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The Three Fires of Christmas

"More Deadly Fires" by Brighton

Fire Close-up I was born in Worcester, Massachusetts and have barely had a thought in that direction all these decades until the tragic warehouse fire the other day. My great great grandfather John Scott was a Worcester fireman. My cousin Scott is a Massachusetts fire chief today. Last week's image of 15,000 firefighters marching in lines three miles long to honor their six lost colleagues carries an emotional wallop. The President's address, the 17 fatherless children and all the talk of "fallen heroes" and "regular guys" play on against news footage of that 2000 degree blaze in an abandoned windowless warehouse. Every one of us has deeply held images of fire. Now we all share one more.

Every city too has its memory of flame. Even now, it is all around us -- at Oyster River High in Durham, at the historic home of Frank Jones' daughter on Middle Street in Portsmouth, glowing across the river in Eliot a few weeks back, at Rochester's American Legion Hall. The spark of tragedy loves winter and it waits inside old Christmas lights and brittle indoor trees. It hides in the creosote of long unkindled fireplaces, in cheap untended space heaters and the dead batteries of silent smoke alarms.

Christmas is the anniversary of fire in Portsmouth, historians tell us. The three largest fires here, amazingly, all occurred on Christmas week. The trio of Yuletide tragedies began Sunday December 26, 1802 at 4 am when the face of the city was suddenly disfigured by a devastating blaze. It started on the site of the Fleet Bank block in what is today Market Square and obliterated the city along Daniel Street. In the central "Parade" only the North Church and the Old State House were left standing. On Wednesday morning December 24, 1806, the second great downtown fire moved in from the Bow Street area, up Market Street and back toward the barely recovered square. On Wednesday December 22, 1813, the third and worst fire took out 300 buildings along State Street, flattening the city like a bomb blast -- from where the stone Unitarian Church stands today all the way to the Piscataqua River and out to the tip of the pier there.

Blizzards, Yellow Fever, trade embargoes and the British War of 1812 combined with the three crippling fires were almost more than the city could bear. Merchants who had been burned out of Market Street and moved to the thriving State Street area were burned out there too. Many quit their professions, while others quit the city. Among them, the promising young NH attorney Daniel Webster, who lost his Portsmouth house to the fire of 1813, relocated to nearby Massachusetts.

Fire feasts on wood, and until that time Market Square was a maze of one and two-story timber-frame buildings linked by dirt roads half the width we know them today. People kept barns, stored hay, used candles and oil lamps, burned wood, cooked in their fireplaces. The threat of fire was constantly with them in ways we can only imagine.

We have extensive records of earlier fires - a home torched by Indians here, a barn lost from a stray cinder there - but it wasn't until the population began to grow and settle and shop in a central congested area, that such catastrophe was possible. And it wasn't until the city had gone to ashes three times that influential (read "wealthy") townsmen were able to bring about the "brick laws" that forbade the building of tall wooden structures downtown.

Fire Aftermath In this way, revolutionary and colonial Portsmouth changed into its industrial-strength red brick era. So our "ancient" town is relatively new - all the tall brick buildings we know downtown are from 1813 or later. Even the three main church buildings are newer and the brick St. John's Chapel by the river is a replacement for the wooden one burned in Christmas 1806. Only wisps of the city that burned remain, and for that reason we have lost touch with the architecture of the poor and common people. Mostly, the distant homes of the rich remain with their wide protective lawns. But tear off that awful marquee above Eagle Photo (which we are told may someday happen) and you'll see one of the oldest surviving wooden buildings downtown. The little alley between it and the rebuilt North Church would have been a main thoroughfare when Paul Revere stopped by in 1774. Multiply that little building all over town, remove the brick, the lights, throw in hay carts and muddy streets and you begin to see old Portsmouth before the great Christmas fires.

City fire "fighting" was a different battle then. Despite expensive "pumpers", leather bucket brigades and the ultra-modern Portsmouth aqueduct, these three winter infernos were unbeatable. From the mid-1700s, those who could afford to, were members of Portsmouth "fire societies" at least two of which survive today in symbolic social groups. Surprisingly, the main task of early volunteers was not to battle Nature as much as to recoup their member's worldly goods. Society members carried "bed keys" used to dissemble the valuable family bed for hasty removal. They carried black bags to carry off dishes and silver which they would protect from vandals. They carried mops, presumably to clean up afterwards.

Yet they fought. An early newspaper report marveled at how the women of Portsmouth did not flee in the face of the 1802 fire, but pitched in and worked on the bucket brigades until they dropped from sheer exhaustion. Volunteers from nearby towns were instrumental in spelling the spent firefighters and in guarding valuables from the dozens of reported looters who many locals believed were themselves the arsonists or "incendiaries" as they were called back then.

There are stories of charity. After the 1802 fire contributions came from around the country for those who had lost their homes and shops. A reproduction of the account book is in the files of the Portsmouth Athenaeum. All told, their gifts, combined with local donations came to $45,410.43. Damage was estimated then at $200,000 for the loss of nearly 200 buildings. Large sums were donated in 1806 and 1813 as well.

Fire But there are stories of treachery. One philanthropist, who rushed to contribute $2,000 had his pocket cut away and his money stolen by thieves on his way to the donation site. Newspaper played on the theme of arson and one local poem even hoped, in rhyme, that those villains not punished by law, would by punished by God. (Click to read the poem) [TIM: Links to poem on jump page]

There are stories of valor. In 1813 volunteers from Newburyport, Dover, Exeter, Durham and surrounding towns saw the city in flames and came running, some bringing their own "engines". Commander Hull, newly in charge of the Navy Yard and recently captain of Old Ironsides sent his shipyard firemen. According to Nathaniel Adams "Annals" a group of 40 men arrived all the way from Salem, having traveled 48 miles in six hours to relieve the fatigued locals. One man from Newburyport rushed into a burning building and rescued a crying child.

Despite all our technology, the fear of fire never fades. It is a touchstone to our ancestors. I fear it in my office, once an old downtown carriage house from the 1750s, one of the few that survived every blaze. I fear it working late in the Athenaeum which was built of brick to replace the city's private library of 1,000 volumes lost in one of the Great Fires. I remember that during my short term at an Oxford college, to get a reader's card at the famous Bodleian Library, I had to swear an oath "never to kindle a flame." . I think of it on the Isles of Shoals, where even lighting a cigarette in the old hotel is punishable by instant expulsion from the island on the next ferry.

But in all the tales I could find of the Portsmouth Christmas fires, in article after article and account after account, in three destructive days over more than a decade -- with over 500 buildings destroyed - I could find no record of a single death. Not one. Then I think again of Worcester, of the six men lost to flame in moments, and of the daily heroism of my great great grandfather and my cousin Scott.

By J. Dennis Robinson

Sources: Ray Brighton's "They Came to Fish" and "Rambles About Portsmouth", Peter Randall Publishing; Brewster's Rambles and Nathaniel Adams 1823 "Annals of Portsmouth" reprinted by Peter Randall Publishing; plus extensive files in Portsmouth Public Library and Portsmouth Athenaeum.

ABC News Video Clip of 1999 Worcester Fire

Now read about the history of Christmas SHOPPING

© 1999 SeacoastNH.com
All rights reserved

Don't miss Dennis Robinson's new column "Seacoast Rambles" every other week in Foster's Sunday Citizen at your local newsstand.

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