Remembering the Great Fire of 1933



By Darlene Springer

Sunday, May 7, 1933, began in Ellsworth, Maine, just as any other normal Sunday morning. The weather that day was somewhat cooler than average and the wind was blowing. As the morning hours passed by, the usual congregations gathered in the city’s churches. Some were about other tasks that day. For most it was a “day off,” as most stores were closed. There were some exceptions. Julia Thompson, called “Min,” would open on Sunday mornings to sell Sunday newspapers. Charlie Pierson, who had a wooden leg, had a small shoe shine shop on Water Street near the American office. Money was very tight. The Depression had been tough, but Ellsworth had fared better than some places. The banks, however, had been closed since March, and that had caused its own problems.

Probably that day there were some who read The Ellsworth American for the week. It had come out on Wednesday, but this was the first chance they had had the time to sit down and read it. There had been a City Council meeting the past week. Several businessmen, headed by H. F. Wescott, had petitioned the council to condemn the old Bijou theatre that was located at the rear of the stores on the north side of Main Street. It was old and somewhat in disrepair. Morang’s had been using it for storage and a workshop, but many thought it to be a fire menace and there had already been too many fires in Ellsworth. They wanted this old building condemned and torn down. Their petition was referred to the building commissioner.

There HAD been too many fires in Ellsworth; many of them were never attributable to any source other than a firebug. As the day came to an end, the sun would set, the wind still blowing. Children would be put to bed, in anticipation of school the next morning. Things were quieting down for the night, even though it had already been a quiet day. As the hours ticked by, little did anyone realize that this would be the last such day for a very long time. Peace and serenity were about to be broken, and a night’s sleep was not to be had, probably by any resident of the city of Ellsworth.

The first indication something was amiss was when, according to The Bangor Daily News, two “unidentified” young men ran up Main Street yelling “FIRE!” They ran inside the Kinney Hotel at the corner of School and Church streets and asked to use the phone. It was about 9:30 p.m. One rang up the operator and said, “I think there is a fire in the old Bijou building behind Luchini’s.” Art Tilden, brother of Jasper of Jasper’s Restaurant fame, always said he was that young man and chuckled at the fact the papers claimed he was unidentified and mysterious, usually adding, “Everyone knew who I was!”

From the very beginning it was evident that this fire was way beyond anything the Ellsworth Fire Department could handle on its own. The department had two pumpers and a hook-and-ladder truck. And while all of those who were called to assist responded with urgency, the fire spread almost with intelligent determination. Aided by the wind and tinder-dry frame buildings, the fire was beyond control from the first alarm and would rage for nearly seven hours.

All off-duty police officers were called in. Wesley Herrick, who lived on the Bayside Road, was no exception. As he quickly prepared to respond, family member and neighbor Roy Tourtelotte wanted to ride along and be of help if he could. Roy, his wife, Mildred, and son Erben arrived at the Herrick home in just moments, slowed only by little Erben who did not seem to be hurrying. Then they saw why he was moving so slowly. In their haste to get him dressed they had put both his legs down one pant leg.

Bangor, Blue Hill and Bar Harbor were just three of at least 14 departments who responded to the call to help. All of them found the roads toward Ellsworth crowded with cars of the curious and the anxious. And as they traveled, they attracted more followers in their wake.

While the fire, boosted by the wind, was ravenously consuming buildings in its path as it traveled to the south and southwest, it also, more slowly, spread to the east and the west, up and down both sides of Main Street. All possible effort was expended to stop the fire at these points. The fire raged and spread with such speed the firemen often had to run for their lives, leaving hose attached to hydrants still running.

Everybody, it seemed, was doing something. If they couldn’t fight fire, they were busy taking things out of their house, store, barns, garages or storage buildings. People whose own homes were not in danger of burning helped others by providing transportation, storage space or just lending a pair of hands to do what was needed. There are as many stories of what happened that night as there were people in the city.

