beginning to burn from the heat.
In those days all of the neighbors came, bringing their fire-fighting equipment (water buckets and brush brooms). The town hall bell tolled to call the bucket brigade into action. They did their job!
Everything was lost in the fire. The carcasses of the livestock were buried. I remember John, one of our horses, had somehow gotten loose. He was so badly burned that we had to lead him out the next day to the side of his grave that had been dug, and shoot him so that he fell in. We had hoped to be able to save him, but he was suffering too much. So ended the disaster of all disasters on our estate.
We never rebuilt, but fixed up the old barn (built prior to 1776) and used it. It still stands and I hope to keep it standing .... I think it is the oldest barn in the town."
Showing a major lack of foresight, the 1905 town meeting voted against authorizing the selectmen to contract with the fledgling Hampton Water Works Company for a fire hydrant and water system for the Village.
Although the Union editorialized about the lack of adequate fire apparatus, the Town continued to avoid the issue of fire protection until December 26, 1908, when, at a special town meeting, voters approved an article calling for a committee of five "to investigate the Badger Chemical Engine and other like machines and also the subject of a village fire district, and report at the annual meeting." The words village fire district are important because Beach residents, disgusted by the lack of Town action, had already formed a fire district. Ironically, the matter of fire protection led to the creation of the most controversial entity in the history of the town, the Hampton Beach Village District, better known as the Precinct.
The 1909 town meeting voted to spend $1,000 for a chemical (fire) wagon and to set up a Village fire precinct, excluding the Beach. The wagon was to be 16 feet long with a shaft for horse propulsion, equipped with one large and 24 small extinguishers, ladders, hooks, etc. On April 5, a special town meeting was held to consider a Hampton Village District for the purpose of fire protection, sprinkling streets, water, and sewers. When only 20 voters attended, the meeting voted to indefinitely postpone the issue, but a committee, composed solely of Judge Thomas Leavitt, was instructed to go to Concord to get a bill passed permitting the assessment of taxes to pay for the chemical wagon, approved at the regular town meeting, exempting Beach taxpayers from paying for it. The Legislature quickly (four days after the special town meeting) passed the special bill, and in November Nelson J. Norton, a blacksmith and carpenter, received a contract for the wagon. It was built for $760.35, with Norton receiving $260 and the balance for equipment. Typically, the 1911 town meeting voted not to construct a building to house the chemical wagon. It was stored in a shed behind the town hall.
Finally, on July 11, 1912, the Hampton Fire Department was organized in the town hall with Elmer C. King, Sr., as chief and Roland C. Emery as clerk. The other officers were Oliver W. Hobbs, captain; Gerald A. Smith, lieutenant; Charles D. Lamprey, second lieutenant; and Uri Lamprey, steward. The captain appointed Henry Hanson and Walter Godfrey as assistants to the steward; Oscar Pevear, Marvin Young, and Ralph Perkins as ladder men; and Fred Hawkins and Ray Haselton as nozzle men. The men voted to set up a bell system to indicate the locations of fires, and they planned to meet on the first Thursday of each month. To report a fire, residents were urged to notify the telephone operator, who would call the firemen.
The 1913 town report carried Chief King's first report to the town, listing five officers and 20 members. The big fire of the year was the destruction of Frank Mason's house with an insured loss of $4,000, together with damages to the houses of William Hayes and Mrs. Chase, and the loss of Thomas Cogger's sheds, including the wagons and sleds. King asked for another large water tank and said his volunteers would build another wagon if the Town would buy the running gear. He also requested a building to hold the equipment, with space for fire-company meetings.
The 1913 town meeting responded to his requests by appropriating $150 to buy the water tank and $1,200 to be spent at the discretion of the selectmen for housing the fire apparatus both in the town and at the Beach. The chemical wagon was placed in Frank Mason's barn located on High Street at the east end of the present Town parking lot. Mason was paid $88.40 for housing the equipment and providing a team of horses. The Beach equipment was placed in the former Thomas Nudd barn, a building that became the informal Precinct headquarters.
In September 1913, the Hotel Echo, an uptown rooming house adjacent to the Hotel Whittier, burned with a loss of some $4,500. There were fears that the Whittier, the telephone exchange, and the adjacent Baptist Church parsonage would be lost as well, for, as the Union stated, Hampton "has no facilities for fighting a fire here, the town having no water supply."
Apparently the first fire department was somewhat unofficial, as King's second report in the 1914 town report asked the Town officially to appoint a fire chief according to state law. King said he would continue to serve if asked, but the 1914 town meeting voted to elect Uri Lamprey as chief fireward. The meeting voted to buy a two-wheel, 40-gallon chemical tank for the department. Indefinitely postponed was an article to build a firehouse, although in his first report to the town in 1915, Lamprey said, ". . . some place should be provided for the fire company to meet other than in the back room in the town hall. I think that if suitable quarters were provided it would show your appreciation more than anything you could do for the fire Company."
This was still a volunteer fire department, although apparently the men were paid for fighting fires, as the town reports list payments to the department for various fires. In 1914 that sum was $136.50, with $33 paid to the Beach department.
While the Town faced the potential of serious fires, there were few in the years between 1885 and 1915. For Hampton Beach, serious fire was a strong possibility, and fear of major conflagrations led ultimately to one of the best-equipped departments in the state. (The early history of Hampton Beach is discussed elsewhere, but, to generalize here, the potential for serious fire prior to 1898 was somewhat limited because the Beach area was not heavily developed.)
