Fires and Fire Fighting

These articles come from various personal pages from Bowdoinham Advertisers:

The fire engine had another successful trial Saturday, succeeding in sending a water stream 198 feet. That $20 begins to loom into view. Put on the muscle boys, only two feet to go. Bowdoinham Advertiser, Aug. 28, 1884.

1902 Fire

Flames swept through downtown Bowdoinham, Dec. 13, 1902. The town lost 15 major buildings, including her only hotel (foundation in picture foreground), four grocery stores, a funeral parlor, blacksmith's shop, and drug store. This picture shows the area the morning after. (Photo courtesy Helen Gould Mitchell)

After the Fire


Bowdoinham Advertiser, February 1977
Frank Connors, Editor

Business District Gutted


EDITOR'S NOTE: Late in the year 1902, Bowdoinham suffered the most devastating fire recorded during the Town's 212 year history. Following is an account of that blaze, based upon old newspaper reports of the disaster, and on testimony offered by several Bowdoinham residents who even today remember that terrible night. (F.D.C.)

BOWDOINHAM, December 13, 1902: Residents of this village no doubt banked their stoves and went to bed early Saturday night. A gale howled outside from the northeast, and snow was drifting on the Town's desolate streets. It was no night to be out and around.

Flames erupted in the village sometime between the midnight and one o'clock Sunday morning, December 14. For five hours, wind-whipped flames ravaged the downtown area. When it was finally over fifteen major buildings had been leveled, including all but the fringe areas of the business section. More than 30 persons had been left homeless before the ashes cooled, and property loss estimates exceeded $35,000. The village lost four of its six grocery stores; a drug store; a hardware store; a funeral parlor; a blacksmith's shop; a barber's shop; and several other business offices that awful night; along with ten private residences. That night in the winter just 72 years ago, Bowdoinham almost died.

The inferno started in the south-east corner of the massive Purington-Hinkley block, a three-story commercial block located on the corner of Main and Bridge Streets, (where Bowdoinham's Masonic Lodge stands today).

In 1902, the Purington-Hinkley block housed two small stores on its ground floor. William H Gould rented both fronts, selling hardware from one, and general provisions from the other.

Upstair's above the Gould's stores were meeting rooms for the T.T. Rideout Post, Grand Army of the Republic (GAR); a hall rented by the Merrymeeting Grange; and a room retained by the local chapter of the Gospel Missions. Bowdoinham's venerable Masonic Order, one of the State's oldest, held its meetings in the Purington-Hinckley block on the third floor, as did the local Eastern Star chapter.

Purington Block

THE PURINGTON-HINKLEY BLOCK as it looked in downtown Bowdoinham before the terrible fire of 1902. The store and home occupied by William Rideout appears to the right. (Photo submitted by L.H. Chamberlain).

Theo Lang, a youthful resident of the town in 1902, walked past the Purington-Hinkley block about 12:10, Sunday morning. He was hurrying home after a visit with a lady friend in Brooklyn. He later affirmed that everything seemed quiet and right when he passed the store at that late hour; but he also said his head was bent low against the blowing snow, and he agreed sadly that he may have overlooked the budding disaster within the darkened structure.

Ira Williams, night watchman at the Kindling Wood Factory just east of the village on the Cathance River, first signaled the alarm. Williams was slowly trodding what he called his "graveyard rounds," in the sawmill, and happened to pause near a door, perhaps to light a pipe. When Williams glanced through the darkness toward the village, the ominous yellow glow that he spotted must have made his heart jump. He ran to the plant's steam whistle and tied the valve open, desperately hoping its shrill signal would awaken the sleeping village. Williams knew immediately that trouble was brewing for his town. By the time he ran down the railroad tracks to the Main Street gate house, flames were leaping through the roof of the Purington-Hinkley block.

H. G. SCHOFF was one of the first residents to reach the scene of the blaze. The morning after the fire, while stunned residents still walked among the smoldering ashes that lined both sides of Main Street, Schoff described the night to a LEWISTON-JOURNAL reporter.

