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The Great Fire: How Hot Was It In There?

On July 4, 1866, Portland, Maine experiences the biggest urban fire in America to date.  Almost 2,000 buildings go to the ground and 10,000 people lose their homes in the space of a day. There’s nothing like it in America until the Great Chicago Fire which will come seven years later.

The Portland Fire is largely responsible for the look of Portland today. A brick city of remarkable and beautiful Victorian architecture rises from the ashes. The fire has national implications; modern city planning in America is born here, and this is the first city in America to secure and pipe in an outside water source to fight future conflagrations. As you walk around Portland and admire its many fine urban parks, pocket parks and wide boulevards, don’t be fooled, they’re not parks at all – they’re firebreaks built into the new city meant to contain the spread of future fires. That is the purpose of beautiful Lincoln Park (below) no matter what its Parisian fountain may tell you. Never trust a Parisian fountain.

a man doing a trick on a skate board at a skate park

This building, corner Fore and Union Street, survived the 1866 fire. In fact, it was exactly at this point that the fire turned from the waterfront, uphill and into the Old Port section of town and onwards. The owners of this building, anyway you slice it, got dead lucky that day.

a building that has a sign on the side of the street

But exactly how lucky were they? And how hot did it get in there? Answer: wicked hot like a pizza oven and lucky like a leprechaun riding Man of War in the Kentucky Derby. The building is under renovation and I managed to get in to take a couple of pictures. Here are the beams and posts of the old building, still load bearing…but charred black from the heat of the fire that raged outside its brick walls.

a wooden bench

The building, an otherwise unremarkable mercantile building from the 1790s, represents a miracle.

So, too, is it a miracle that there was hardly any loss of life that day in Portland (only 4 people). In the basement of City Hall, a drunk was sleeping off his arrest in the city jail and he woke warm and cozy the next morning, City Hall in ruins around him, oblivious to the whole ordeal.

Six dancing elephants and two hippopotamuses also survived the fire that day; they were in town with a circus for the Glorious 4th.

And while I guess it’s fitting that our city’s symbol is the Phoenix (it was, after all, the 4th Great Fire in Portland’s history) wouldn’t it be cool if it was, instead one of those dancing elephants, a hippo, or even that sleepy drunk guy? Maybe all three. Now there’s a circus I’d like to see.

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Written by Ross – Portland History Tour Guide

a bus that is covered in snow

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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