Oct. 7, 1923: The first section of the Appalachian Trail opens in Bear Mountain and Harriman state parks in upstate New York, about 40 miles north of New York City.

The brainchild of Benton MacKaye, the trail eventually grows to about 2,200 miles, with its northern terminus on Mount Katahdin, Maine’s highest mountain.

Civilian Conservation Corps workers, whose Depression-era work is memorialized by a statue in front of the Maine State Cultural Building in Augusta, complete the trail’s last link on Aug. 14, 1937, near Maine’s Sugarloaf Mountain. A plaque is installed on a nearby boulder to commemorate the achievement.

Oct. 7, 1947: Fires break out in woodlands in Bowdoin, Portland and Wells after southern Maine has been almost without rainfall since June 25.

Over the next few weeks, these and many other blazes that constitute the Great Fires of 1947 sweep through drought-ravaged York County and other coastal regions, essentially destroying the towns of Shapleigh and Waterboro and inflicting severe damage on the cities of Biddeford and Saco and several other towns in that area.

A field in flames in York County in October 1947

Sixteen deaths are attributed to the fires. Statewide damage is estimated at $30 million, equal to about $348 million in 2019.

The flames take an especially hard toll on summer colonies in Kennebunkport and Bar Harbor. (The Bar Harbor fires are the subject of a column scheduled for Oct. 21.) Nearly 20,000 acres in the Jonesboro area, in eastern Maine, are consumed, as are about 2,500 acres in Madison and Norridgewock.

The fires also cause many long-term changes. The destruction of summer cottages in Goose Rocks Beach is followed by construction of year-round homes there, greatly changing the community. Stands of white pine in southwestern Maine virtually disappear. Many people make a point of rebuilding away from trees to provide a fire break.

The disaster prompts the establishment of many volunteer fire departments in 1948 and more compliance with national training standards. The state and municipalities begin to upgrade firefighting equipment.

At the state level, officials strive for greater centralization and organization of firefighting capability and strategy.

“It is frankly admitted that there was no fire action plan to meet such a disaster,” Austin Wilkins, a state forest firefighting supervisor, writes in his final report on the 1947 fires.

In 1949, the Legislature passes a variety of laws designed to enhance fire protection. One authorizes the governor to enter mutual aid agreements with other states for fighting fires. Another gives the state forest commissioner ultimate authority over fighting forest fires in the state’s organized territories. Still others address the financing of forest fire suppression, slash disposal and authorize wardens to light backfires.

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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