At South Portland Historical Society, we are researching some of the early shipyards in Ferry Village. While we’ll have some upcoming stories on the Dyer Shipyards, the Turner & Cahoon Shipyard, and the Benjamin W. Pickett Shipyard, this week I thought readers might enjoy this article that Jackie Dunham found describing a fire that took place at the Portland Shipbuilding yard on Front Street (now home to Aspasia).

While we are fortunate to have professional firefighters in South Portland today, in earlier times, as in most communities across Maine and America, it was mostly neighborhood volunteers who manned hose companies for fire protection. Residents in a neighborhood would buy shares in the hose company, or otherwise donate money, so that they could purchase hoses, a wagon, and other firefighting equipment.

In Ferry Village, the volunteer hose company stored their hose wagon (and, in later years, their fire truck) in a building on School Street.

A view of Portland Shipbuilding Company on the Ferry Village waterfront in South Portland. South Portland Historical Society photo

In this story, the reporter paints an amusing picture of some of the difficulties faced in fighting fires. It appeared in the Portland Daily Press on Oct. 12, 1897:

“About half past ten o’clock yesterday forenoon a fire broke out in the head house of the Portland Ship Building Co.’s marine railway at South Portland. The building in which the fire occurred is a three story brick structure and is used for the machinery connected with the railway and as a store house. It is dry as a tinder box inside and the floors and timbers were completely saturated with grease and oil.

“It is supposed that some one carelessly threw a match down in a corner in which there were several barrels of machine oil and the fire started in this spot. The building was open and workmen were passing in and out of it all the time. On the railway outside were the steamer Forest Queen, the two boat William Wooley and several schooners. The fire spread with great rapidity throughout the building and the workmen many of whom belong to the fire department of South Portland, rushed off to give the alarm and a hose wagon was soon on hand and the firemen were laying a line of hose when help arrived from an unexpected quarter.

“Captain Goud on the fire boat was just returning from a trip down the harbor and was backing into the dock at Portland Pier when the fire in the railway was discovered. Captain Goud immediately started at full speed for the railway and was able on account of the high tide to get within a few hundred feet of the burning building. It seemed as if the whole plant was in danger of being destroyed and the excitement in South Portland was intense when the fire boat arrived on the spot.

“Two lines of hose were stretched in no time and some of the men about the railway took hold of one of the pipes and aimed it at the building. When they thought they were all ready for the water they sung out ‘play away No. 1.’ Engineer Frank Girardo opened up the powerful pumps and the men of South Portland had about as exciting a five minutes as any of them ever put in. They were not accustomed to holding lines of hose and they had no idea of the strength and skill it required to do so. The hose wabbled first one way and then the other and smashed the five men who held hold of it all about the street. It was not until half a dozen other men had got hold of the swaying hose pipe that the stream was steadied down and got under control.

“Two streams of water from the fire boat were the first on the blaze and they made short work of the fire. All hands about the plant worked with a will and it was only a little while before the fire was extinguished.

“The first floor was pretty well burnt up and the machinery was badly damaged. The loss was about $2000 and this is all covered by insurance. It was said that a man was badly burned during the progress of the fire, but the story could not be substantiated. The work which was done by the fire boat yesterday thoroughly demonstrated the usefulness of this piece of apparatus. Had it not been for the promptness of this boat to reach the scene it is not at all unlikely that the whole plant would have been destroyed and the loss to South Portland and Portland would have been inestimable. The South Portland fire department also did excellent work and the men belonging to it deserve great credit for the promptness with which they assembled to fight the fire.”

Note to readers: The South Portland Historical Society needs your financial support, especially at this time with the museum closed and our events continuing to be postponed due to the pandemic. If you are not currently a member, or if you have not paid your dues for 2020 yet, we encourage you to find a way to help.

Membership information is available on our website at www.sphistory.org (a family membership is $25) and you can donate online at our Online Museum website at https://sphistory.pastperfectonline. The society can also be reached at 55 Bug Light Park, South Portland, ME 04106, by phone at 207-767-7299, or by email at [email protected] Thank you.

Kathryn Onos DiPhilippo is executive director of the South Portland Historical Society.

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