On July 4, 1866, fireworks set off the Great Fire of Portland, Maine. Dry temperatures, low tide and a hot wind out of the west created perfect conditions for the conflagration which destroyed 1800 buildings and rendered 10,000 people homeless. All for the love of firecrackers. Starting with waterfront warehouses along Commercial Street at York Street, it spread across the peninsula to Munjoy Hill in the east. About half the city was destroyed and although it only claimed two lives (only!) the fire that burned on the 4th and 5th that year was devastating in its human impact and it is estimated that the cost to property and trade was 15 million dollars. Poet and Portland native Henry Wadsworth Longfellow described the aftermath as "Desolation! Desolation! Desolation! It reminds me of Pompeii, the 'sepult city'." Five years before the Great Chicago Fire, this was the worst fire of its kind in an American city up to that time.
Follow me over the fold for more on the fire, links to contemporary images of the fire, and some thoughts on the use of fireworks by private individuals...
There are many contemporary images of the Portland fire available on the internet. The University of Southern Maine has engravings from the July 28,1866 edition of Harper's Weekly which will give you an idea of the breadth of the destruction. This map on a Maine Historical Society website shows the area of the fire. While it does not represent half of the city in a geographical sense, the conflagration consumed the densest part of the city where most people lived, worked and traded.
There have been many books written about the fire, among them John Neal's detailed "Account of the Great Conflagration of Portland" (1866), and most recently "Portland's Greatest Conflagration: The 1866 Fire Disaster" by Don Whitney and Michael Daicy--both Whitney and Daicy also happen to be firefighters.
It is important to note that this fire was caused by someone setting off fireworks. Recently passed Public Law Chapter 416 has legalized the sale of fireworks in Maine to private individuals after a 70 year ban on such fireworks sales and possession. Like setting a lantern behind Mrs. O'Leary's cow and daring her to kick it over, the 125th Maine Legislature and tea party governor Paul Lepage have opened up the real possibility of dangerous fires in the State of Maine resulting from the careless and irresponsible discharging of fireworks.
Just last night, here on The Rock (an island without roads, infrastructure and certainly without firefighting capability) fireworks could be heard. Were a fire to start here on this tinderbox of junk spruce and downfall and pine needle strewn forest floors, the entire island and all of its dwellings would be burned to the ground. A salesman at the Verizon office in Portland recently told me about how firecrackers had been placed in his mailbox--a Federal offense. Right off the bat, some Mainers are using fireworks unsafely and in some cases, illegally. This was a bad decision for Maine, and I believe it is a mistake for private use of fireworks to be legal in any State.
I enjoy a good fireworks display as much as the next person, providing it is done by pyrotechnic experts with fire department personnel on standby. I have always, and continue to, oppose the private use of fireworks. Think about the Great Portland Fire of 1866 next time you buy those bottle rockets and firecrackers. What happened in Portland, Maine for the love of a firecracker could happen in your back yard.
Have a safe and happy Independence Day.