Thrilling Fire Escapes and Rescues
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Written by John H. Bowles

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BREWSTER’S RAMBLE #126

This is among the most exciting accounts in the two volumes of the Rambles, but not written by the author himself. An 1840s-reader of the Portsmouth Journal recalls the chaos of the 1813 fire, its aftermath and a heroic rescue.

 

 

 

Near Fatal Accident, City Ruined, Arsonist Flees 

ABOUT Charles Brewster 

Editors Note: C.W. Brewster was a Portsmouth columnist in the mid-1800's. This article includes his opinions and may not reflect current research or current values.   -- JDR

RAMBLE CXXVI.

Central Portsmouth before the Fire of 1813 -- Stories of Escapes, Rescues, &c.

WE close the sketches of the scenes which are forever covered by the ashes of the great fire, with the following sketch, by Mr. John H. Bowles:

brewsterslogo.jpgThe stirring up you have been giving of late in the "Rambles," to the ashes of the great fire of 1813, while it has doubtless revived the event in all its freshness to many who were living at the time, has recalled to a still greater number the impressions they received in their youth from others, who were also eye-witnesses of its many thrilling scenes. Names and locations are forgotten, in many instances, but incidents remain ineffacable.

To the children of thirty to thirty-five years ago, it was a theme that was ever new, and never tired. Let us take a backward look to a time, when, to all but the more youthful generation, the great conflagration was an affair of yesterday. It is Christmas eve. A merry group of juveniles, a dozen in number, after an afternoon of unbounded enjoyment in the spacious attic, succeeded by a bountiful repast, are gathered in semi-circular array, around the hearth-stone. An oak-wood fire throws out its genial heat, for the owner of the mansion loves to see the fire-light reflected upon the massive andirons and shining fender, and will admit into the sanctum sanctorum, the family sitting-room, no such modern innovation upon old-time comfort as a stove, though it may do very well for the kitchen, whose arctic frigidity nothing else would ever warm. When the entire catalogue of youthful romances, the "Cinderillas," the "Robin Hoods," etc. have become exhausted, the young lady, to honor whose birthday the little party were assembled, suggested to "mother" to "tell them the story about the great fire."

"Mother" thinks it is more than a "thrice-told tale;" but it is repeated, and listened to with eager ears by her youthful auditors; and the same story, in substance, has been told again and again, on many others than Christmas eve, and formed the theme of many a winter fireside chat."Aunty" has a passage of her own experience to relate, and we will let her tell her own story in her own way. "The china tea-set you saw upon the table, to-night, was among the last articles saved from my father's house, and its rescue nearly cost me my life. It was in a back room closet, whose contents amid the excitement were forgotten, when nearly all else of value had been removed to a place of safety. While I was engaged in removing the china from the shelves, some men were tearing away an out building, into which the closet projected, in the rear of the house, to enable the firemen to obtain water in our own and the adjoining yard; and as I stepped from a chair to place the last remaining article in a basket, the bright blade of an axe came crushing through the back of the closet, in the very position where my head had been but an instant before. My escape seems little short of a miracle as I think of it, to this day. After leaving the house, as we  supposed, for the last time, it occurred to my brother that there still remained in the garret a trunk of family relics, including some valuable brocade dresses, once the property of our grandmother, and he expressed a determination to go and rescue it. We tried to dissuade him from the idea, but without success, and I went with him. When we reached the garret, the room was in flames, and the heat was so great that we could scarcely breathe.

I was afraid to go further than the door, but my brother went onward, and seizing the trunk by one of its handles, was dragging it to the stairway, when a large portion of the boards of the roof, burnt to a cinder, fell through from the rafters, and covered the floor with blazing coals. It was an awful moment, for through the aperture thus made in the roof, the wind came with the force of a tornado, driving the fire and smoke before it, but my brother kept on with his burden, after an instant's delay, and did not stop until it was safe in the street. Half an hour afterwards, the pleasant  home where our childhood had been spent was one bright flame from the  foundation to the ridgepole."

"Grandpa," who, in his comfortable chair, has been reading the last "JOURNAL," and a fresh copy only two days old, of Major Ben Russell's "Boston Centinel," says, as he picks up the fallen brands and adds a fresh forestick to the fire, that he will tell them a story of a "nice young man," who, he has always thought, did more good than any one else the night of the fire.

He was here and there, and eyerywhere, wherever his aid was most needed for the general or individual good. At one time he could be seen passing water in the ranks; at another helping some poor widow to save from her burning dwelling her little all; here he would relieve an exhausted fireman at the brakes of an engine, and there lend a hand in removing from their homes the sick or disabled; when the strength of others was exhausted, his energies seemed to increase with the amount of labor he performed. About midnight, while resting for a moment, and surveying the fire from the roof of a store, a volume of flame suddedy burst from a barn on the opposite side of the way, and in an instant afterwards a young lady appeared at the second-story window of a dwelling but a few yards distant, which she attempted to raise, but failed in the effort, and fell backwards out of sight.