"I was started awake by the Kindling Wood whistle. I jumped out of my bed," he said, "and looked at my watch. It was ten minutes past one." Schoff spotted the trouble almost immediately from his School Street window. Reflections from the flames danced about on his walls and ceiling. Schoff woke his family, pulled on his boots, pants and a great coat. He grabbed two pails and an extra pair of mittens, then headed down the hill at a dead run toward the now billowing flames. "Gould's stores were wrapped in flames when I arrived," Schoff said. "It was through the roof and the fire was beginning to spread. Rideout's house and store was the second place to go."

William Rideout tells his own story. "I was awakened by the Kindling Wood whistle," he said. "At first I guessed the alarm was for a fire at the factory; there had been a small blaze in some sawdust there not twenty hours before. Those steam driven saws were always starting little fires," he said.

Rideout stood in the darkness and listened. He realized, much to his own horror, that he could hear the unmistakable roar of flames. Wherever the fire was, he realized, it had to be closer to him than at the mill.

The store owner got dressed quickly, called to the others in the house and then climbed to the attic to place his ear to the chimney. He heard nothing in the attic, and must have felt a moment's relief as he touched the brick of his chimney and felt a slight frost. Rideout returned to his bedroom on the second floor and opened a window to peer out. The roar could be heard so much louder now.

At nearly the same moment that Rideout raised his sash for a look around, flames first burst through the side wall of Gould's Store and started to lap hungrily at the side of Rideout's building.

"I didn't know what to do," remembered Rideout. "I felt like a lost soul, I couldn't think of anything upstairs that I wanted to save, so I went downstairs to the store. I didn't know where to begin."

By the time Rideout descended to his store, a fiendish, yellow glare was illuminating the entire room.

The Purington-Hinkley block was now totally engulfed by flames, and light from that fire reflected off the Carr block (where Dot Dickinson's store is now.) and into the Rideout's store. "It was bright as daylight in the store," Rideout said. "I was getting scared."

Rideout sent his family to the relative safety of the street, and then returned to his store to open his safe and remove his business ledgers. "I must have been more nervous than I remember," he said later, "each time that I got that combination around right, it would slip by and I would have to start all over again. I worked on those tumblers for maybe fifteen minutes," he recalled, "until I was driven away by the flames."

Too late, Rideout remembered a money bag up stairs in his sleeping room tucked away for safety under his mattress. "There was $400 cash in that bag, so l rushed upstairs to save it. The room was a mass of flame when I reached the top landing," Rideout said. "I knew it was too late . . . no use." Rideout fled helplessly to the street, saving nothing.

Burned District

BOWDOINHAM was ill-equipped for dealing with such a fire. There was a volunteer fire brigade in town, but it was sadly lacking in hose and other fire fighting apparatus. The Town owned two old and ineffective handtubs, the WATER WITCH and the PHENIX; aside from these team-drawn tubs, the firemen's only remaining tool was the ageless, virtually useless bucket brigade.

Firemen gamely rolled the two old tubs up Bridge Street from the engine house to the blaze, with fire chief Charles Henry McEwen barking out orders. But fate was dealing against McEwen and his testy volunteers that frigid night. The PHENIX froze solid before her old hose could bear on the flames, and though the WATER WITCH pumped bravely, she couldn't be kept filled with water. Several of the cisterns downtown were frozen solid that night. The WITCH lost pressure again and again, and was finally abandoned in disgust. With the Witch out of commission, the only water used against the blaze had to be carried by pail and barrel from the ice-locked Cathance.

The Purington-Hinkley Block and Rideout's store were both blazing infernos in just minutes. A JOURNAL reporter recalls the scene: "Even the elements seemed united with the flames in an attempt to spread and wipe Bowdoinham from the face of the earth. The wind howled across the peaks of buildings, carrying the sparks from the top of one block to the roof or side wall of another. As men on the opposite side of the street opened doors to carry out possessions, sparks would follow them through the open doors like dogs, kindling new fires everywhere. There was no escaping the flames. The fire was like a fiend, using a host of ways to defeat the brave but futile efforts of the inhabitants trying to stop the spreading holocaust."