Among the more notable fires at Hampton Beach prior to 1885 was the destruction of the Hampton Beach Hotel, the first hotel at Boar's Head, which burned July 21, 1854. [Editor's note: This was the Winnicumet House hotel, not the Hampton Beach Hotel, that burned on July 21, 1854.] On the evening of May 6, 1885, however, a fire began that was to set a frightening example for later conflagrations at the Beach. The fire started in J. W. Brown's Atlantic House, unoccupied at the time, destroying the building with a loss of $10,000 to $15,000. Also burned, as the fire spread from one building to another, were the large Ocean House, owned by Philip Yeaton & Co., valued at $25,000; the Sea View House and billiard parlor, owned by John G. Cutler, valued at $4,000 to $6,000; and three private cottages. Built in 1844 and long the only hotel on the shore south of Boar's Head, the Ocean House was the largest hotel on the beach.
On the Sunday after the 1885 fire, the Portsmouth Journal reported that 600 teams (and 25 bicyclists) visited the Beach as throngs came to see the ruins. "An old resident of the beach said he never saw so many teams at the beach in one day, though he remembered all the big celebrations that ever took place here."
The Boar's Head Hotel, one of the most conspicuous landmarks in New England and the oldest beach hotel east of Boston, burned in September 1893. Built in 1826 and enlarged by Colonel Stebbins H. Dumas, who acquired it in 1866, the hotel and its outbuildings were destroyed, although some furniture and personal property were saved.
On the north shore, the Leonia on High Street burned on July 13, 1900, but it was rebuilt by owner Fred M. Crosby. An April 15, 1901, fire burned the Radcliffe Hotel and several cottages. Nine streetcar loads of people came to the Beach to help, but the first car took half an hour to get there and by then little could be done to save the buildings. Less than a month later, a new and larger Radcliffe of two and a half stories and 42 rooms was under construction, with a summer opening planned. This building, later expanded to four stories, burned again in late October 1909.
Five buildings burned in a blaze on October 26, 1903. The fire started in Mrs. Frederick Ham's Washington House about 4 P.M. on a Sunday afternoon. Three engines drawn by horses arrived in about two hours from Exeter, Newburyport, and Portsmouth. The Portsmouth engine, drawn by the four best horses, set out about 6 P.M. and arrived at 7:15, considered to be a fast trip because of the heavy load. The town hall bell was rung, alerting local men who formed a bucket brigade, assisted by the Life-saving-Station crew. Thousands came to watch the fire, including 100 people from Portsmouth on a special streetcar run. The News-Letter's correspondent questioned the wisdom of sending the Exeter engine. The previous time it was sent, it had been of little use because there was no water available near the fire and it would have become stuck in the sand if it had been used for pumping ocean water. The fire caused a loss of about $17,000.
The Beach was developing rapidly now, and, among the area's many problems, fire protection was paramount. The 1904 Sanborn Company insurance map of Hampton Beach indicated that water facilities were not good; there were no steam or hand engines, no hook and ladder truck, and no hose cart. The Casino property was protected by a night watchman with pails and chemical extinguishers. Realizing that the Town would not even buy fire equipment for the Village, Beach residents petitioned the selectmen to form a Beach precinct for fire protection. The request was granted, and the Precinct became a reality in 1907. The fire department was organized under the Precinct commissioners. The first equipment, purchased in 1908, consisted of three hand-drawn hose carts that could be attached to the hydrants of the newly operating Hampton Water Works Company.
In October, the new department was called to a fire at the New Boar's Head Hotel, situated at the foot of the Head. The water company's new standpipe provided the water and hoses were run down the hill to fight the fire. Although deemed a total loss at $12,000, the building was partially saved.
By July 1911, the Portsmouth Herald reported that few resorts could boast of better fire protection than Hampton Beach. Three fire companies were organized and a fourth was planned, each manned by summer resident volunteers, with Lemuel C. Ring as chief. Three new hydrants, each with 400 feet of hose attached at all times, were to be placed on White Island, where there were 100 cottages. In November, fire destroyed the Pentucket Hotel and five cottages. The Union reported that the fire indicated the need for an alarm system at the Beach and a night man at the pumping station to keep up water pressure. The fire department "can do a good job if it has half a chance." Two Beach hose companies responded to this fire, along with the Hampton Village chemical wagon "with galloping horses and Thomas Cogger at the reins." The rebuilt, four-story Pentucket burned again in May 1912.
The first Ashworth Hotel burned on November 11, 1913, a loss of $20,000, only half of which was covered by insurance. Five surrounding cottages were also damaged, but the fire department was credited with preventing further loss. On November 27, the Union reported that Hampton Beach's insurance rates were being increased from 25 to 60 percent for all areas except Boar's Head because the construction of so many cottages had increased the fire hazard. It was noted that higher rates might deter people from buying excessive insurance.
An August 1914 fire on White Island burned James Langford's store and damaged two cottages, but the water pressure was strong and the volunteers made a good response, despite having to cross heavy sand. The Union called for a steamer to protect the hundreds of cottages at the Beach.
