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Remembering the disastrous July Fourth fire in Maine

A boy lighting a firecracker 150 years ago kicked off the largest fire seen in an American city to date, destroying 1,500 buildings


In this 1866 photo released by the Maine Historic Preservation Commission, destruction from a fire that swept through Portland left about 10,000 people homeless but killed only a few. (Maine Historic Preservation Commission via AP)

The Associated Press

PORTLAND, Maine — The “Great Fire of 1866" started with a boy lighting a firecracker in Portland, Maine, on the first Fourth of July after troops returned from the Civil War. The wind-swept conflagration quickly became the greatest fire yet seen in an American city, destroying 1,500 buildings and leaving more than 10,000 people homeless. Miraculously, only a handful of deaths — at least four, according to a Portland Press Herald analysis — were recorded. The Associated Press is making available its first dispatches alerting the world to the fire 150 years ago.


First Dispatch

PORTLAND, July 4 — A terrible fire is here, having destroyed Brown’s sugar house, and is sweeping through the city before a strong southerly wind.


Second Dispatch

PORTLAND, July 4, 8 p.m. — The fire caught in the building above the sugar house on Commercial street and has swept northerly through Fore Street into the wooden buildings between Centre and Cross streets, consuming everything as it goes. J.B. Brown & Sons from $600,000 to $700,000. Insured $300,000 Staples & Son, machine shop, and R.P. Richardson & Co’s stove foundry are completely destroyed. One steam engine has come from Saco.


Third Dispatch

PORTLAND, July 5 — The fire has swept completely through the city from the foot of High street to North street on Munjoy Hill, destroying everything in its track so completely that the lines of the streets can hardly be traced, and a space one and a half miles long by a quarter of a mile wide appears like a forest of chimneys with fragments of walls attached to them.

The wind was blowing a gale from the south and a tremendous sheet of flame swept along before it, devouring everything in its passage, and the utter most exertions of the firemen, aided by steamers and hand engines from several other places, could only succeed in preventing it from spreading in new directions. Many buildings, perhaps fifty, were blown up, to check the flames.

The inhabitants could scarcely do more than flee with their families to the upper part of the city, saving such goods as they could carry, though every vehicle in the city was employed with excellent effect in moving goods. The Custom House being fire proof, escaped, through greatly damaged, and the splendid city and county building on Congress Street, which was nearly fire proof, was considered safe and it was piled full of furniture by the neighboring residents, and then swept away with all its contents.

Half the city is destroyed, and that half includes nearly all the business portion, except the heavy business houses on Commercial street.

The fire commenced a little below the foot of High street in a boat shop. Upham’s flouring mill was next burnt, then Brown’s sugar house with all its surroundings, then Staples & Sons’ and Richardson’s foundries, and nothing else on Commercial Street of consequence.

It next swept down what is called Gorham’s corner, composed of small wooden buildings, up as far as the old Varnum House on Pleasant street, one third the way up Centre street, half way up Cotton street, completely up Cross street, Union street, Temple street, Pleasant street and Exchange street.

It swept down on the northerly side of Forest street to India on the east, while on the west it moved along diagonally across Middle street and down to Cumberland, taking the Elm House, but sparing the First Parish. Then from Chestnut to North street it made a clean sweep on the southerly side of Cumberland street to Congress street, and everything else to Forest street as far as India street.

All the banks are gone, all the newspapers, all but three printing offices, all the jewellers, all the whole sale dry goods stores, several churches, the telegraph offices, nearly all stationers and the majority of nearly all the business places. The fire is still ranging below Commercial street, making back to the westward, the wind having changed.

Davis, Baxton & Co., in Free street block, whole sale fancy articles, lost $23,000; fully insured at the Etna of Hartford, and Hampden of Springfield.

Capt. Inman has telegraphed for 1,500 tents to accommodate the homeless inhabitants.