THE CARR BLOCK was the third structure taken by flames. State Insurance Commissioner Stephen Carr owned the building and operated a coat factory inside. His tenants included an office for the Standard Wood Company; and a sales room for Benjamin Adams, a local coal dealer. Fire chief McEwen had a barber shop on the front corner of the Carr Block. He managed to save a couple of shaving mugs as the building burned, nothing more.

The fire blew into and consumed Mosher's store on Main Street, then jumped to the Sampson store on Elm street. Small's drug store caught fire at 1:45 a.m. Flames devoured that structure in minutes, then moved next door to level the medical offices of Doctor Charles Palmer. Nothing was saved from Palmer's office, or from the Apothecary operated by Lorenzo D. Small, Bowdoinham's veteran town clerk.

The STINSON HOUSE, (where the town's memorial cannon now sits) caught fire just minutes after Carr's block. Innkeeper George W. Rideout watched sadly from the street as his famous old hostelry flamed. Fortunate for this Rideout, volunteers saved much of the furniture from the hotel by moving it into the street before the structure caught fire. Rideout took stock the next morning and found that nearly half of the furnishings had been saved; but that fine old three story hotel where liquor was never sold was gone from the village scene forever.

Fire Chief McEwen led his already tired brigade of fire fighters to the long, low carriage house and stable at the rear of the Stinson House. Here McEwen and his volunteers knew they had to hold the fire, or it could sweep out of control up the hill, taking with it most of the private residences in the village.

The RICHMOND BEE reported, "Those harried men in the bucket brigades knew that if the flames were allowed to pass that stable, then the greater part of this beautiful village would have been wiped out of existence before the sun came up on that fateful morning."

Men soaked horse blankets in the river, then carried them in freezing hands to be draped across the stable walls and roof. Others dashed back and forth with buckets of water, keeping the steaming, ice dripping blankets wet, and the building underneath cool.

Boys and girls of every age ran among houses on the hill, swatting out sparks that lit hungrily on many of the town's wooden buildings. Many persons suffered minor bums that night.

The squat old stable smoked from the heat of the burning hotel, but it never burned. For the moment at least, the fire's progress was halted. The upper town appeared safe.

Weary firefighters had no time to cheer or rest, however. After burning the Carr block and Sampson's store on Elm Street, the flames reached to and devoured the Sampson house. From that place, the fire threatened to jump to the home of E. P. Kendall next door.

The Kendall house was considered a local show place, but more important than that, firefighters knew flames from that house could easily threaten the homes on Back Hill and School Street again; or spread in the other direction to the Kendall's grist mill, feed stores or fertilizer plant.

Residents must also have worried that flames might jump from the Kendall house to the Maine Central Railroad Station across the road. If the depot and its telegraph keys burned, all contact with the outside world would be lost.

Inside the MCRR depot, telegraph operator Emma Snell, (Mildred Given's mother) clacked out desperate appeals for assistance to other towns. "Our town is ablaze," went the frantic call, "we need men, equipment . . . send help immediately." Mrs. Snell sent that appeal many times during that night.

Bath responded to the wire immediately, saying help would be sent by rail, "as soon as we can locate a locomotive." Topsham rang an alarm, but no men or equipment started up the cold dark road to Bowdoinham.

Gardiner was wired, but the fire chief replied that no fire fighters or equipment could be dispatched with out an okay from the city council. He said he didn't want to be the one to get the town fathers out of bed at 2 a.m., Sunday morning.

Augusta rang an alarm for Bowdoinham immediately, and crews pushed their fire engine aboard a flat car for the trip down river. But Augusta also wired there would be a delay, the nearest locomotive to pull the relief train was in the round house at Waterville. Bowdoinham was on its own.

A JOURNAL writer said, "The scene was like a great forest fire. The business section of Bowdoinham was one solid mass of flames. No one could pass up or down Main streets, or along certain portions of Bridge or Elm Streets."

"People at Richmond, Bowdoin, Brunswick, and Bath could see the flames clearly. Men whose property was going up in flames could not stand around and grieve, there was simply no time. They all knew the loss of a moment's time in checking the devastating flames might cause doom of the entire village."

On the east side of Main Street, the flames were eating steadily from house to house. The fire spread faster than the plucky people could even hope to follow it. One building after another caught fire, blazed and crashed to the ground in a shower of sparks. It must have been a horrible sight.