By the summer of 1915, members of the Hampton Beach Volunteer Fire Department were canvassing the Beach to raise money to furnish a firemen's hall. The department had 5,000 feet of hose, "a liberal supply of ladders and a sufficient number of volunteer firemen to assure the beach of good fire protection." This equipment was stored in the Nudd barn. It was noted that many members had automobiles that could be used to bring hose and equipment to a fire. A fire alarm system, said to be "scientific and inexpensive," using alarm boxes, was installed. Meanwhile, there was some agitation for a paid department of three men plus a motorized vehicle.
The concern was merited. On September 23, 1915, the Beach was engulfed by its worst fire. James Tucker, an eyewitness, wrote about the blaze in his Union column on January 31, 1952. He was target shooting on the beach when he heard Clara Dudley yell, "Fire!" Dropping the rifle, he turned and ran toward the smoke billowing from buildings on B Street. The fire began in a box of rubbish, quickly spread to surrounding structures, and finally leveled 10 acres, including seven hotels, two theaters, 10 stores, as many as 40 cottages, and St. Peter's-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church.
Tucker got two pails of water from Dan Mahoney and tossed them on the fire, but it was apparent that nothing was going to stop the blaze. Tucker then ran around to the Ashworth cottage, adjacent to the hotel, and got his family packed quickly and out of the building, and moved to a safe location. Before the fire was over, he moved his family six times to avoid the flames.
The water company claimed to be pumping 1,000 gallons a minute, but with a southerly wind blowing the fire north across Marsh (Ashworth) Avenue and Nudd Avenue to Highland Avenue, the tinder-dry wooden buildings burst into flames one after another. Joining the Hampton Beach department were Portsmouth, Amesbury, Salisbury, and Exeter firemen. As they were to complain after other Beach fires, the firefighters said low water pressure hampered their efforts to control the flames.
The fire was halted only when the Ashworth cottage and the DeLancey Hotel were dynamited, a plan suggested by Walter Farmer, owner of Applecrest orchard in Hampton Falls. He had seen the smoke and went to the Beach with the explosives. Farmer had to argue with officials for nearly three hours before he was permitted to use his explosives.
The total loss was $150,000, of which $108,000 was covered by insurance. The southerly wind blew the fire away from the Casino, but the area burned was a half mile long by a quarter mile wide. Losses included the Ashworth again (a loss of $60,000 for a hotel built just two years after the previous one burned), the Janvrin, Grand View, Fairview, and DeLancey hotels; the Olympia and Strand theaters; Ferncroft Gardens dance hall; the Jenkins Block; and the L. C. Ring Block. The heaviest losers were George Ashworth and Fire Chief Ring, who owned stores and cottages.
Miss Mary Batchelder of Little Boar's Head came with her chauffeur when she saw smoke. Although the flames were not near St. Peter's Chapel, she feared for the worst and returned home to get her gardeners, who came back with her to remove the furnishings of the chapel as well as its bell, which had been rung just a few hours earlier to warn of the fire. Beach bandleader Charles L. Higgins lost all of his possessions, including fine antiques, books, and paintings. Many cottagers moved their possessions out of buildings and onto the sand, but, with the intense heat and flying sparks, many of the rescued items burned anyway.
The Board of Trade met on Saturday night to discuss the fire and the inadequate hydrant protection for the Beach. Speakers advocated buying a small combination chemical-and-hose wagon and having a permanent force of firefighters. Also suggested was an ordinance to prevent building to the edge of lot lines so there would be space between buildings, and the appointment of a building inspector by the Town. On Monday, Ashworth had a load of lumber delivered to begin rebuilding his hotel.
In the aftermath of the fire, almost all the business buildings were rebuilt, in many cases larger and better than the ones that had burned. The Olympia Theater expanded by 36 feet to hold 800 people, and the stores adjacent to the theater were 40 feet high, as opposed to 25 feet for the old ones. The Ashworth was built 15 feet longer, although the architecture remained the same. The new Ashworth had a convention hall seating 200 and a dining room for 150, plus the "most modern system of sanitary arrangements known to science." Only the Strand Theater was not rebuilt. ***
In the spring, the fire department was reorganized and the commissioners appointed Alexander H. Brown as the first permanent fire chief. More important perhaps was the acquisition of the first motorized apparatus, a Kissel combination hose-and-chemical truck. It was stored in the Casino garage. Although news articles credit the Precinct with buying this first fire engine, the 1916 town meeting appropriated $3,000 for fire apparatus to be spent as the selectmen determined. The fire department budget indicates the truck was purchased for $1,500.
On June 28, 1921, just as the Beach was ready for the first big weekend of the summer, another major fire destroyed the main business area between B Street and Nudd Avenue, almost the same area that burned in 1915. Destroyed were the Janvrin, Fairview, Antler, Imperial, Strand, the Sturgis, and Jenkins hotels; Lawrence House; plus the Olympia Theater, a garage, the Ferncroft gardens dance pavilion, 13 stores, the post office, 13 cottages, and two apartments. There was a total loss of $400,000. The John Sise & Company insurance agency of Portsmouth paid out more than $192,000. A larger area had burned in 1915, but the 1921 buildings were bigger and better constructed.
The 1921 fire, reported at 3:34 A.M. Sunday by Mrs. C. P. Mitchell, wife of the manager of the Strand, spread rapidly from the Strand to Lawrence House and the Janvrin and was soon out of control. About 4 A.M., apparatus from Portsmouth, Haverhill, Newburyport, Exeter, and Amesbury began rushing for the Beach. Firefighters managed to keep flames away from the Ashworth, partly by concentrating efforts there and because of a wind shift. Half of the Beach business and residential property was wiped out by the fire.