Citizens used every means available to fight the fire, everything from garden hoses, as long as there was water in the pipes, to bucket brigades. When the water mains were emptied (totally about 1 a.m.), the Union River provided a ready source of water, at least until the tide went out. As the fire spread up Main Street, it was hoped the fire could be stopped from jumping School Street, and perhaps could be stopped short of Hancock Hall. A plan was hatched to dynamite the Partridge House, in the hope that with an empty lot in between, the fire would not get a start on the brick building of Hancock Hall. In the hurry to make a plan and put it into action, dynamite seemed like a reasonable course. The plan was carried out and the Partridge house was dynamited. However, in hindsight, too much dynamite was used and rather than stopping the flames and making a void between the fire and Hancock Hall, the blast was so great it blew all the windows out of Hancock Hall, and blew in burning debris that hastened the destruction of the building.

In efforts to save what they could, furniture and household items were removed from buildings in the path of fire. While some was stored in various barns and storehouses around the city, much was simply piled up in vacant lots, sidewalks and on lawns around town. It was said that the fire was not “under control” until about 4 a.m. on Monday, but a plainer truth is the fire was never under control. The wind subsided and the fire simply burned itself out.

By the time daylight came on Monday morning the center of the city of Ellsworth had simply disappeared. Everything from the Liberty National Bank and the First National Store on the western end of Main Street to Hancock Hall and Hancock Street on the eastern end extending to the river as far as East Maple Street (later Foster Street) was gone, with only a few structures saved on lower Water Street. From where the fire began to its end was approximately one mile. Small fires and holes were burned in roofs and in fields up to two miles away.

One woman remarked, “I guess this is the end of our city.” The courses of her tears were plainly marked on her soot-covered cheeks. “What are we going to do?” was asked repeatedly.

But it seemed that the gloom and doom of Monday evaporated with the smoke as people began to get to work and be about the business of rebuilding the city of Ellsworth. “Ellsworth will be better than ever!” people said. Ellsworth became a very busy place, very fast. The state militia, the American Legion and the state police were patrolling the area.

Businesses were quick to find temporary quarters and to “get back into business.” Businesses would share one space for a while, and then relocate to another. While there were many visitors to the city in the days following the fire, the greatest influx of sightseers came on the following Sunday. There seemed to be a constant stream of automobiles coming from all directions, each full of passengers, men, women and children, eager to see the devastation the fire had caused.

If ever there was opportunity for rumors to get started this was it. Could one believe anything he was told? It seemed that everybody was saying it was arson. Wild rumors circulated and it seemed with each passing hour the stories became more incredible. The opinion that the fire had been set was widely held and frequently expressed.

Sheriff Hodgkins also was working on the case. His department ran down almost 30 rumors of persons running from the fire as soon as it was discovered. Norman Moore worked as a dishwasher at Tracy’s Restaurant. While local authorities were running down every lead that came their way, it was noted that Norman Moore had disappeared. He was found working on a farm in Hancock and was taken into custody. After his arrest, he was taken to the Hancock County Courthouse, where he was questioned from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. before he confessed.

It was reported that Moore showed no fear or alarm over what consequences there might be for his actions. In fact, he showed almost no emotion of any kind. Once he confessed this story, he stoutly maintained it to be true. He also maintained with the same vigor that he had had nothing to do with the other fires in town. During the September term of Superior Court that fall, Norman Moore’s case was heard. The court rendered a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity. He was committed to the department for the criminally insane at the State Hospital in Bangor. There has always been plenty of debate: Did he actually do it?

Rebuilding has been going on ever since the fire. The sentiments of the spirit of the people of Ellsworth in the face of this fire were perhaps best summed up by one reporter who wrote in the Bangor Daily Commercial, “…the city will recover because the people have Yankee pluck and courage. It will be a better Ellsworth that will rise from the ashes…” Stores come and go through the years, and move from one location to another. Only a very few remain constant through the decades. After 80 years, Beal’s Jewelry Store is the only store to remain in its rebuilt Main Street store. Willey’s remains in business, being located at the Mill Mall in 2013. Merrill’s rebuilt on Franklin Street, but later moved its business to High Street. The Franklin Street lot remains as a park dedicated to the Merrill family. Two other businesses still around in 2013 are Mike’s and H. W. Dunn & Son Inc. on Water Street. Both of these businesses still carry on in their rebuilt stores. Emmons Shea was a contractor for many of the new buildings and his business, E. L. Shea Inc., continues on in the 21st century. M. E. Holmes paid many insurance claims, and her business remains as The Holmes Agency, the oldest family owned business in Ellsworth, having been established in 1868.

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