Eyewitnesses reported the flames ran down the roofs and sidewalls of Mrs. Foye's block as if oil had been poured onto them. The undertaker's rooms exploded in flames, and then the residence of Mr. Thorne. Berry's house and store burned; then the old carriage works and the old bank building, where all the town's records were kept. It would be late morning before the ashes of the old bank building would be sufficiently cooled for anxious selectmen to paw about in the ruins; seeking the safe holding the town's records. Miraculously, the books were found intact. For that at least, the town had been lucky.

FIREMEN finally checked the fire's progress around 4 a.m. Hose stretched down the railroad tracks from the Kindling Wood Factory supplied ample water with which to protect the railroad's gate house on the Main Street crossing, and a house across the street owned by a Captain Getchell. This same line protected the warehouses, sheds and wharfs between the tracks and the river from destruction.

Volunteers were able to stop the fire on Elm Street before it could turn the corner and consume the Kendall house. This place was one of the very few in town served by interior plumbing at this early date. It is said that access to running water inside the house that night was probably the only thing that stopped the fire from taking the house.

A number of valuable antique pieces in the Kendall house were carried out to the street when fears that the house would burn were at their highest. Several of these pieces were ruined by water and sparks, even though the house was saved.

Bath Steamer No. 3 with a crew of volunteers reached Bowdoinham on a relief train about 5 a.m. The Bath men were reported dazed at the scope of destruction, even though by 5 a.m. the fire was completely under control and burning very low.

The Bath teams relieved as many bone-weary Bowdoinham men as they could, continuing to play water on the ruins until almost noon, when the blaze was declared officially out.

Men from Bowdoin, Richmond, Topsham and Brunswick walked and rode to town any way they could and offered their services to the victims of the fire. What belongings the people had saved by piling them in the street were loaded on wagons and carried to the homes of friends for safe keeping. About 6 a.m., Mrs. Snell wired up river to Augusta that volunteers from the Capitol City should not make the trip down to Bowdoinham, there was nothing left for the fire to burn, she said. The flames had finally been subdued.

The cause of the Great Bowdoinham fire has never been determined. No reason to blame Willie Gould was ever found, even though the blaze started in his store. Many residents suggested arson as the cause, suggesting that Gould's store might have been robbed, and then burned to destroy any evidence that may have been left behind. No proof of arson or robbery was every discovered, however.

Bowdoinham Advertiser, Vol.II No.III
Frank Connors, Editor


Editor's note: Bowdoinham Advertiser, Vol. 11, Number 111; featured a page one picture of the PURINGTON/HINKLEY block. Thanks to Maxwell Ward, we now have a very precise description of the picture. The description was written in 1921 by W.D. Hutchins, and is reprinted here:

"This picture, taken in 1893, represents the corner of Main and Bridge streets, Bowdoinham. The large building being painted contained the grocery store of H.R. Hinkley, in the right-hand half of the street floor, where the door is open. I should say that the corner store at the left was vacant at the time the picture was taken. The second floor was the G.A.R. Hall to the left; the cigar factory of W.H. Blanchard, to the right. The third floor was the Masonic Hall.

It was in the rear of this building, on the second or third floor, where the big fire of 1902 was first discovered, about midnight.

The building to the right with the two bay windows was the grocery store and residence of W.E. Rideout.

The man standing to the left at the corner of the building was Charles H. Temple, one of the well known older residents of our town. The large man to Temple's right was S.D. (Deck) Thorn, holding his little boy Sam by the hand. "Deck" was the editor of the Bowdoinham Advertiser, a real character and liked by everyone. The shirt-sleeved man with the beard was H.R. Hinkley. Mr. Hinkley had just rolled out two empty oil barrels and put on top of them two empty coffee cans for the return trip to H.S. Melcher & Co., Portland. The man to the right, in his shirt sleeves is John P. Rideout, father of W.E. Rideout, and one of the best known men in Bowdoinham. He was a master ship's carpenter, having had charge of a good many of the vessels built at Bowdoinham.

