In 1866, the Great Fire of Portland was the most devastating blaze ever to strike an American city. Andrew Vietze revisits the harrowing night that left half of Portland in ashes.
From our July 2016 issue.
July 4, 1866
The alarm bells started clanging in the late afternoon as Cyrus Curtis was walking home through the streets of downtown Portland, pulling his newspaper wagon behind him. Fire. The peal of the bells seemed to be coming from Commercial Street, maybe from one of the wharves along the nearby waterfront. Sixteen-year-old Curtis lived in the other direction, on Wilmot Street, but he was nothing if not curious. Venturing down to the avenues overlooking Casco Bay would take him many blocks out of his way — but that’s where all the other kids were headed, and so Curtis tugged his wagon and followed the crowd.
That a fire had broken out in a city of 26,000 on a hot Fourth of July afternoon was not itself news. Fires were a regular occurrence in the young city, where wooden buildings were the norm. Portland employed a full-time professional company of almost 100 men to deal with them. A searing dryness had settled over Maine that summer. Just two weeks earlier, a five-story Portland furniture mill had burned to the ground, threatening all of Exchange Street before it was contained. With temperatures around 80 degrees and revelers lighting firecrackers in the streets, some sort of flare-up seemed all but guaranteed.
And were there revelers aplenty. As Allan Levinsky recounts in The Night the Sky Turned Red, the Forest City was gearing up for a colossal celebration. The nation was observing its first Independence Day following the definitive end of its bloody civil war — the first Fourth in half a decade that Mainers weren’t worried about whether their sons and brothers would be returning home. Per capita, the state had contributed more soldiers and sailors to the Union military than any other state, and Portland alone lost more than 300 young men. To commemorate the end of this dark chapter, the city planned parades, a circus, hot-air balloons, ballgames, horse races, music, and speakers all across the city. Thousands of out-of-towners poured in. With typical self-conscious moxie, the state’s papers billed the event as “better than Boston’s.”
Like everyone else, Cyrus Curtis was brimming with enthusiasm.
When the fire alarm stopped, Curtis paid attention to the street chatter. Some claimed the blaze was down this street, others down that one. He heard cries of “all out” echoing through the avenues and watched as Portlanders began turning their attention back to the festivities unfolding across the peninsula.
Then the bells started tolling again, this time louder and more rapidly. Curtis jogged with his wagon towards the waterfront, and when he turned a corner onto Commercial Street, what he saw alarmed him: A whole city block up in flames, fire leaping several stories into the sky. The blaze seemed completely out of control.
William Wilberforce Ruby raised the first cry of alarm — at least that’s how history remembers it. The son of a prominent Underground Railroad “conductor,” Ruby was the city’s only black firefighter. He was born in Portland and held a lifelong interest in his trade. For a short time, his family had lived in New York City, where, at age 12, he was made an honorary member of the NYC fire department. Years later, he joined Portland’s force, and that afternoon in 1866, he happened to be walking past the intersection of Commercial and Maple streets when a flicker of flame caught his eye. In a small boat shop called Deguio’s, a pile of wood shavings had ignited. No one knows for sure what kindled the blaze, but firecrackers are the likely culprit — Portland’s fire
department had already extinguished two small fires that day, both started by kids with fireworks.
This one was different. The sparks had landed amid wood debris surrounded by seasoned planks. It was like a match hitting a pile of dry kindling. Ruby saw the burning shop and recognized the potential for disaster. He dashed up the street hollering, “Fire! Maple Street! Fire! District Eight!”
By the time any of Portland’s four steam-powered fire engines made it to the scene, tall flames had consumed Deguio’s and licked at the neighboring buildings. As some firefighters later observed, the blaze might have been easy to handle had it been caught earlier. A steam engine crew might simply have pushed the whole boathouse into the adjacent harbor — or maybe leveled it and covered it in dirt. As historian John Neal writes in his Account of the Great Conflagration, published just months after the blaze, the boathouse fire could have been extinguished “in 10 minutes, by a dozen men.” But it wasn’t.
At first, most nearby Portlanders didn’t panic. As Neal writes, many considered the buildings on Commercial Street “well-nigh, if not altogether fire-proof.” Even if the fire kept spreading south and took the whole block, onlookers thought, it was bound to run out of fuel and stop.
Then the wind shifted.
The blaze began to sweep northeast instead, spreading to Danforth and York streets, where it ignited two buildings prone to dust explosions — the adjacent J.B. Brown & Company sugar mill and a nearby flour mill. The fire spread quickly to the Staples & Son machine shop, then the Richardson’s stove foundry, then a mix of warehouses and commercial buildings leading away from the water and towards the city’s commercial heart.
