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Did you know Portland, Maine has burned to the ground four separate times in its history?  We’re the newest old city that there is in New England.  Longfellow House, boyhood home of Walt Whitman (kidding…Longfellow) is pretty much the oldest building in town, built in 1786, just after the American Revolution.  Consider that the founding of New England by the famous Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock is in 1620; that’s right…most other towns in New England have shoes older than Longfellow House.

a close up of a brick building

Portland is architecturally unique in New England, but it goes beyond just the relative age of the buildings here to other places on the east coast.  The last big fire here was 1866.  It was July 4th, the first July 4th after the Civil War, and there was to be a huge fireworks celebration that day; it had also been a long, dry summer.  There was baseball scheduled, hot air balloon rides to be had, and there was even a circus in town with six dancing elephants and 2 hippopotamus.  In other words, people were distracted and conditions were perfect for a giant conflagration; we had the biggest fire in America that day, coming seven years before it would be eclipsed by the Great Chicago Fire.  Our town went down to ashes.

But the truly interesting thing about that fire is not the destruction it caused but the construction it engendered.  Portland rose from that fire almost immediately.  There was a railway here and there was money to be made.  As a result of that money, and  the massive construction effort, Portland rose as an almost purely Victorian town, with a different look than almost any other town in America.  Just about every single architectural style in vogue during the long reign of Queen Victoria (1840-1900) is on prominent display here.  No word on whether she was amused.
a car parked on the side of a building
The Great Portland Fire of 1866 brought other things to our city too (and ultimately to America as well).  Portland is the first city in America to bring in an outside water source to specifically fight fires.  A number of national city planning initiatives (firebreaks, firewalls, construction methods) also come out of the Portland fire.  And if you’re in town, check out the little red call boxes all around town, call boxes meant to alert the fire department in case something bad is going down.  Those boxes are not functional now.  The modern warning systems we have in place have moved beyond them.  But a few (like the one pictured below at the top of Spruce Street in the West End) still have phones inside and, if you’re lucky, and the ghosts are out, you can pick one up and talk to 1867.
a fire hydrant in front of a building
Explore and learn more about Portland Maine’s rich history and culinary scene with our expert-guided walking tours. Uncover must-see landmarks, local stories, and hidden gems on an unforgettable cultural experience.  Book your tour today!

Written by Portland Tour Guide – Ross

a man standing in front of a building

Referred to by his family as a “fuzzy foreigner”, Ross grew up in Nova Scotia, Canada, fell in love with a woman from Boston, and has been in Maine raising his family for over 20 years now. He loves Maine and loves his job as a tour guide, both for the interaction with new people it affords him (don’t be surprised to get as many questions as you ask) and the constant exploration he is always making of the many intricate and fascinating links between his adopted state and his homeland.

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