The fellow with the bicycle on the hay scales is the writer, and at the time of the picture was 24 years old. The bicycle was called a 'feather weight' on account of its being so light it weighed 136 pounds, which is quite a contrast with the weight of them today. The bicycle cost $176, and was one of the first in Bowdoinham.

The building to the extreme right was the drug store of L.D. Small, the town druggist and express agent, as well as town clerk for a great many years.

The small building directly back of the corner store, showing simply the end of it, was the photography saloon of J.A. Cromwell. I am not able to tell who the painters are, but trust the one at the top of the ladder is W.H . Gould."

Bowdoinham Advertiser, August 1985
Frank Connors, Editor

Volunteer Fire Department

The present Bowdoinham Fire Department was organized by George Ackley in March, 1947. His idea was that a completely volunteer department would give the town better protection at less cost to the taxpayer. Mr. Ackley was elected fire Chief that year and some 25 or 30 men volunteered to assist him in active operation of the department. The existing equipment consisted of a 1929 Ford truck with pump, and 1939 Chevrolet truck both of doubtful value. Also there was a good four cylinder forestry pump and some usable hose.

Sometime in late 1947, a separate organization was set up to act as a business agent for the department. This was known as the Fire Department Association, and consisted of both active firemen and any businessmen or other interested citizens who wished to participate without actually fighting fires.

In 1959 fire hydrants were installed, and in January, 1960, water came through the hydrants for the first time. This service has been a help to the Fire Department and a great value to the town.

The B.F.D. has been recognized throughout the state as an outstanding fire-fighting department of which the citizens of Bowdoinham can be justly proud.

You will need to put these two pictures together to read the names correctly!

1962 Fire Department

1962 Volunteer Firefighters


[second photo missing]

First Row, left to right: Frank Tome, Charles Messer, Harry Tome, Thomas Irving, Chief William Gray, Stanley Baker, Richard Moore, John Uhle, Allan Frizzle, Jr., William Prindall Second Row, left to right: Adelbert Temple, George Ackley, Gene Fisher, Leeland Benner, Irving Temple, Robert Lamoreau, Hollis Temple, Leonard Skelton, Hartley Douglas, Earle Temple, Clifford Gray

One of the buildings owned by Mr. Curtis, known as the old engine house, was moved off the property, it had housed two of the towns older pieces of fire apparatus, two handtubs. One of these was the Water Witch, sold to a party living in Lewiston, Maine and the Phenix, which you will see in operation at the Firemen's Muster Saturday, July 7, held on the Community School grounds, under the direction of the Androscoggin Veterans' Firemen's Association, Inc. who has kept in repair, this piece of equipment. Bowdoinham owns the Phenix but through a lease program with the Androscoggin Firemen's Association, the Phenix is housed in their town.

Both handtubs were used to help fight the most destructive fire in the history of the town, December 14, 1902. The Phenix, at that time, having been in town over half a century. Originally the Phenix was acquired by the town, from a ship which docked here to load supplies. The tub was used in the ships hold for pumping out water, which was one of the many uses for this type of hand tub, in those days.

Two years later another fire broke out in the town, March 1, 1904 wiping out completely the businesses that had managed to survive the first holocaust.

Section from an article by Ella May Purington Curtis
Bicentennial Booklet 1962

Last Alarm for PHENIX?



A very great measure of the charm of Bowdoinham rests in the antiques which served past generations and are still extant to grace our present day. Some, like the fine old homes, are still in use. Others, like sleighs, wagon wheels and churns, have been superseded by more modern equipment and serve only as reminders of the past way of life.

One such relic of the past is the PHENIX, a hand tub now resting in the loft of the town's fire station.

The PHENIX was commissioned into service in 1798, and is one of only two or three such hand tubs in existence in all the nation. The Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan displays one such duplicate, and the museum curators declare it priceless.

Even 104 years after the beginning of its service, the PHENIX was called into use during the disastrous fire of I902, though unsuccessful: "The old hand tub, PHENIX, was brought into commission. She had to be filled with water from buckets, and before it could be pumped out of her, the machine froze solid and the attempt had to be given up."

