The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 18/Number 107/Incidents of the Portland Fire

The Atlantic Monthly  (1866) 
Incidents of the Portland Fire by John Mason Browne


Never had Portland looked more beautiful than when the sunrise-gun boomed across the waters, announcing the ninetieth anniversary of our independence. The sun, which on another day should look down on the city's desolation, rose unclouded over the houses, that stood forth from the foliage of the embowering elms, or nestled in their shadow; over the quaintness of the old-fashioned churches and the beauty of the more modern temples; over the stately public edifices, and the streets everywhere decked with flags and thronged with crowds of happy, well-dressed people. Of course, the popular satisfaction expressed itself in the report of pistols, guns, and fire-crackers; and all through the day the usual amusements went on, and in the afternoon almost everybody was on the street.

A few minutes before five o'clock, when the festivity was at its wildest, the alarm of fire rang out. Every circumstance was favorable for a conflagration,—the people scattered, the city dry and heated by a July sun, and a high southwesterly wind blowing. It needed only the exciting cause in the shape of a fire-cracker, and lo! half the city was doomed.

My youngest brother, at the first sound of the bell, came and begged me to take him to the fire; so I went, to please him. Poor child! I little thought that by twelve o'clock at night there would be no place at home to lay the little head.

We found the fire near Brown's sugar-house, where there was a large crowd already assembled. But, though the smoke and masses of flame were rising only from one house, the wind was blowing a perfect gale; and a foreboding of the calamity impending seemed to possess the spectators. There was none of the usual noise, and men appeared to look at the burning house with a feeling of awe. We did not stop there at all; and some idea of the rapid progress of the fire may be gathered from the fact, that about four squares distant, where, on the way up, we could see one fire, on our return we saw three,—two lighted by sparks from the first. We slowly retraced our way, and met people on every side quickening their steps in the direction of the fire. About seven o'clock, mother and I thought it would be wise to pack up our silver and valuables; for it seemed as if we were directly in the path of the conflagration. Down Fore Street, and from Fore to Free, it was rushing on. The southwestern heavens were entirely shut from our view by the flames and smoke; cinders, ashes, and blazing embers were falling like rain down Middle Street, and across to Congress, as far as the eye could see. The scene was terrible; but it was soon surpassed in fearfulness, for the work of desolation was not half completed. The Irish population were the chief sufferers up to this hour. It was heart-rending to see the women rushing hither and thither, trying to save their few possessions. Here, a poor creature was dragging a mattress, followed by several little crying children, her face the picture of despair; there, another, with her family, stood over the remnants of her scanty stock. A poor woman, who was in the habit of working for us, lived near the corner of Cross and Fore Streets. She had five children and a sick husband to care for. Almost all her energies were bent in getting them to a place of safety; and the few little things which she succeeded in rescuing from the flames were afterwards stolen from her by some one of the many wretches who gathered the spoils that awful night.

It soon became evident that we must decide upon some plan of action, in case it should come to the worst. We had two married sisters,—one living in India Street, the other at the west end of the city. As the former had no family, and was alone, even her husband being away, and as the latter had three children, and a house full of company, we decided that, if we must move, it should be to India Street. We sent off one team, and my youngest brother with it, before the fire was anywhere near us; and then, while my two little sisters assisted mother in getting things together, I worked with my brother and cousin, hanging wet blankets against the walls, pouring water on the roof, and taking other precautionary measures. But all was useless. On came the fire with a steady sweep. We saw that it was idle to combat it longer, and turned all our energies to saving what we could. Our home was to be ours no longer. The dear old roof-tree, under which had assembled so many loved ones, now gone forever,—where the eyes of all our home circle first saw the light of life,—where three of that number closed theirs in death,—the centre of the hopes and joys of a lifetime,—was to be abandoned to the flames. It was like tearing our heart-strings to leave it so; but there was no time for lingering. With streaming eyes and aching hearts we started out, taking what we could in our hands. There was by this time no vehicle to be obtained in which we could ride; and, supporting my mother, my sisters clinging to us in silent terror, we were borne along with the crowd down Middle Street to India. I cannot remember any incidents of that walk. The hurrying throng around me, the flying sparks, and the roar of the engines, seem like the confusion of a dream.

