OLD ORCHARD BEACH — The town’s beachfront was teeming with tens of thousands of tourists on the evening of July 19, 1969.

The popular carousel with hand-carved horses spun its riders round and round. The brightly colored Noah’s Ark fun house, a fixture near the iconic wooden pier since 1929, rocked back and forth. Pairs of thrill seekers slid down the massive Jack and Jill slide, shrieking as they dropped 50 feet from the top.

The smell of fried dough and pizza and cotton candy hung in the air as 12-year-old Dionysus Lemos left his first job at Marrs Shoes and made his way down Old Orchard Street that Saturday night. He picked up a small pizza for dinner and headed to the arcade on the pier to play pinball. Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” was playing on the jukebox.

Then someone yelled out about a fire.

The entire White Way is shown in flames in a photo taken from the beach. At left is the entrance to the pier, which is just starting to go up in flames. Press Herald staff photo

“As I looked out, the front entrance of the pier was billowing with smoke,” Lemos said.

The smoke was coming from the White Way, a midway-like amusement area near the entrance of the pier that was crowded with carnival games, concession booths and rides. The spectacular fire, visible from as far away as Sebago Lake, consumed the popular Noah’s Ark ride and carousel, dozens of rides and concession stands, and a third of the pier that jutted out over the surf.

The fire, which struck at the busiest hour of the busiest night of the week at the height of the season, swept through two blocks. Crews rushed to Old Orchard Beach from Biddeford, Portland, Falmouth and beyond to stop the flames from spreading farther into town and deeper onto the pier. While some people were forced to leap off the pier and others were sprayed with water as they escaped burning rides, no one died and there was only one serious injury.

The fire left 100 people without jobs and caused an estimated $500,000 in damage, the equivalent of $3.5 million today. The acrid smell of charred ruins lingered for weeks.

Fifty years later, the night the White Way burned is still vivid in the minds of those who witnessed it.

“That’s the fire that broke all our hearts,” said Arlene Hanson, who grew up in Old Orchard Beach and is secretary of the town’s historical society.

That Saturday – the night before Apollo 11 landed on the moon – was a hot and busy one in Old Orchard Beach. Temperatures had reached 90 degrees and the chamber of commerce estimated that 100,000 people were in town for the weekend. Motel and cabin owners reported there were no vacancies.

It was just after 8 p.m. when Dan Blaney, a 25-year-old call firefighter, heard the fire alarm. As he jumped in his car and raced toward the beach, his brothers Dickey and Marty also were headed that way with their fire gear.

“I saw some smoke and thought it was a trash can fire,” said Blaney, who is now the town historian. “It got out of control very, very quickly.”

Old Orchard Beach town historian Dan Blaney poses for a portrait in Harmon Museum & Historical Society’s exhibit of notable fires. Blaney was a young firefighter 50 years ago when a fire broke out at the Pier, destroying several attractions and the entrance to the popular landmark. Press Herald staff photo by Ben McCanna

Dave Glovsky was at his weight-guessing stand near the Pier when a kid spotted wisps of smoke about 50 yards away behind the merry-go-round.

“It took awhile to get everyone’s attention, but within three minutes the area was bursting and exploding like World War II,” Glovsky told the Portland Press Herald the day after the fire.

“The crowd on the pier kept strolling along and looked nonchalant to begin with. But within a couple minutes the whole of Noah’s Ark was engulfed in flames and people were running, screaming off the pier right past the flames.”

On the long wooden pier, people were trying to lower emergency ladders to escape, but it seemed to Lemos like it was taking too long. He and others jumped 12 feet to the sand below. Lemos, who still lives in Old Orchard Beach, joined the thousands of people watching the fire.

It was strangely calm near the fire scene, witnesses would later recount. Onlookers watched in stunned silence. Occasionally, people screamed from hotel windows. Flames shot 100 to 200 feet in the air as fire consumed the rides, leaving behind hulking mounds of twisted metal. The heat from the flames was so intense it blistered the paint on a pizza stand at Palace Playland.

Police made announcements to the throngs of onlookers in both English and French – the language of many visitors from Quebec – while teenagers helped push back the crowd. The sky glowed orange and red.

More than 200 firefighters rushed to the scene, letting out 11,200 feet of hose from eight hydrants.

Arthur Guerin, now 80, was still new to the fire department the night the White Way burned. He was in the kitchen of his in-laws’ rooming house near the beach when the call came in, he said in an interview this week. He didn’t have his gear with him, but rushed to the scene anyway, grabbing a coat and helmet from a fire truck. Later, he would borrow a single glove from another firefighter, switching it between his hands as they got hot.

The fire was just starting to engulf the White Way when Guerin arrived. He and Blaney could see three employees on top of the Jack and Jill slide, seemingly unaware that the inferno was nearing the base of the ride. Flames were shooting up around the slide as the firefighters finally got their attention and sprayed the employees with water as they descended. Minutes later, the slide twisted and collapsed.

An attraction known as the Jack and Jill slide begins to collapse as firefighters battle the blaze. Town historian Dan Blaney, who was a firefighter at the time, believes he is one of the men photographed on the bottom right. Photo courtesy Harmon Museum & Historical Society

Blaney, fighting flames on the east side of the blaze, watched as pieces of his childhood burned. Gone were the wax museum, the Moon Ride and the games of chance. The live donkeys that pulled carts loaded with riders through a replica mine shaft were rescued from the flames before the ride was destroyed. There was nothing left of Noah’s Ark, a favorite attraction for children for 40 years.

“That’s what most of the childhood memories centered on,” Lemos said. “It was a rite of passage for most everybody as children in Old Orchard Beach.”

Also destroyed was the carousel that had carried countless riders during the 45 years it sat near the pier’s entrance. Made by craftsmen from Denzell Brothers of Philadelphia, the merry-go-round was constructed entirely of wood. Each year after the tourists were gone, Otho Baker of Scarborough would touch up the paint on the 54 horses and two chariots.

“It’s sort of a personal loss for me,” Baker told a Press Herald reporter the day after the fire. “This merry-go-round was the last of its kind. There’s no way they can replace it.”

Fifty years later, Lemos recalls the loss of that carousel as one of the most devastating aspects of the fire.

“The saddest part was seeing those hand-carved horses burn,” he said. “To lose it that way was disheartening.”

Fire Chief Louis R. Whariff described the activity at the height of the fire as “crazy.” Roads to the beach were choked for four miles with sightseers trying to get closer to the fire to watch.

“The traffic was wicked; no one could move,” Whariff told a reporter in 1969.

It took four hours for firefighters to get the fire under control and knocked down. Somehow, they were able to stop it from spreading to White Hall and up Old Orchard Street, Blaney said.

It was also amazing, Blaney said, that there were no deaths and few injuries. The most serious injury reported was to a 12-year-old girl from New Hampshire who suffered second-degree burns on her legs. A firefighter had minor burns on his face after pulling a person from Noah’s Ark.

The next morning, in the charred ruins of the Moon Ride, state Fire Marshal Lawrence Dolby and county fire inspectors found the cause: copper pennies stuck in a fuse panel. Ride operators would later admit they put the pennies there to stop fuses from shorting out when they got overheated, Blaney said.

Hanson, the historical society secretary, remembers the fire’s aftermath. As tourists quickly returned to the beach and the surviving arcades and french fry stands, locals mourned the loss of their favorite childhood rides and the small businesses run by their neighbors.

“Everyone was just so sad and in shock,” said Hanson, 83. “There was so much history there.”


Comments are not available on this story.