On Monday a mass meeting was held with 500 people attending, almost all of whom were enthusiastic for rebuilding. One of the hardest hit was L. C. Ring (an estimated loss of $100,000), and he had already started rebuilding, although he had been burned out for the sixth time -- twice at Hampton Beach and four times in Haverhill, Massachusetts. Some $275,000 in insurance was paid to property owners. A petition sponsored by George Ashworth called for a special town meeting to consider more stringent building laws and the appointment of a building inspector. Ring called on the Precinct commissioners to expand the reservoir facilities because firefighters had been hampered by low water pressure.
Mrs. Florence Munsey, proprietor of the Janvrin, who was burned out for the second time (an estimated loss of $90,000 for the building and furnishings), said she was all done. Nevertheless, out of loyalty to the Beach, she donated a large sum for a big advertising campaign aimed at letting New Englanders know that the Beach was open for business. Mrs. Thomas Hobbs, whose tearoom was destroyed, set up shop in a tent on the sand. A frontage of temporary structures from 500 to 1,000 feet long was built to serve the summer's business and removed in the fall for rebuilding.
Although 320 rooms were lost by the fire, at least 300 new rooms had been built in various places during the spring. While the loss was estimated to be $400,000, some $250,000 in new property was added to the Beach in the spring and summer via new buildings. Large crowds came to the Beach for the Fourth and some of the temporary stores were open for business. Hundreds of applications by all kinds of workmen were received by the Board of Trade, indicating slack conditions in surrounding communities.
As might have been expected, insurance agents notified policyholders that as of August 1, fire insurance rates for all property at the Beach located between the bridge north to and including the North Shore Hotel were to be increased by one-third.
Two special town meetings were held in July, resulting in the appointment of a building inspector and the establishment of building regulations affecting building height, building distance from lot lines, the use of noncombustible materials for walls and roofs, the adoption of the National Electrical Code, and rules for chimney construction. A committee report regarding fire apparatus was read, although no action was taken. An adjourned April 1922 town meeting voted not to buy a fire truck for the Beach, but the 1922 Precinct meeting passed bond issues to buy an Ahrens-Fox pumper-ladder combination truck.
The 1923 town meeting appropriated $7,000 for use at the Beach department, including rent and utilities for A. H. Brown's new garage, plus a salary of $35 a week for the chief and $25 a week each for three men. Less than one week later, fire destroyed Brown's garage, two large apartment houses, and the Hampton Inn. The garage had just been constructed to house the Beach fire department's equipment. It had firefighters' quarters on the second floor and apartments on the third. The total fire loss was estimated at $400,000. The Precinct immediately began rebuilding what is now the present Beach fire station.
On the second anniversary of the 1921 fire, another blaze burned the Wilbert Hotel, the Bristol garage, several cottages, and 22 autos, a loss of $80,000. (Every garage at the Beach had burned in the previous two years.) Because many of the adjacent structures had fireproof construction, the local department had the fire stopped and under control by the time outside help arrived.
In March 1924, after nine years' service with the department, Chief Brown resigned and was replaced by Homer Whiting. By 1927, the department was staffed by Whiting and Deputy Chief George Lamott, with Perley George, the driver of the squad wagon, Arthur Collins, driver of the truck, Harold Erwin, hose man, and 30 call men making up four companies. Equipment included the Ahrens-Fox piston pumper, a Packard pumper, a White ladder truck, a combination Reo truck, and the General Grant (the chief's car). The Beach now had 82 hydrants. Lamott, who was the first permanent firefighter, and George would each become chief.
While the Beach department had been progressing with equipment and men, the Town department was another matter. In 1915, the year before the major Beach fire, the Village was protected only by a horse-drawn wagon, stored in a rented barn, and a volunteer crew with a $400 budget for the year. The volunteer firefighters were paid $10 to $20 per year.
Several times, beginning with the 1905 town meeting, voters rejected the selectmen's efforts to contract with the Hampton Water Works Company to provide the Village with hydrants and water for municipal services. Finally, the 1915 town meeting voted $2,000 to rent 50 hydrants at $40 per year. For a number of years, the town meeting had focused its attention on the Beach fire-protection requirements, providing most of the money for salaries, and voting in 1916 for the first motorized vehicle for the Beach, but voting against buying another engine for the Beach in 1922.
The Hotel Whittier, a century-old Village landmark at the corner of Lafayette and Winnacunnet roads (today the site of the Robert K. Gray Funeral Home [***], burned in January 1917. Owned by O. H. Whittier but leased to Levi Willicutt of Farmington, the hotel had been closed for a month. The telephone exchange was located beside the hotel and operator Ada Philbrick remained at her board, although almost everything in the building was removed since it was clear the fire could not be stopped. The hotel's garage, stables, barns, and bowling alleys were saved but the hotel was not rebuilt.
Not until the 1924 town meeting did voters finally approve $2,400 for a Village fire truck, but in August the Union was asking why the new vehicle had yet to be acquired. Eventually a Reo combination hose-and-chemical truck arrived, but it was housed at the Beach, there being no Village station or permanent men. In 1925, the Town spent $4,500 for a fire alarm system. In 1927, Chief Whiting proposed a combination fire, police, and street department building to be constructed on Academy Avenue, but town meeting voted to postpone indefinitely the proposed $10,000 appropriation.
