March 10, 2010

Rock-solid history of 1933 Ellsworth fire, Fort Edgecomb


Two really bedrock Maine history books have appeared on the market and though they do not seem to have much in common, at least superficially, it can be argued that both contribute significantly to our knowledge of the built-environment as well as our shared economic and social history.

''The Great Fire of Ellsworth, 1933,'' by Darlene Springer, could come to serve as a template for subsequent writer-researchers because practically every Maine municipality from Eustis to Raymond to Bangor to Eastport has suffered a ''great fire.''

Portland's conflagration of July 4, 1866, left 12,000 homeless, was the largest urban fire in American history to that date and entirely reshaped the city. Even now with improved firefighting equipment, the center of a town like Madison can be devastated. But in earlier years, the threat was more acute and the results apt to be far more dramatic.

Springer, a minister and member of the Ellsworth Historical Society, does an admirable job of documenting, interviewing and presenting the story of the May 7 fire that destroyed the center of Ellsworth, including 130 structures.

Springer never seems to deviate from the facts as she finds them, and the reader is given a clear and fast-paced understanding of the community before, during and after the event.

The book opens on a quiet Depression-era Sunday where we meet the likes of storekeeper ''Min'' Thompson and a boy named Charlie Pierson, and we hear about earlier city fires and the threat of fires. In the next chapter, Art Tilden recalls running up Main Street yelling, ''Fire!''

Many stages of the drama unfold from there. The blaze lasted six hours and drew assistance from as far off as Bangor, Bar Harbor and Castine.

''Boy Scouts were pressed into service,'' and sadly there were looters. There was also the sad, rather clueless individual who set the fire, was tried, found guilty and spent the rest of his life institutionalized, dying in a residential care facility in 1989.

Finally, Springer provides an overview of the rebuilding. Much of this was sparked by the new Federal, Reconstruction Finance Corp. grant, part of FDR's previously unpopular New Deal programming.

The rest of the rebuilding came through insurance and sweat equity. Another late chapter is devoted to architect Edmund B. Gilchrist of Philadelphia and Prouts Neck (brother of Maine artist W. W. Gilchrist Jr.), who designed the new City Hall and had plans for Franklin Street extension, a civic center plaza, and Riverside park that never materialized.

The book brings together solid scholarship, good images and readable prose.

Another nonconformist entry is Joshua M. Smith's ''Blockhouse & Battery: A Hisotry of Fort Edgecome,'' which focuses on a built environment that has been around since 1807.

In his introduction, Joel Eastman notes that while Maine is bristling with historic forts, this is only the second book to be published about a local fortication. Page for page, Smith's book is also one of the most informative and compelling studies of the War of 1812 in Maine.

In writing the history of Fort Edgecomb, Smith adheres to his mandate of giving us all that is known about the building of the fort and the men who defended it.

Smith is one of those rare researcher-historians who is able to use his site-specific findings to cast light on the great national drama that was swirling all around the post.

Here we find the attitude of the locals toward federal troops, the make-up of federal troops and militia, we find out about architecture, ordnance, supply and politics wrapped up rather neatly in just over 100 pages.

There are many things, I believe, that will surprise readers. For the first time that I am aware, life on and around a military base is explored. During the unpopular War of 1812, large numbers of British prisoners, taken by privateers, created a problem. Neither Lincoln County Jail nor the Fort wanted them nor had room, a situation explored by Smith with skill and some humor.

So too we finally get a sense of the arrival and departure of troops garrisoned at Fort Edgecomb, marched off to battle on Lake Champlain, we see the effect of the British blockade and occupation of eastern Maine and, finally the way in which Fort Edgecomb was made redundant, a playground for boys and finally a state treasure.

This is a lot of material, packed into a small space, with neatly selected illustrations, and yet it reads like a novel. Well done.

William David Barry is a local historian who has authored/co-authored five books, including ''Tate House:Crown of the Maine Mast Trade'' and the novel ''Pyrrhus Venture.'' He lives in Portland.

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