Descending to the ground, he crossed the street, and finding no one below stairs, he ventured to knock at the door of the room where he had seen the young lady, but receiving no answer he lifted the latch and found her lying insensible upon the floor, for she was recovering from sickness, and through weakness and terror, had fainted away.

There was no time to lose, for the glass was cracking in the windows from the blaze of the burning barn; and wrapping her in a blanket, which he stripped from the bed, he carried her in his arms to the residence of a relative where he had seen some of the family furniture conveyed an hour before. The next day he was haunted by a vision of a pair of bright eyes, and felt a desire to improve with their owner an acquaintance so oddly begun. A few days before he thought her but a child, as he lifted her across a gutter on a rainy day, and it was benevolence alone that

prompted the service he had rendered her the previous night, but as she lay so helpless upon his breast, and one of her soft curls stole out from the folds of the blanket and rested upon his cheek, he fancied that she was changed into something more than a child.

There was a very soft spot in his heart for the girls, though he was somewhat bashful in letting them know it, but he mustered courage at last to go to the house where he had left his fair burden, and enquire if she had sustained any injury from her exposure to the keen air of midnight. He soon called again on the same errand, and derived so much gratification from his visits, that he continued to repeat them for four or five years afterwards, when the family mansion had been rebuilt in its old location, and finally carried off the young lady to a snug little home he had built for himself on one of the lots made vacant by the fire.

"Grandpa" concludes his story by adding, "The 'nice young man' is living still, and ready as ever to do all sorts of kind acts; and I shall not be surprised if he comes here to-night for this little rogue at my side, who came very honestly by her bright black eyes and her silken curls."

The above are a few of the legends of the great fire, of which enough might be collected to fill a fair sized volume. In the course of a conversation upon the subject recently, with a gentleman who was an eye-witness of the scene from its commencement to its close, he remarked to me that the impression left upon his memory of that terrible night, alike from the awful grandeur of the conflagration, and its many heart-rending scenes of distress, were as vivid as if it had been an event of the previous week's occurrence.

In many instances the entire fruits of a life of industry were swept away, leaving the sufferers at mid-winter, without a place of shelter, or a dollar to recommence the world anew. The rapid advance of the fire after it reached the third or fourth building from its starting point, was like the rushing of the flames over a burning prairie. Families, who at first looked calmly on at a distance, never dreaming that danger could reach them, an hour or two afterwards were retreating before the devouring element, leaving half their effects behind to be burned up with their dwellings. Furniture and other articles of value, that had been taken to places of imagined safety, were afterwards removed to other locations, and finally burnt up in the streets.

Such was the consternation when the calamity was as its height and it was feared the whole place would be consumed, that many people seemed utterly bereft of their wits, causing them to commit absurdities which it afforded them much amusement to relate in after years. One good lady, with a houseful of furniture, and the fire but two tenements distant, was running about in a green baize dressing-gown and red woollen cap with an empty bottle in her hand, and another with three bonnets in her hand and none upon her head.

A strange sight was revealed the following morning when daylight appeared. The streets and avenues leading in every direction from the location of the fire, were strewed with furniture of every description, from that fashionable article of the time, the sideboard, to the most common utensil in domestic use; family stores, also, added to the variety, even to the pies that had been prepared for Christmas. It was a sad scene, too, and one that many looked upon with breaking hearts, for instead of the comfortable homes of which they were possessed when the sun went down the previous night, they saw only a heap of smoking ruins.

The memorable passage in the history of Portsmouth that forms the subject of this letter, is a most impressive instance of the amount of evil it is possible for a single wickedly disposed individual, by a very slight act, to accomplish. The writer has a recollection of seeing, in his childhood, the author of this great calamity, by which so many were stripped of their entire earthly possessions, and when she deemed the awful secret locked up in her own bosom.

A more abject, wo-begone specimen of fallen humanity than she appeared at that time, it would be scarcely possible to imagine. She applied, under an assumed name, (imagining that she would be unrecognized,) to a lady who had been familiar with her face while she was in the employ of Mrs. Woodward, and asked for some out-of-door employment, offering to labor for a pittance that would hardly have saved her from starvation. If those who had been the greatest sufferers from her wickedness had looked upon her then, with a knowledge of the fact, in her utter wretchedness, it would surely have disarmed them of all resentment. Whatever her after life may have been, (of which I have no knowledge,) she was evidently suffering at that period beneath a weight far heavier to bear than poverty, even in its most dire extreme--an evil conscience, and to such a degree, perchance, as sometimes to feel like Cain, that her punishment was greater than she could bear.

Text scanned courtesy of The Brewster Family Network
Copy of Rambles courtesy Peter E. Randall
History Hypertext project by SeacoastNH.com
This digital transcript  © 1999 SeacoastNH.com