As the wind picked up, the fire department — and the public at large — began to realize the potential cataclysm it had on its hands, with several blocks now smoldering and the flames higher than the buildings they attacked. The inferno spread to an Irish neighborhood known as Gorham’s Corner, burning hotter as it devoured a small village’s worth of wooden buildings. It picked its way up Pleasant Street before moving onto Center Street, then consumed buildings on Cross Street, Union, Temple, and Exchange. Portlanders who’d been calm an hour before started scrambling to gather their valuables and running outside in search of loved ones. All at once, the fire seemed unstoppable.
High winds pushed the Great Fire of Portland to the north and east,
wiping the main commercial and residential sectors off the map.
Cyrus Curtis rushed home to tell his mother and 11-year-old sister what he’d seen. When he arrived, he found the two of them packing the family’s belongings, his father out of town on business. Curtis was amazed. The fire would never make it this far, he argued — it was still a mile away. But Mrs. Curtis had already moved much of the family’s furniture into the street and was looking for a way to move them out of the neighborhood to someplace safe. Her son’s little newspaper wagon was the best she could find.
All across the peninsula, the same scene played out in other neighborhoods. As word of the fire spread, many Portlanders started moving their most treasured heirlooms into the sturdy buildings on Congress Street — like those on Commercial Street, widely considered fireproof. A crowd began to assemble at City Hall. Built of brick and sandstone imported from Nova Scotia, it had been raised just four years earlier and was thought to be impervious. With its stately copper dome, it was a newly beloved Portland landmark, one of the finest municipal structures in the Northeast. Families from blocks threatened by fire swarmed to it. They stockpiled their most precious items inside, then retreated as the flames advanced, trusting their belongings to fate and the city’s firefighters.
In 1866, professional firefighting in Portland was still in its infancy, as contemporary firefighters Don Whitney and Michael Daicy describe in Portland’s Greatest Conflagration: The 1866 Fire Disaster. For most of its history, the Portland Fire Department, formed in 1831, had relied on men who were little more than volunteers, part-timers paid a pittance to haul and operate pumps the size of horse carts known as hand engines. Able to shoot water some 200 feet, the hand engines were dragged to the scene of a fire by 15 or so men — cumbersome, but a vast improvement over the bucket brigades of old.
Then, in October 1859, hand engines became obsolete, thanks to the arrival of the city’s first steam engine, which sprayed similar distances, but up to 900 gallons a minute – some 15 times more than the hand engines. The shiny red truck needed horses to draw it along but far fewer men to operate it. Upon its arrival, Portland hired its first full-time firefighter, Edward Porter, a machinist who’d formerly worked on a hand engine. The city installed Porter and its new engine in a firehouse on Congress Street, at the foot of Munjoy Hill.
FOR MOST OF ITS HISTORY, THE PORTLAND FIRE DEPARTMENT HAD RELIED ON MEN WHO WERE LITTLE MORE THAN VOLUNTEERS.
But not all Portlanders were happy to see their tax dollars go to a man who many assumed simply sat around and waited for something to catch fire. Some thought the new engine was an expensive toy that put good men out of work — the 417 men from the hand-engine companies may have been only semiprofessional, but they were hard workers who needed income. Shortly after its arrival, a few angry citizens went so far as to steal Engine 1, with plans to push it over a high bluff (they were apprehended before carrying out the plot).
After a few fires in the early 1860s, however, Portlanders started changing their minds about the new firefighting technology. The city ordered more steam engines, and by 1866, the fire department boasted four of them with 15 men each, plus one hook-and-ladder truck with 25 men assigned. In the five years leading up to the Great Fire, the department responded to 196 conflagrations, and the city rapidly found a new appreciation of its professional firefighters.
Nonetheless, the team was still fairly new and its systems only somewhat tested. When a fire alarm rang, the men would hook a steam engine up to a horse and haul it to the site of the blaze, drawing water from one of 59 reservoirs and 10 wells spread across the city. But the reservoirs and wells predated the new engines, and as Portland’s firefighters discovered in 1866, a steam engine pumping at full capacity could drain a reservoir in 15 minutes. Few blazes in Portland had ever required such a heavy and sustained soak — this one would have required far more.
“Within two hours,” writes Neal, “it was seen that steamers and fire companies, however efficient on all ordinary occasions, were entirely powerless within immediate range of the Destroyer.”
