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The Great Fire of Portland

Due to its abundance of local eateries, boutiques, and bars, Portland’s Old Port is a popular destination for tourists and locals alike. Visitors of the Old Port are charmed by the district’s cobblestone street and brick shops, some of which date back to the 17th century when the Portland peninsula was first settled. Not all of those original buildings survived, though. On our nation’s first Independence Day after the Civil War, a catastrophic fire swept through the Old Port area, claiming buildings, homes, and, unfortunately, lives as well. At the time, this was the largest fire in American history.

Time to Celebrate

The City of Portland and the State of Maine had much to celebrate on July 4, 1866. The Civil War was finally over, a war in which Maine alone contributed over 70,000 troops, more soldiers per capita than any of the other existing 36 states.

City officials had a grand day planned with hot air balloons, a baseball game, and even a hippopotamus on display. The day was set to be capped off with an immense firework show, which was advertised as “the most brilliant ever exhibited in this state.”
How the Fire Began

Some believe it was a lit cigar, while others believe it was a wayward firecracker. Wherever the initial spark came from, it prematurely set off the abundance of fireworks, which resulted in a calamitous fire. At 5pm, William Wilberforce Ruby was the first person to spot the fire and alert the fire department. Perhaps it was the events of that fateful day that led Ruby to become one of the first African-American firefighters in the Portland Fire Department.

The fire began on Commercial Street, and had it not been for the notably gusty day, maybe it would have stayed in that area. Unfortunately, the fire spread diagonally across the Old Port and all the way to Munjoy Hill. The Portland Fire Department worked tirelessly to douse the flames, yet the fire burned through the night and was not extinguished until the next morning.

The Aftermath

The fire destroyed $10 million worth of property, which equates to an astonishing $240 million today. Even more tragic, city records reveal that at least four people died that day, although that number could be higher due to poor documentation. City Hall, the Customs House, and the Post Office were all destroyed as well as dozens of stores and churches. All in all, 1,800 buildings were burned down, 1,200 of which were residential. This destruction left over 10,000 people, both poor and rich, homeless after the fire.
Relief and Rebuilding Efforts

Despite the country still reeling from the Civil War, there were still plenty of kind souls willing to help the City of Portland. The Federal Government shipped 1,500 tents to act as makeshifts homes for the city. Massachusetts sent five train cars full of food and even set up a makeshift soup kitchen in Monument Square. Neighboring New England states and many cities in Canada sent train car after train car of blankets, clothes, and other necessary supplies.

Architects from Boston, New York, and Canada all traveled to Maine and set up shop in Portland to help rebuild. The new buildings that went up were mostly made of granite and brick to prevent the chances of a fire ever spreading again. Within two years, the 1/3 of the city that had burned had been completely rebuilt. 

– Written by Stacy Oswald & Photo by Christopher Burns on Unsplash