The large (300 feet by 100 feet) Dance Carnival hall, situated on the curve at the southern end of Boar's Head, burned in November 1929. Built in 1921 and once a popular place, it proved unsuccessful when the Casino expanded its dance hall. Owned by Armas Guyon, the Dance Carnival was scheduled for a mortgagee's sale when the fire occurred/started, according to Chief Whiting, as a result of a cigarette at "a petting party." The loss was estimated at $40,000, with only $15,000 in insurance coverage.
In July 1930, lightning caused a fire that destroyed the barn of Mr. and Mrs. John Wingate on Exeter Road. Firefighters were a long time in responding, since Mrs. Wingate had to go a quarter mile down the road to the alarm (lightning had cut the telephone lines), and that box only called in a chemical wagon. When the chief arrived, he had to call for the Beach trucks. The barn burst into flames from the first hit of lightning and the fire threatened the house as well. Ironically, Mrs. Wingate had lobbied for a new fire call box near her house. It was approved by voters at the 1930 town meeting but had not yet been installed. The Union suggested that the fire proved there was inadequate protection for property away from the center of the Town or the Beach, and apparently all of the best fire equipment was housed at the Beach. Responding to the problem, the selectmen ordered the Town-owned combination chemical-and-hose truck at the Beach to be moved uptown and stored in the Floyd Gale Garage (now Byrnes Chevrolet building) on Lafayette Road (for rent of $3,000) to provide better fire protection for the Town. Lack of permanent men still hampered the use of equipment.
A March 1931 letter to the editor of the Union from James H. Hutchings urged approval of an article to build a fire station using Town land on Academy Avenue. A week later, at town meeting, Mrs. Wingate argued that the Town proper was unprotected against fire, with only one small truck at Gale's Garage and only one man. She protested the delay in putting in the fire alarm box near her house and the manner in which the fire at her house had been handled. Discussion indicated that the Hampton Beach department was not obligated to answer alarms in the Town proper, but did so out of courtesy, even though the Town paid most of the Beach department's salaries. The meeting voted to return the truck at Gale's to the Beach and delegated Warren Hobbs to meet with "authorities" to discuss the situation.
As a result of action at the 1932 town meeting, Hampton Fire Station No. 2 officially opened on New Year's Day 1933 at 10 A.M. Private Collins was transferred from the Beach headquarters to the new station, located in the basement of the courthouse, formerly the old Grammar School. Insurance underwriters had suggested that Hampton would have a 25 percent increase in rates unless the Village area had at least one piece of apparatus housed uptown and available. The new station covered 55 call boxes with one permanent firefighter, six others on call, with a call lieutenant in charge of the company. A direct telephone connection with the Beach station activated a tape machine for receiving box alarms. When the alarm sounded, the lights came on and the doors of the bedrooms opened automatically.
With the opening of a second fire station, the 1932 town report carried the first annual report of the "chief of fire department of Hampton and Hampton Beach." By the end of 1933, the National Underwriters reported that construction of new water mains and hydrants at the Beach would reduce insurance rates 5 percent and probably another 5 percent when the lines were retested in the summer.
Engine 2 of the HFD was put into service in September 1934. The $1,916.50 truck was a combination engine-and-hose wagon with a 45-gallon booster tank. Constructed from parts bought from the manufacturers, the truck was built by the local firefighters in their off-duty time. Begun in June, the new truck was ready by September.
A major crisis in the fire department occurred in 1937, when Chief Whiting asked the town meeting for an additional $1,512.50 to set up a platoon system for the firemen. At that time, the firemen were stationed at the firehouse 24 hours per day for six days per week, which, the Union said, left no time for their families or for recreation. The extra money would permit three firefighters to be at the station for 24-hour shifts, two more at home for the night but on call, and a single firefighter off-duty. The three off-duty firefighters would respond from home to calls and could not leave town except on their regular off day. While at home, the firefighters would also be subject to doing fire-alarm work if needed. The budget increase would provide for one extra person at $25 per week for the first six months and $33.25 per week as the standard wage.
On March 3, 1937, the Union explained that firefighters were on duty 120 hours a week, they were away from the station 24 hours per week for meals, and they had 24 hours off-duty per week. The two-platoon schedule would have each person at the station 84 hours per week, on call for 60 hours, and off duty 24 hours. A new schedule would have two firefighters on duty at headquarters 24 hours per day, one at station 2 for 24 hours per day, two people on call, and one other off duty.
There was a long discussion of the plan at town meeting. The Precinct commissioners opposed the chief's plan, partly because they had had no advance notice. The chief said he could not confer with the commissioners most of the year because two lived in Florida and one lived in Boston. The commissioners wanted the chief to serve a shift on duty, taking the place of the extra man to save the Town the money. James Tucker said figures indicated that Hampton's fire department budget was five times that of the surrounding towns in comparison with the valuations of the towns. He said, "We have the most overorganized fire department in the state." Selectman Munsey said he would not have accepted the chief's article had he been aware of the commissioners' objection. The article was tabled and the plan was to receive the further consideration of the commissioners and the selectmen.