In 1938 and in subsequent years the PHENIX served as a charming prop for pretty girls to perch upon for picture-taking during affairs held by the Ladies Auxiliary of the Bowdoinham Firemen. And in 1962, during the Bowdoinham Bicentennial a firemen's muster was held, attended by hand tub crews and equipment from all over New England, the PHENIX held a place of honor as the oldest and most historic Fire fighting equipment present.

For the ten years past, the venerable hand tub had been rented to a group called the Oxford Bear Engine Co., a group which studies and admires old fire apparatus. The rental fee was $1.00 a year, and Bowdoinham voters have approved the lease agreement every year, believing their antique to be in safe hands. Until very recently this was true, but a short while ago Fire Chief Allan Frizzle learned that the PHENIX was being kept in an open-sided shed, and was thus being cruelly exposed to the elements. He quickly retrieved the tub, and put it in the dry fire station, where it now reposes.

But the weather had already taken its toll and some observers feel the tub is beyond recovery. Not only would restoration be expensive, but it may be hard to find a carpenter with the skill to bring the PHENIX back to its state of elderly beauty. The oak planking that forms its frame is rotted to the point of powdering in spots. The tin tank that held precious fire fighting water has separated in many places. The iron rimmed wooden wheels are detached.

So, after 175 years of service, mostly to the town of Bowdoinham, and most of it honorably, the PHENIX is faced by another challenge, no doubt the greatest challenge of her distinguished career. Will the crippled old tub rise to the occasion or will she rot into a dusty oblivion in the fire station loft?

If the PHENIX is to be helped, the time is now.

Bowdoinham Advertiser Vol II No. l c. 1974
Frank Connors, Editor

Hand Engines Guarded Bowdoinham

THE PHENIX, the first piece of fire apparatus owned by the town of Bowdoinham, has been bought from the Town by the Firemen's Association and is now in the garage owned by Howard Moody, President of the Association. It is being greased, painted and equipped with a new hose at the garage. The old pumper will be kept in condition to go to musters or, in a bad fire, may be used as additional apparatus. In any case, it deserves the best of treatment in its old age. The known history of this ancient pumper begins back in 1806, when a J. Carr was building a boat on Patten's shore, and needed a pumper for fire protection, and also to water his new vessel. Carr went to Boston and bought the Phenix in a junk yard. He shipped it by sailing vessel to Bowdoinham, and when he was through with it, he turned it over to the town. For some time it was the only piece of fire apparatus in Bowdoinham, and it saw considerable service.

When the old Bowdoinham hotel, the Stinson House, was burned, the Phenix saved the Sampson house next door. The Phenix was built in the days before suction hose was known, so a bucket brigade was necessary to fill its wooden reservoir with water, which was then forced out through the hose by men on the pump handles. The original hose on the pumper was made of long, straight pieces of leather, riveted to form a cylinder. Brass rivets an inch apart and brass couplings on the old hose literally proved its undoing, according to Charles H. McEwen, who was for 29 years a fire warden. The hose disappeared, probably stolen for the brass that it contained. Only the original nozzle now remains.

THE WATER WITCH, Bowdoinham's other old piece of apparatus which townspeople voted not to sell to the Association, is also unusual, there being but one other like it, the Eureka, of Arlington, Mass. The Water Witch and the Eureka were built by the old Howard & Davis company, now the Howard Clock Co., of Roxbury, the Water Witch going first to the town of Dedham, Mass., there it gained a record which will, in all probability, never be taken away from it. The record was for being hauled by hand the longest distance of any pumper when it was taken from Dedham to a fire at Newton Lower Falls.

Dedham sold the Witch to Bowdoinham, where it carried off honors for its town at muster for length of streams played, and has often proved its worth in actual use.

In the big fire of 1904, the Water Witch saved the Brick Store, now occupied by Will Rideout even after the windows and interiors were all ablaze. In 1914, when the Methodist parsonage burned, the pumper won a commendation from insurance adjustors for not only saving nearby dwellings, but for also putting out the fire in the house itself, before it could burn flat.

Editor's note: This article is copied from an undated clipping given to the Historical Society by Molly Nealey. We estimate that it was printed originally in 1938. The Phenix is now being restored by the Historical Society. FDC.

Bowdoinham Advertiser June 1982
Frank Connors, Editor