May 15, 1933: Eight days after a massive fire destroyed about 130 buildings in Ellsworth, another fire starts in the early afternoon in Pontbriand’s Garage on Mill Street in Auburn’s New Auburn district.

The southwesterly wind drives the fire in three directions. “A triangular space containing nearly 20 buildings was a roaring furnace almost before the first hose line was laid,” The Associated Press reports the next day.

The conflagration destroys 249 buildings, causes about $1 million (nearly $20 million in 2019) in damage and leaves about 1,500 people homeless in the midst of the Great Depression. Most of those affected are French Canadian, Greek and Italian immigrants who work on the other side of the Androscoggin River in Lewiston’s mills.

Historic image from the May 15, 1933, fire in New Auburn. Sun Journal file photo

Many of the lost structures are closely packed tenement buildings that house several families each. The flames also consume two schools and a synagogue. Embers rising from the disaster zone float across the river and set three smaller fires in Lewiston, one of which destroys a house.

On the Auburn side of the river, the fire finally stops when it reaches a cemetery, which harbors nothing for it to burn. No serious injuries are reported.

At an anniversary gathering 80 years later, in 2013, Auburn Fire Chief Frank Roma says the fire not only changed the face of the city, it also helped shape fire codes and building ordinances.

“The area was a classic for a conflagration – low humidity, high winds, warm weather, debris, wooden buildings with cedar-shake roofs,” Roma tells Lewiston’s Sun Journal newspaper at the commemoration event. “Much of what happened here in Auburn has actually gone into the fire codes that (have) made the United States a better place to live. We learn lessons from these disasters.”

Joseph Owen is an author, retired newspaper editor and board member of the Kennebec Historical Society. Owen’s book, “This Day in Maine,” can be ordered at islandportpress.com. He can be contacted at: [email protected]


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