Our sister, who met us at the door, felt perfectly secure, and had done nothing towards packing. I gave her an account of our proceedings, thinking each moment of some precious thing I might have brought away. We went to the front door, and looked out on the scene before us. The fire seemed to come on the wings of the wind. Middle Street was ablaze; Wood's marble hotel was in flames, together with the beautiful dwelling opposite. The fire leaped from house to house, and, if for a moment checked, it was but to rush on in wilder fury. Churches, one by one, were seized by the flame, and crumbled into ruin before it. No human power could arrest its fierce progress. In vain the firemen put forth a strength almost superhuman: their exertions seemed but to add to its fury. Explosion after explosion gave greater terror to the scene: buildings were successively blown up in the useless effort to bar its pathway; the fire leaped the chasm and sped on. Fugitives of every age and condition were hurrying through the streets, laden with everything imaginable,—especially looking-glasses, which seem the one important thing to be saved during a fire. My brother and cousin had not yet made their appearance, nor had we seen anything of my brother-in-law, from the other end of the city. But we knew they must be at their places of business, which were now in the heart of the burning district. Swiftly the destruction hurried towards us; and people were now seen bringing in their goods and seeking shelter on our premises. O what heart-broken faces surrounded us that fearful night! Friends, and people we had never seen, alike threw themselves on our kindness; and I must say that a spirit of humanity and good-will seemed everywhere prevalent among the citizens. We were now ourselves tortured by suspense. Could we escape, or should we again have to seek refuge from the flames? Surely the work of destruction would stop before it reached India Street? The hot breath of the maddening fire, and its lurid glare, were the only response. O, if the wind would only change! But a vane, glistening like gold in the firelight, steadfastly pointed to the southeast. For one moment it veered, and our hearts almost stood still with hope; but it swung back, and a feeling of despair settled upon us.

Our house was full. One poor lady, with a little baby only a week old, lay on a sofa in one of the rooms; near her, bent over in a rocking-chair, sat an old woman who had not been out of her house for five years, with a look of hopeless bewilderment on her wrinkled face. But people were now beginning to move from our house. India Street was almost blocked up. Every kind of vehicle that went upon wheels, from a barouche to a wheelbarrow, passed by laden with furniture.

At this moment my brother and brother-in-law approached, blackened almost beyond recognition. It was not until C——— spoke that I really knew him.

"We must be calm and collected, and save what we can. John is trying to get a team to carry mother up to L———'s; the rest of us will have to go to the graveyard. But John may not be successful, so you stay here, and see if you can get any one to take mother: they may do it for you, when they wouldn't for a man."

I stood on the edge of the sidewalk, clinging to the horse-post, and appealed in vain to wagons going by.

"Won't you take a lady and children away from here?"

"I can't, ma'am, not if you was to give me twenty-five dollars,—not if you was to give me five hundred. I'm taking a load for a gentleman now."

So it was in every case. Very many were worse off than we were,—had not even a man to help. One well-known citizen was appealed to for help, in the early part of the evening, by a poor woman,—a sort of dependant of his family. He took her and her daughter, with their effects, outside the city, and returned to find India Street on fire and no means of getting through the crowd to his house, which was burned, with all that was not saved by the exertions of his wife. They had visiting them a lady whose child lay dead in the house, awaiting burial. The mother took the little corpse in her arms and carried it herself up to the other end of the city!

While I was making these vain attempts, John drove up in a light, open-topped buggy. We hurriedly got mother and E——— into it, and gave into their charge the jewelry and silver, and they drove away. I could not but tremble for their safety. The road seemed impassable, so dense was the struggling crowd. On every side the fire was raging. Looking up India Street it was one sheet of flame, and equally so before us. It looked like a world on fire, for we could see no smoke,—it was too near for that,—and the heat was terribly intense.

There was no time to be lost. Both our servants and M———'s were away spending the Fourth, so we had to depend entirely on ourselves. Our back fence was soon torn down, and we all worked as we never had before. We saved a good deal, but not one half of what we brought from our house in the first place. We had thrown things out of the window, and C——— and J——— worked hard dragging them out of the yard, until, scorched and almost suffocated, they were compelled to desist. The flames were upon us so quickly, it seemed incredible that they could have seized the house so soon after we thought we were in danger.

"Thank God, we are all safe!" cried M———, sinking upon the ground in the graveyard, where we took refuge. She tried to look cheerful; but the sight before her—her house in flames—and the thought of her husband's absence overcame her, and she burst into tears. I laid the two little girls upon the grass; and, wearied out, they soon fell asleep. It was a strange scene in that quiet old cemetery, where the dead of more than a century had lain undisturbed in their graves. Where only the reverent tread of the mourner, or of some visitor carefully threading his way among the grassy mounds, was wont to be known, crowds of frantic people were hurrying across; while here and there were family groups clustered together, watching the destruction of their property.