The inventor of the Whiting Rotary Emergency Light for vehicles, Chief Whiting had not gotten along with the commissioners for a number of years, especially regarding salary issues, which were strained because of the Depression. His salary and the budget had been cut, despite his efforts to raise them at town meetings from 1932 through 1937. In April 1937, after town meeting, the commissioners "dismissed" Chief Whiting with pay to May 1 and named Deputy Chief George Lamott as acting chief. Actually, the state law called for the appointment of a chief engineer and an associate engineer. Lamott became the acting chief engineer and Whiting was not reappointed. Whiting already had been fined a small amount by commissioners for filing the two-platoon article at town meeting. The commissioners said he had "gone over [their] heads for a considerable period of time." According to the Portsmouth Herald, the commissioners said the reasons for their action were the failure of the chief to cooperate with them and "certain activities which could be termed nothing less than insubordination and public disrespect toward precinct officials." The Union said residents believed he had created "one of the finest fire departments on the coast." Ironically, in late May, Homer Whiting died at age 42 of pneumonia following an appendicitis operation. The two-platoon system was finally created when two additional men were hired in 1946.
In October 1937, engine number 3, a Mack centrifugal pumper with a 500-gallon-capacity tank, arrived in Hampton. Purchased by the Precinct for $5,700, it was the only fire truck in the area with a cab for the operator. In 1941, town meeting approved a $7,000 appropriation to buy a new Seagraves truck to replace engine 2 at the uptown station, and in 1948 the Precinct spent $12,000 for a triple combination truck.
A September 1948 Beach fire destroyed the Downer Block between A and B streets. Lost were the Downer brothers' restaurant, the Renwood Tearoom, and the Miniature Circus owned by Randall Crapo. This time, the efficiency of the Hampton department prevented a third major fire in this part of the Beach.
Perhaps the most serious Village fire occurred March 19, 1949, when the town hall was destroyed in a predawn blaze. Mrs. Katherine Janvrin Dickerman, who lived across the street, was awakened by an explosion and looked out to see the front doors blown open and flames on the west side of the building. The permanent firefighter on duty in the fire station next door apparently was not awakened by the noise, so the flames had a 15-minute start before the department could respond. By that time, little could be done to save the building, and efforts were directed toward protecting nearby property. The Town safe fortunately protected the vital records, and someone rescued the "$80,000 clock," the lone remaining asset left from the Town's abortive purchase of the street-railway company. The clock is still ticking away in the selectmen's meeting room in the town office.
The department and the Beach were not so fortunate in July 1950. A fire at C Street and the boulevard destroyed three hotels, two rooming houses, a number of cottages, and 15 stores -- 19 businesses in all. Among the losses were the Dudley clothing store and gift shop, Playland Arcade, Howard Johnson's take-out stand, and Junkins' candy shop. The fire was halted on the south because of a concrete wall between the Exeter and Hampton Electric Company and Junkins'. Next door to the south was the Ocean House, and had it caught fire, the Casino likely would have been destroyed as well, and probably many other buildings southward along the boulevard. A portion of the Avon Hotel on C Street was also badly damaged.
Fearing the possibility of another major fire and concerned about the lack of water in the Hampton Water Works mains, the Precinct had, in 1949, authorized the construction of a $60,000 saltwater main system. It wasn't completed when the fire hit, although an engine was able to pump water from the river to the mains for the firefighters to use at the scene of the blaze. This emergency use of the new system probably enabled firefighters to halt the inferno. As with previous fires, businesspeople immediately began to rebuild. On the day after the fire, Henry Dupuis, whose business had burned, posted a sign, "Henry's Real Estate," against a fence with an arrow pointing to the Ocean House porch, some 50 feet away, where he had placed a desk. Just a week after the fire, the Hobbs family began a new building at the southerly corner of C Street and the boulevard, and others did the same, resulting in the present structures in the area.
By all accounts, the lack of water pressure contributed to the estimated $500,000 loss. The Union editorialized, "The town of Hampton annually appropriates $30,500 for fire department expenses, and the town and precinct own fire fighting equipment worth nearly $100,000 but without water it is worthless .... Ponder, if you will, the consequences if a fire had broken out in the town section, while the beach was drawing what little [water] was available. This is clearly a matter which concerns every property owner in the town and it is time that some concerted action was taken."
The 1950 town meeting had already appointed a committee to look into the water company situation, with the idea of forming a water district, and to report back to the 1951 meeting. That meeting voted to proceed with a further study, with the aim of purchasing the water company. The latter countered with improvements to the Beach and Town systems, deflating the demands of residents who wanted a takeover. (This situation is discussed in more detail in the chapter on public utilities.)
A historic building on Exeter Road was destroyed by fire in April 1953 when the Floktex Company, originally used as the street-railway barn, exploded into a $100,000 fire, injuring five employees. The walls of the gutted building remained standing until 1962, when they were pulled down for safety reasons.
In July 1953, fire killed Richard M. Carrelus, 25, of Martha's Vineyard, when he tried to remove a truck from a burning garage at the Rice Terrace residence where he lived. In the aftermath of the fire, a controversy developed when it appeared that the department was slow in responding to the blaze. At that time, the department had eight firefighters plus Chief Lamott. Six firefighters were assigned to the Beach station and two to the Village station. At any one time, three people were on duty at the Beach but only one person uptown, and the latter was forced to operate the Town truck alone until the Beach or call firefighters responded.
