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Fire and Ice in Downtown Portsmouth



The holiday was hell in 1802, 1806 and 1813. Three devastating fires raged through the center of Portsmouth during December. Only by telling these stories again to generations can we keep our collective memory alive.





Three Times Downtown Portsmouth Burned

As the flames roared up State Street, a young Portsmouth girl tip-toed precariously on the seat of a rickety wooden chair. She had placed the chair inside a back closet of her home that was now in the path of the oncoming blaze. Holding the heavy basket with one hand, she stretched her free hand toward the topmost shelf to retrieve the final piece of the family’s ancient china tea set. As she leaned forward to place the item in the basket, the bright blade of an ax crashed through the wall splitting the air where her head had been a moment before.

That story comes from John H. Bowles whose "Aunty" was the girl in the closet during the Great Fire of 1813. That closet apparently projected into an outbuilding that citizen firefighters chopped down in order to get to a source of water. After one harrowing escape, Bowles aunt later joined her brother as he raced up to the attic to rescue a trunk filled with relics, including their grandmother’s brocade dresses.

"When we reached the garret, the room was in flames," Bowles aunt recalled 30 years later, "and the heat was so great that we could scarcely breathe."

But her brother plunged foolishly ahead, dragging the heavy trunk by one handle into the stairway. Then suddenly a burned patch of roof boards fell through the rafters, spewing burning embers across the floor. The December wind ripped through the hole "with the force of a tornado". Undaunted, the children saved the family heirloom, but within an hour their home was "one bright flame from the foundation to the ridgepole."

MORE ON Portsmouth Fire societies

See the blazing Yule

If cities have memories, then Portsmouth must grow nervous each December. The three largest fires in city history all occurred downtown on Christmas week in 1802, 1806 and 1813.

On Sunday December 26, 1802 at 4 am the face of the city was suddenly disfigured by the first of three devastating holiday fires. It began in the banking block of Market Square and obliterated the buildings along Daniel Street, but left the wooden North Church and the Old State House standing.

The second downtown fire struck on Christmas Eve morning. On Wednesday December 24, 1806, fire spread in from the Bow Street area and up Market Street to the barely recovered square, consuming the historic St. John’s church by the river. The third and worst Yuletide fire began on Wednesday December 22, 1813, leveling 300 buildings along State Street, like a bomb blast. It raged from where the stone Unitarian Church stands today all the way to the Piscataqua River and out to the tip of the wooden pier there.

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 greasy fireplaces up creosote-choked chimneys. The threat of fire was constantly with them.


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Saturday, December 16, 2017 
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