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More Deadly Portsmouth Fires

Fire engine


Three decades after the horrific downtown fires that crippled Portsmouth in the 1800s, tragedy struck again. Fire was always part of this Seacoast city, but this year was especially memorable. Bonus addition lists the buildings affected by the fire.



Fire has ever been a deadly scourge for Portsmouth. Three times in the first two decades of the 19th Century fire struck the center of town, bringing sweeping destruction of property. The stories of the Christmas fires of 1802, 1806 and 1813 have oft been told, but the story of the one that swept through part of Market and Hanover streets in 1845 is not so well known.

From the outset, it was agreed that the fire was not as damaging its three predecessors, but quite probably that was due to the fact town had acquired better fire-fighting equipment, and the presence of a railroad line made it possible to mobilize outside aid very quickly. The fire started early on Sunday morning, May 4, and spread rapidly. It was believed that sparks from a chimney fire in the vicinity the evening before threw off sparks that caused the fire. At 12:40 a.m., a small wooden dye house, near the junction of Hanover and Market streets was discovered burning. Before any kind of fire equipment could get to the scene, the fire spread to a cabinet shop owned jointly by Edmund Brown and Alfred T. Joy. It fanned out in the opposite direction to the house of Mary Lunt, widow of a former sea captain, Thomas Lunt. Both structures were destroyed. The Portsmouth Journal account continues:

"The conflagration spread rapidly to Hanover Street, where four buildings were burned on the south side, and all the buildings in the rear to, but not including those in Ladd street. All the buildings on the west side of Market street being of brick and four stories, from the store of Mr. Charles W. Clark to the M'Intire block (excepting the store of Mr. S.J. Dodge), were consumed."

"On the east side of Market street," the newspaper account continues, " the fire communicated with the store occupied by S. Rowe & Co., adjoining that of Wm. Jones & Son, and consumed the stores to the corner of Bow and Penhallow streets, all four stories; and a three-story brick block on the west side of Penhallow street." (See complete list at end of article from 1846 newspaper)

Fire Fighting in 1846

The Journal pooh-poohed other news accounts which put total losses as high as $90,000, and added the belief that they wouldn't exceed $65,000. newspaper also ascertained that the insurances, distributed among seven different companies, totaled about $65,000. So concerned with its analysis of the losses, the paper let go until the end of its account two of the really dramatic moments of the great fire. While the modern concept of saturation efforts to battle fires through mutual aid had yet to be born, towns that were threatened by a major fire often sent messengers for help. And that was where the Eastern Railroad made a major difference in fighting the 1845 fire. lchabod Goodwin, who would later be the state's first Civil War governor, was a director of the ERR, and he sent a locomotive to Newburyport to get help. In less than two hours the locomotive was back, bringing with it three fire engines and nearly 400 men.

According to the Portsmouth Journal: "It was a grateful sight -- the time might not have been one for full expression of the grateful feelings of our citizens, yet the remembrance of the act will never be erased. May we never be needed to reciprocate the kindness. The facilities afforded by the Railroad Co., which were gratuitous, should be borne in grateful remembrance."

The Journal also omitted mentioning the contribution of the garrison at Ft. Constitution. Equipped "with an excellent fire engine," the soldiers battled the flames along Penhallow street. The sight of uniformed men fighting a Portsmouth fire must have been reminiscent for older citizens of the aid given by sailors and Marines in fighting the Great Fire of 1813. Sent across the river by Commodore Isaac Hull, of 'Old Ironsides" fame, the sailors and Marines not only fought the fire, but their presence kept the inevitable looting to a minimum. In fairness to the Journal, it must be said that paper didn't mention until near the end of its article that its plant in Ladd street had been threatened by the march of the fire. Helpful friends packed up the paper's type, removed it from the office and then returned it, "without breaking down a line, or making an ounce of pi.' The fire also prompted the Journal to sound a stentorian call for patrols of the town's streets:

". . . The Town ought never to be without a Night Watch or Patrol, in Summer as well as Winter. 'We do not undertake to assert that the late fire would have been early discovered and put out by the means of such a watch; though this not improbable. But we do maintain, what may be easily demonstrated, that a perpetual night watch, as a preventive measure, against both fire and thieves, is always worth more than its cost in a town of this size. The existence or lack of such a watch ought to affect premiums of insurance, as it certainly does affect the comparative danger or safety of property. It is hoped that this watch may by some means be revived-and that no pennywise economist may ever be able to abolish it."

Immediate plans were under way to rebuild, but no amount of rebuilding could replace the loss of the North Parishes 800-volume library. A year after the fire, in its issue of May 9th, the Journal commented:

"The ashes of the fire of 1845, desolating through they seemed be, have been like the sprinkling of guano on the torpid roots of a flower garden -- our town has been invigorated, and its luxuriant branches are shooting out in very direction, which will grow with increased vigor as soon as the first sprouts of the Concord Railroad appear on the surface."

When built, the Portsmouth & Concord Railroad never did achieve the success visualized by the builders; it came too late.


Account of Downtown Buildings burned
From the Portsmouth Journal:
Fire of 1846

"The following is a more particular description of the property destroyed: Three-story Dwelling House on Market-street, occupied by Mrs. Lunt; brick block, Market street, owned by Benjamin Cheever and David Kimball, and occupied by Benjamin Cheever, Clothing Ware-house, David Kimball, Druggist, and Brown & Joy, Furniture Ware House; 'A part of a brick block, Market St. belonging to John Haven, and occupied by John P. Lyman, Iron Store, and J.M. Mathes, Grocery Store; Brick block, Market street, owned by Nehemiah Moses, and occupied by Nehemiah Moses and Charles W. Clark as Clothing Ware Houses. Waldron's brick block, Market Street, occupied by Kittredge Sheldon, Provision store; C.E. Myers, Clothing Warehouse; N.K. Walker, Hat-store; Francis Dupray, Confectioner; S.G. Folsom, Grocery store; Seamen's Home; and in Penhallow street, store occu- pied by Conseder Derby, and dwelling-house occupied by J.G. Rand. Brick store in Market street, owned by William Rice, & occupied by Samuel Rowe & Co., Grocery store; McIntire brick buildings, Market- st., occupied by Samuel P. Wiggin, Provision-store; Lewis Bruce, Paint shop, J. Holmes, J.W. Fernald, John Pinder and Mr. Johnson, Dwelling-houses: 'In Hanover-st., a Two-story wooden Dwelling House, occupied by Capt. Edward Kennard and Mrs. Place; a Two-story Dwelling House occupied by Hall Varrell; a Two-story wooden Dwelling House owned by Robert Gray, and occupied by John Sanborn and William Shapleigh; a Two-story wooden Dwelling House owned by Marsh Estate, and occupied by Samuel P. Wiggin."

From the Portsmouth Journal, 1846

Rambles About Portsmouth, by Raymond Brighton, Portsmouth Marine Society, Peter Randall Publisher, 1993 Reprinted by permission of the publisher.
© 1994 Portsmouth Marine Society.

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