In 1955, the old Sanford fire engine, the Town's first truck, was replaced with a four-wheel-drive Tank One, purchased and equipped for $6,800. Also, 60 of the Town's 97 alarm boxes were replaced, and the Precinct spent $10,000 for wiring for a complete new alarm system. With these improvements, the department was as well equipped as any in the state. The firefighters were well trained to handle any emergency, including rescuing one woman who had to hide in a closet when freshly bottled root beer exploded on her kitchen table. There have been no other major fires such as those of 1915, 1921, and 1950. Now the major issues surrounding the department have to do with pay, hours worked, and unions.
These difficulties first began in 1937, when Chief Whiting was fired for wanting to begin a two-platoon system. In 1956, three firefighters resigned following town meeting when they were voted only a $2.50 raise, giving them a take-home pay of $55.98 per week. The firefighters worked 84-hour weeks in the station plus 60 hours on call. They proposed to cut the schedule to 56 hours because of the low pay.
Chief for 20 years and a member of the department for 35 years, George Lamott resigned in September 1958 and was replaced by Perley George, deputy chief and a member of the department since 1925. Longtime department members Victor Bogrett and Laurice Brown were also promoted.
The Precinct spent $24,000 for a new aerial truck in 1959. It was delivered to the Wentworth Hotel in New Castle, where Chief George showed off his new equipment to the annual convention of New England Fire Chiefs' Association.
The first major Beach fire in 10 years destroyed the Fireside Hotel and four cottages on H Street in August 1960. In September 1961, fire damaged the top two floors of the Charles E. Greenman Company building on High Street, resulting in the removal of the top floor, leaving a three-story building. Most of the Hotel Allen (once part of Cutler's Sea View) burned in a January 1961 blaze, and two weeks later, the nearby Pentucket Hotel was destroyed.
Most fires are quickiy brought under control, but that does not eliminate the potential danger, as Hampton learned when a 1964 fire killed James H. O'Brien, 31, and his two small daughters when their home on Mill Pond Lane burned. One of the original partners in the Glen Hill development along Exeter Road, O'Brien led his pregnant wife to safety and then returned to the house for the children, but he apparently was overcome by smoke.
In 1964, primarily due to the efforts of W. Perry Tarlton, the Hampton Beach Firemen's Relief Association was given an antique (c. 1853) fire engine. Restored and renamed the "Winnacunnet," the engine participated in the annual firemen's musters. These events had become a Hampton Beach tradition, but they were ended partly because of space problems and also because of the somewhat rowdy visiting firemen who came to participate with their own antique engines. The Winnacunnet is now displayed at Meeting House Green in the fire department museum, which opened in 1988 under the sponsorship of the firefighters' union.
Another antique, but still used in 1965, the 1922 Ahrens-Fox, was sold for $777.77 to an amusement park. It was replaced with a new pumper-tank truck. In August 1966, the William Merrill Lumber Company, located on the site of the current elderly housing building on Dearborn Avenue, burned in a spectacular morning fire. Merrill's son, Stephen, currently (1988) New Hampshire's attorney general and then a student at the University of New Hampshire, went into the burning building twice to drive out trucks.
Later in the fall, Chief George announced his retirement after 42 years with the department. A renowned cook, George delighted in preparing clam chowder or lobster stew for various groups that used the second-floor community room in the fire station for meetings. He was replaced in March 1967 by Paul Long. Former selectman Herbert Trofatter was named deputy, just three days after losing a bid for reelection to that office.
The two new officers had plenty of work to do. In November 1966, the New Hampshire Board of Underwriters released a lengthy report calling for more firemen, new department rules and regulations, replacement of some of the fire engines, and the need for a full-time building inspector. The report warned that "Mutually exposing buildings of inferior construction and narrow streets, coupled with an inadequately manned, poorly trained fire department, as well as the deficient water supply, combine to produce an extremely dangerous situation where the probability of a conflagration is pronounced. Under adverse circumstances, a fire could gain sufficient headway to overwhelm the available resources of the community and destroy a major portion of the area built south of Church Street and Ocean Boulevard." The immediate impact on the town was a proposed insurance-rate increase of 50 cents per thousand dollars of valuation.
Chief Long immediately began training programs for the 13 full-time and 43 call firefighters, and he stationed the 800-gallon tank truck and the 600-gallon tank combination uptown -- where the 1,400 gallons of water would be available for a fire in the west end of town -- and continued and expanded the fire-alarm system. Meanwhile, Trofatter, appointed deputy chief only a year earlier, was fired by Town Manager Norman Cole in July 1968 for insubordination and disrespect to the chief. A new 1,000-gallon pumper was added to the Beach department in 1968, and in 1971 the Town voted $40,000 for a new diesel pumper. Two firefighters were added to the department in 1967, two more in 1968, and another in 1971, giving a total force of 16 permanent firefighters.
William Stickney, who retired in 1970, began firefighting at the Beach as a volunteer in 1911 when he fought the blaze at the Pentucket in fisherman's gear, there being nothing else for firefighters to wear. He helped to form the first volunteer company in 1914, worked on the first fire-alarm system under Chief Whiting, and was instrumental in 1959 in setting up the Firemen's Relief Association. Along the way, he worked as a carpenter and as a policeman, becoming Hampton's first motorcycle cop. Sons William and Howard were both members of the fire department, the latter eventually becoming chief. By 1975, when William, Jr., retired, the three men had accumulated 113 years of Town service.