When the fire first erupted, Z.K. Harmon had been working in Portland’s U.S. Custom House, at the corner of Middle and Exchange. A bounty and pension agent, he’d stayed at his desk, either unaware of or unconcerned about the blaze down on the waterfront. He kept working until evening — the fire slowly nearing the arched windows of the grand semi-circular building — before finally deciding to head out. By the time he realized the danger, it was too late to simply walk away.
When he tried to leave, Harmon later told a newspaper reporter, he found “a perfect sea of flame” sweeping up Exchange Street, “cleaving off large rocks from the massive walls of the building. Sidewalks and streets were literally red with the heat.” He tried another exit, but found the situation no better. The buildings surrounding the Custom House, including the offices of the Daily Advertiser newspaper, were new structures built with wood, and they were fully engulfed — “perfectly enveloping the U.S. building in sheets of flame.”
Harmon was in trouble, and it wasn’t the first time. Two years earlier, the hardworking clerk narrowly escaped a fire in the Custom House in Gloucester, Massachusetts, when he was briefly locked inside. This time, he thought, all he could do was pray that the building held around him. Like so many other Portland buildings, it was said to be fireproof. But when Harmon looked up, he saw this wasn’t the case: the building’s wooden beams were already burning. Smoke began to fill every room.
Harmon decided to make a run for it. He gathered as many mail bags as he could find and wrapped them around his body. Then he took the deepest breath he’d ever taken and bolted out the door.
Six blocks away, city hall was faring even worse. Cinders from the adjacent natural history museum had blown onto the copper sheathing of the new building’s dome and slid down like children on a slide, collecting in a pile at its base, then melting through the copper and igniting the wood beneath. The dome and the wood inside eventually collapsed into the building in a burning pile, leaving behind only a ghastly façade — just the front walls remained standing. Millions of dollars of personal belongings turned to ashes.
WHEN HE TRIED TO LEAVE, HARMON LATER TOLD A REPORTER, HE FOUND OUTSIDE 'A PERFECT SEA OF FLAME.'
Other stone and brick buildings met the same fate — the inferno simply laid them to waste. While bricks don’t ignite like wood, the superheated air of the intensely hot fire nonetheless caused them to crack, heating moisture within into steam and stressing the mortar that held them together. Masonry expands with high heat, and once fissures and fractures began to appear, the buildings swayed and buckled. Many of downtown Portland’s brick structures were framed with wood, and as the frames burned, the weakened buildings simply disintegrated.
“And so it was everywhere,” writes Neal, “all the stone work — the granite, the gneiss, the Albert Stone, the slate, the sienite — all fared alike, all were transformed into shapeless, incandescent boulders and broken fragments.”
A block north of Congress, the Curtis family had packed Cyrus’ delivery cart with everything they could fit. But when Mrs. Curtis went looking through the neighborhood for a couple of men strong enough to haul it away, a pair of louts tried to abscond with it, overhearing that the family’s sideboard was filled with heirlooms and treasures. The cabinet was heavy, though, and as the thieves lugged it through the streets, the Curtises followed them at a distance. They carried on a slow-speed chase for more than a mile, until the men stopped to catch their breath. Mrs. Curtis marched up and lit into them, and the hapless burglars turned and ran.
It took more than an hour for the family to head home, as Mrs. Curtis walked door to door, looking for volunteers who could tote the sideboard to safety. When they finally returned to Wilmot Street, all they found were smoldering ruins.
By sunset, the fire had eaten its way more than a mile up Fore Street. The fire department sent mutual aid calls to other fire companies around Maine, even to Boston, and firefighters responded from Bath, Lewiston, Saco, Biddeford, Augusta, and Gardiner. They fought valiantly, as Neal writes, “in the midst of danger as great as that of a battlefield.”
“With falling chimnies [sic] and trembling walls and showers of broken slate and clouds of smoke and blazing cinders all about them,” Neal continues, “and a suffocating, scorching atmosphere that few could breathe in safely, they only succeeded in staying the conflagration along the outskirts.”
By nighttime, the fire was hotter than a blast furnace; even the best engines seemed to do little. Firefighters tried everything, even using gunpowder to mine and explode buildings in the path of the blaze — as many as 50 of them, according to a post-fire article in The New York Times. But the fire simply leapt past the breaks or found new paths.
