FLAMES and smoke rise from the Worumbo Mill 30 years ago in one of the biggest fires in the state, leaving the mill in ruins.

FLAMES and smoke rise from the Worumbo Mill 30 years ago in one of the biggest fires in the state, leaving the mill in ruins.

LISBON

Sunday marks the 30-year anniversary of a massive fire that leveled the 123-year-old Worumbo Mill in Lisbon Falls

The blaze drew more than 20 fire departments from Gardiner to South Portland to battle the roaring flames.

The Worumbo Manufacturing Co. was born in 1864, incorporated by Oliver Moses, Edward Plummer and John Tebbets. The sprawling mill complex was located along the river where it harnessed the water power of Ten-Mile Falls.

FIREFIGHTERS from more than 20 communities fought the Worumbo Mill fire in Lisbon 30 years ago.

FIREFIGHTERS from more than 20 communities fought the Worumbo Mill fire in Lisbon 30 years ago.

Located on Canal Street along the Androscoggin River, the textile mill looked down Main Street.

A white cement structure was added in 1920 to the northwestern end of the red brick complex and housed a weaving room, spinning room, broiler house and dye house.

The town was no stranger to fire — a major blaze in 1896 involved half a dozen business blocks in Lisbon Falls. They were all rebuilt over the next five years only to face a devastating fire in 1901 that destroyed the entire business district and damaged the mill. The mill was still able to function, however, providing some needed economic relief.

All that changed in hours one hot day on July 23, 1987.

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“The affairs of the afternoon resumed as usual, and when the fire alarm sounded at 1:50, it produced little excitement,” according to “The Birth, Being and Burning of Worumbo Mill” — a book about the mill printed in 1987. “But as the business people all up and down Main Street settled into their routines, the cloud of smoke rising from the end of town grew bigger, and the workers in Worumbo Mill were alerted: ‘There’s a fire on the roof !’”

Lisbon’s fire chief at the time, Howard Ricker, said “Mother Nature and the temperature were against us.”

As soon as Ricker saw the smoke was coming from the mill, he called for help from other communities, drawing 23 fire departments to Lisbon to help battle the blaze.

A Maine State Forest Service helicopter also responded and used a 250-gallon water bucket to dump water on roofs.

The wind blew from the south, blowing flames toward town. Updrafts of superheated air carried burning embers onto homes and businesses. Building owners and volunteers reportedly soaked down roofs of buildings all down Main Street.

By the time the fire had peaked at around 4 p.m., hundreds of people had gathered to witness the event on Main Street, Route 196, along the riverbank on Route 9 and on the bridge between Lisbon and Durham.

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“It was obvious that the mill was doomed,” Maine Forest Service helicopter pilot Harold E. Jones told The Times Record about his first impression as he flew into Lisbon that afternoon. “It was going from one end to the other, fire coming out of every window.”

An estimated 200 firefighters and 47 pieces of equipment were on hand to fight the fire. There was a concern about drums of dangerous chemicals in the mill, including 500-pound propane gas tanks. However, the roughly 50 workers in the building safely evacuated without injury.

Several firefighters were treated for exhaustion and smoke inhalation. Local shopkeepers brought them food and drink, some delivering it in shopping carts.

The next morning, fire inspectors sifted through the debris and questioned witnesses while smoke, heat and acrid fumes lingered “over what looked like a bombed-out” heart of the town, The Times Record reported.

Firefighters managed to save the newer, “white” mill structure, along with the $30 million hydro-electric station under construction at the site.

John Bubier, Lisbon’s town manager in 1987, said if that portion of the mill complex been consumed by flames, firefighters would have had to retreat from the center of town. Once the skylights shattered, the building would have been turned into a chimney, spewing burning debris all over town.

Fortunately, according to Bubier, the town was no longer reliant on the Worumbo Mill for jobs, and thanks to efforts by the many firefighters in Lisbon Falls that day, the downtown was saved.

The white mill, which was most recently owned by Miller Industries, stood for many years until it was demolished last summer. The property is now for sale.

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