In 1971, the saltwater main system, then 20 years old and rarely used although tested weekly, was studied to determine its value. The water badly corroded the valves and fittings, and Long questioned how long it would operate in the future if it was required for an emergency. The saltwater system was sold to the Hampton Water Works Company for $75,000 in 1981, just after the Precinct made its final payment on the 1951 30-year bond issue. In March 1971, voters adopted the Fire Prevention Code endorsed by the American Insurance Association. For the first time, fire inspectors visited Beach buildings, primarily checking for safety violations and recommending changes to the owners. Faulty wiring and accumulations of rubbish were the primary problems.
Long resigned in 1974 to accept a position in Durham. This touched off a dispute between the selectmen and Town Manager Peter Lombardi, with the latter arguing successfully that under the town-manager law, he had the responsibility to hire a new chief. Former deputy Robert S. Fitz, who had been acting chief, was appointed to the position in January 1975. In July 1975, the selectmen and the Hampton Permanent Fire Fighters' Association signed a contract calling for a 40-hour work week, a reduction over the years from the original schedule of six 24-hour workdays to an 84-, then 72-, and finally a 56-hour week. Later the firemen complained about the schedule, which called for shifts of five eight-hour work-days. They wanted a return to the traditional schedule, which called for 10-hour days and 14-hour night shifts. The selectmen, citing a signed contract, refused to change the schedule.
In March and April 1976, fires in Beach rental property claimed the lives of three small children. Amid outcries from the press, selectmen pondered the adoption of a Life Safety Code. In May 1976, they acquiesced to firemen's demands for a return to the 10- and 14-hour work shifts. This change increased the work week to 48 hours but placed more men on duty in the stations. Meanwhile, the Precinct commissioners, seeking control over the Beach department, got a legal opinion stating they could hire and fire the chief within the Precinct. The commissioners even produced plans for a new six- bay fire station on Ashworth Avenue. Beach resident and selectman James Fallon predicted a split resulting in the Beach becoming a separate town.
In response to a citizens' petition, selectmen attempted to hold a special town meeting to adopt the National Life Safety Code, but the Planning Board, which had jurisdiction over such articles, refused to hold hearings, arguing that the adoption of the code at a special town meeting, as opposed to a regular town meeting, might be ruled invalid.
The Life Safety Code, which a study committee ultimately determined was unnecessary, was later adopted, along with subsequent revisions of it, but the fire department debate between the Precinct and the Town continued. The commissioners announced plans to assume control over the Beach department as of January 1, 1977, and due to this situation, Chief Fitz resigned, citing his loss of effectiveness as chief. The commissioners took this opportunity to appoint Deputy Chief Howard Stickney as acting chief in the Precinct for one year beginning January 1, 1977. Town Manager Lombardi, however, reiterated his position that he was solely responsible for hiring a chief and would probably appoint Stickney as acting chief anyway. Department Captain William H. Sullivan resigned to take a position in Claremont. He returned as chief in 1987.
Before the 1977 town meeting, selectmen and commissioners worked out the problem. The Town agreed to maintain seven firefighters between the two stations at all times, with the ambulance to remain at the Beach station in the summer. Now there is an ambulance at each station. At that meeting, the Town voted $223,000 to build the station now in use on Winnacunnet Road and also approved the transfer of $10,000 in revenue-sharing funds to build a dispatch center at the Beach station. The 1978 town meeting passed a bond issue to buy a new tank-pump truck to replace the 1964 Maynard engine, but the 1979 town meeting failed to approve an appropriation of $170,000 for an aerial ladder truck.
In the fall of 1979, Stickney resigned as chief after 27 years with the department. He was replaced in April 1980 by Donald J. Matheson, who died suddenly in February 1982. In June 1982, Anthony Kuncho was appointed fire chief, serving until he retired in July 1987.
The Beach-Town dispute over fire departments continued again at the 1980 town meeting. Articles submitted primarily by Precinct residents called for the Town to buy the Beach station property for $250,000 (failed), to spend $100,000 for a new truck for the Beach station (indefinitely postponed), to spend $990,000 to build a new Beach station (also failed), and to buy the Precinct's saltwater system for $265,000 (also indefinitely postponed). The meeting did agree to raise $170,000 for the long-sought aerial ladder truck and appropriated $40,000 (but never paid) to rent the existing Beach station and equipment. The Maxam Company, builders of the aerial truck, had financial difficulties, so the Town didn't get its new truck until mid-1982.
Despite all the attention given to new stations, new fire chiefs, pay raises, and new trucks, the department continued to fight fires. Beach hotels continued to bum. The Tides was destroyed in October 1974 and the Ocean Squire Motor Inn on Labor Day 1975. A 1981 fire destroyed the Spindrift at the foot of High Street, and, in 1985, the Rock Harbor Inn (formerly the Hotel Allen and before that, Cutler's Sea View) burned in a fire that officials called suspicious. Duffy's Inn on Ocean Boulevard burned in a spectacular April 1987 fire. Although large hotels were on either side of the burning building, firefighters were able to contain the blaze to the single structure, a tribute to the department's personnel and advanced equipment.
The 1987 department had a budget of $1.39 million, with 41 full-time personnel and 21 paid on-call personnel. That year, both the Town and the Precinct voted to purchase new $160,000 tanker-pumper trucks.