After sounding the alarm, William Wilberforce Ruby watched the fire destroy his hometown and tried to help as he could. As the fire neared Munjoy Hill, Ruby’s thoughts turned to the Abyssinian Meeting House, an African-American church his father had helped to found some 40 years before. Wood-framed, the church was near the city’s Eastern Cemetery, off Federal Street, directly in the fire’s path. Ruby rushed to the site and spent hours wetting down blankets and spreading them across the building’s roof. Thanks to his efforts, the fire’s nearly mile-long advance down Federal Street stopped at the site of the church. Today, the Abyssinian Meeting House is the third-oldest surviving black house of worship in the US.
But Ruby’s church was a rare exception to the devastation the Great Fire wreaked across Portland in only a matter of hours. Overnight, whole city blocks fell at an unbelievable rate, one after another. “In 15 minutes after it struck [furniture maker] Walter Corey’s immense establishment on Exchange Street and Fox’s Court,” writes Neal, “the whole pile of buildings had disappeared.” Slate, brick, marble — the fire burned hot enough that no building material seemed invulnerable. “Wood’s magnificent hotel,” Neal continues, “with little or nothing in it of combustible nature, was reduced to ashes in 28 minutes.”
As darkness covered the rest of Maine, Portland was incandescent. “The glare of this conflagration was seen in the country a distance of more than 60 miles,” reported The New York Times, “and the heat was so intense that standing at the distance of a quarter of a mile from the flames, with the wind driving them from you, you were forced to beat a hasty retreat, or have your flesh blistered.”
“The roar of the flames was like the deep-toned voice of many Niagaras,” wrote Dr. William Wood, head of Portland’s Natural History Society, who’d seen his organization’s headquarters burn. “The lamentations of the multitudes driven from their burning homes, the shouts of the firemen, the rattling of engines, the uproar of falling walls and the explosion of mines, the clamor of bells ringing out anew, all overhung with a dark and wired canopy of smoke, lurid with the baleful glare of this great conflagration — all united in creating a night of terror and dismay appalling to the stoutest of hearts.”
In the small hours of July 5, dazed Portlanders roamed the streets, many of them too stunned and terrified even to consider sleeping. The lack of darkness didn’t help. A reporter from Lewiston’s Daily Evening Journal described the city as “a sheet of flame.” From the bay, the article said, the nighttime sight of the city burning was “magnificent.”
“Tongues of flame streamed into the heavens from a thousand points, burning masses flew through the air, waves of fire rolled madly in huge columns over the devoted city, and the roar of flames drowned the shouts of the firemen and the screams of the sufferers. In any part of the city, a book could be read in the streets by the light of the flaming buildings.”
Still wide-awake in the safe house his mother had found for them off the peninsula, Cyrus Curtis got out of bed and took to the streets. He walked back to Wilmot Street to see how his neighborhood looked. When he got there, he found his father sitting near the scorched remnants of their home, his head cradled in his hands. He’d returned from his trip to find the house incinerated, unsure what had become of his family.
Also wandering outside was Charles P. Illsley, who’d spent most of his 59 years in Portland, writing for various newspapers and publishing poems and novels. The sounds of the burning city were enough to keep him awake. “Amid the crackling of the burning timber, the roaring of the fiery billows, and the rush of the gale,” Illsley later wrote, “came the crash of falling buildings, the muffled explosion of houses and stores razed to the ground, the shriek of the steam fire engines, and the cries of the excited multitude.”
As he walked through burned wreckage along Commercial Street, Illsley encountered groups of newly homeless families taking refuge in a graveyard. Bedraggled, scared, sooty, they appeared to him like wraiths, “as if the tenants of the tombs and graves had come forth to witness the appalling scene.” He looked towards Fore Street, still subsumed by fire. From Center Street to India Street, he writes, was “one unbroken mass of flame, looking, with its sinuousities, like a monstrous, writhing, fiery serpent. . . . Overhead, lurid clouds of smoke rolled wildly away toward the north, whence descended an incessant shower of fiery rain.”
Families roamed the streets, calling out to account for their members. Children clutched the sooty hands of their parents. From the western reaches of the city, good Samaritans ventured across town to invite victims into their homes. The blaze raged all night, hammering on buildings, blowing out their windows and melting iron shutters before dropping them in rubble. Firefighters battled to the point of exhaustion, many of them simply dropping where they stood to sleep in the streets.
The cataclysm reached the East End overnight, blown by the still-high winds. For several hours after sunrise, the fire tore across the western reaches of Munjoy Hill. One by one, buildings continued to fall, and in the late morning, city officials made one further, desperate appeal to fire departments across Maine and Massachusetts.
Then, in a manner that must have seemed miraculous, the fire simply hit a dead end. Historian Neal recalls how the fire met its demise: “After raging for . . . hours, in the direction it took from the first, diagonally across the most crowded and the busiest portion of our city . . . the conflagration stopped. The wind had providentially shifted and there was nothing more to feed it.”
