Sept. 17, 1604: French royal cartographer Samuel de Champlain (1567-1635), traveling by sea from the French colony on nearby St. Croix Island and using Native American guides, sails up the Penobscot River to Kenduskeag Stream at what is now Bangor.

Sept. 17, 1785: The Falmouth Gazette, a newspaper established at the beginning of the year for the express purpose of advocating for Maine’s separation from Massachusetts, makes the first published mention of the separation proposal by announcing an Oct. 5 meeting at which the topic will be discussed.

Sept. 17, 1865: After several weeks of drought, a fire starts early in the morning in a trio of newly completed two-story buildings in downtown Augusta and spreads rapidly, consuming most of the city’s downtown.

Water Street in Augusta the day after the fire of Sept. 17, 1865. Image courtesy of the Maine State Museum

The downtown blocks between Winthrop and Bridge streets are abandoned to the flames, but firefighters from Augusta and neighboring communities are able to save the buildings on the north end of downtown. A U.S. Arsenal steamer pours water onto the wooden bridge across the Kennebec River to keep it from burning, and people in a hillside house on Oak Street cover their roof with carpets and pass buckets of water to keep them wet, helping to prevent the fire’s advance to the west.

The fire destroys every bank, clothing store, lawyer’s office and millinery store, two hotels and the post office. The cost of the damage is estimated at $500,000 – the equivalent of about $8.5 million in 2019.

Historian James North, in his “History of Augusta,” published five years after the fire, concludes that the blaze was the work of an arsonist, George W. Jones of China. Jones became incensed when soldiers stole some of the lobsters he was selling from a cart in the city, and when the police offered him what he considered insufficient assistance, he threatened vengeance. He returned to China but was seen in Augusta again the day of the fire.

Two days later, Jones sets a fire in Portland, again in connection with a grievance involving his lobster cart. Witnesses report that fire before it does any significant damage, however. Jones is arrested, convicted of arson and sentenced to state prison. Portland escapes from the incident unscathed, but 10 months later it will endure a fire inflicting far greater devastation than the one in Augusta.

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. To get a signed copy use promo code signedbyjoe at checkout. Joe can be contacted at: [email protected]


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