Pockets of the Great Fire of Portland smoldered for days, but the flame front reached the tall, sandy cliffs beneath the summit of Munjoy Hill, where the Revolutionary War–era Fort Sumner once stood, and there, it found nothing left to burn.
The city that the blaze left behind was unrecognizable from its former self. Tidal waves of fire had razed blocks “so completely that the lines of the streets can hardly be traced,” the Hartford Weekly Times reported. What once was a thriving downtown filled with homes and businesses was now “a forest of chimneys.” Piles of bricks, themselves born of heat, were all that withstood the white-hot intensity.
In the days that followed, as the city began a slow process of recovery, temperatures soared to 96, then 98, then 103 degrees. Portland’s mayor sent a pleading dispatch to the mayor of Boston: “Thousands of our citizens are houseless and hungry in the streets. Can you send us some bread and cooked provisions?” Requests went out for 1,500 tents to house refugees. Offers of aid came from all around the country.
Looters roamed the streets, filling up wagons and trucks with the goods that fleeing families and shop owners had left behind. The pillaging got so bad that police boarded and searched vessels departing Portland Harbor, making sure they weren’t trafficking in stolen goods. One arsonist was arrested trying to set fire to two buildings left standing — an attempt to direct attention away from several other buildings he planned to rob. Two companies of marines from the Portsmouth Naval Yard were dispatched to keep order.
In the days that followed, incredible stories began to emerge. A pedestrian in Brunswick, 30 miles away, found a partially burned dollar bill. One Portland couple supposedly rented a room in Cape Elizabeth after their home burned, only to find it furnished with their own belongings. A drunk left to sleep it off in a city jail cell had slumbered through the night, oblivious as the jail collapsed around him. Ninety-one-year-old Hannah Thorlo — who’d been pulled from her home as an infant when British Lieutenant Henry Mowat famously firebombed Portland in 1775 — was escorted once again from that very same home, surviving the second great Portland cataclysm. And in a vault beneath the ruins of the Maine Bank, a jeweler found that the watches he kept there had all survived, showing the correct time.
All told, the city lost more than 1,600 buildings — an average of more than one building for every minute of the fire’s advance. The burned area accounted for roughly half of the city, and the fire destroyed an estimated $10–$15 million worth of goods and property, in 1866 dollars. It was, at the time, the largest urban fire in U.S. history, causing the insurance industry to reassess its policies towards many building materials — no longer were brick and stone considered invulnerable. Nearly all of Portland’s colonial architecture was lost, and in the rebuilding, the city acquired the Victorian look that neighborhoods like the Old Port and West End are known for today.
Miraculously, only two people were killed in the Great Fire of Portland, both too intoxicated to escape the advancing flames. Wrapped in his mail bags, pension agent Z.K. Harmon escaped the Custom House to safety. He went on to become a devoted chronicler of Maine’s 19th-century history. “He attributes his salvation,” a newspaper reporter later wrote, “to a kind of Providence.”
William Wilberforce Ruby also went on to bigger and better things. Twenty years later, he became a captain, then an assistant engineer for the fire department, and he would eventually rise to the rank of deputy chief. It’s said that even after he retired, Ruby still chased fires around town.
The fire also forever changed Cyrus Curtis’ life. His home was gone, and his family had no insurance. His job as a newsboy was gone, at least temporarily, since every newspaper office in the city had burned. He left high school to seek full-time work, eventually landing in Boston. Six years later, Cyrus Hermann Kotzschmar Curtis launched his own weekly newspaper there — and it became the cornerstone of one of the most successful publishing empires in American history. At its peak, the Curtis Publishing Company put out Ladies’ Home Journal, Holiday, and The Saturday Evening Post, among others, and was worth the modern equivalent of billions.
Decades before, Portland had adopted as its symbol a phoenix, the mythical bird rising from the ashes. Now it had new significance. Rebuilding began within weeks, starting with the construction of the city’s first public park, then called Phoenix Square (now Lincoln Park), near the site of the destroyed City Hall. The park’s rapid creation was a display of the city’s resilience, but it came on the heels of another, quieter symbolic act. In the days following the fire, laborers gathered the leftover fireworks from the aborted Fourth of July celebration, then carted them to the harbor and dumped them unceremoniously in.
Images: Collections of Maine Historical Society (top); istockphoto.com | James Brey (paper); Collections of Maine Historical Society (firefighters)