How long the remaining hours seemed! Would the daylight never come? The children slept on, and we four talked in low tones of the morrow.

At length, faint, rosy lights began to streak the eastern horizon, and slowly the day dawned. The sun rose unclouded above the hills, sending down his beams upon the desolation which the night had wrought, lighting up the islands and the blue waters, flecked with sail-boats.

Not less welcome to us, J——— now also appeared,—with a hay-cart, whose driver he had engaged to come and remove us. Our goods were put into it; we took our places among them, and, as soon as the tardy oxen could carry us, were safe in my sister's house, living over again in words that fearful night, and relating to each other some of those incidents of the fire which can never all be told. A little friend of ours, when leaving her home, took in her arms her doll, nearly as large as herself; obliged to flee a second time, her mother told her it was useless to try and save the doll, and she must leave it there. With many tears she laid it on the sofa, feeling, no doubt, as if she were leaving a human being to be burnt. The next day, a friend brought to her the identical dolly, which had been found in the graveyard! The little one's joy may be imagined.

One of the women in the Irish quarter picked up her big pig in her arms and carried it to a place of safety, then returned to take care of her children and furniture. A woman went by our house in the early part of the evening bent nearly double beneath the weight of a trunk strapped upon her back. We saw women that night with loads under which almost any man would have staggered in ordinary circumstances.

Before we were supposed to be in danger, I walked out with a young friend to see what progress the fire was making. At a corner we observed a woman with a child about eight years old, talking, in great agitation, to a lady, and evidently urging her to accede to some request. My companion suggested that we should see if we could aid her in any way. As we approached, the lady had taken the child by the hand, with the words, "What is your address?" which was given. We inquired if we could be of any service. "No, thank you," was the reply. "I asked that lady to take care of my daughter. I keep store on that street over there. My husband is out of town, and I don't know what I shall do!"—and, wringing her hands, she hurried away. I have wondered since what was the fate of the little girl thus intrusted to the care of strangers; for the lady went in the direction, afterwards swept by the fire.

One family, whose house the flames did not reach until near two o'clock in the morning, behaved with great coolness. The head of the household lay ill. It was their first care to provide for him. Then they went deliberately about, gathering up their valuables, taking just what they wanted. They secured a wagon to carry away their things. Their house, meanwhile, had been full of refugees from the flames. One of the young ladies, going for the last time through the deserted rooms, found, on a sofa in the parlor, a sick woman, utterly unable to move. At first, she felt almost in despair at sight of this poor creature, so near meeting a fearful fate. But quickly recovering her presence of mind, she called in men from the street, and, by their united efforts, they carried her out, and forced a passing wagon to take her to a safe place. A young lady, who lived at a little distance from this family, was spending the night at the other end of the city. They sat up till half past twelve, and she was then in the act of retiring, never dreaming that her home was in danger, when a loaded wagon stopped at the door, and out stepped her sister and child. She went back in the same vehicle, and worked till twelve the next day, getting things out of the house, collecting and guarding them till they could be removed.

There was, of course, the usual difference shown amongst people in such circumstances,—energy and coolness contrasted with imbecility and frantic excitement. A friend who moved three times, with her husband so ill that he had to be carried from place to place, never once forgot to administer his medicine at regular intervals,—with a steady hand pouring out the drops by the light of the fire.

A gentleman was carrying some of his books, preceded by an assistant, who also had his arms full. The latter walked so rapidly that his employer could not keep up with him. He called upon him to slacken his pace; but, as no attention was paid to this, the gentleman dropped his books upon the ground, and, running forward, knocked him down, determined to be obeyed, fire or no fire.

But all were not so cool. One man, seeing the flames advancing in the direction of his house, rushed thither to save his property. He worked with might and main, but, when the house was nearly emptied, became aware of the fact that it was his neighbor's. By this time his own dwelling was on fire, from which he saved scarcely anything. I know one person who passed through his hall perfectly empty-handed, while all around him were bundles and boxes, which were consumed in the fire; another walked out of his house with a package of envelopes in his hand, leaving, close by, an article worth thirty dollars.

I must mention one of many instances of unselfishness that came under my observation. A gentleman was comfortably established in a house which he had recently bought and furnished, expecting there to enjoy the pleasures of a home. One half of the house he had rented; but the husband of the woman to whom it was let was not in town. Their dwelling shared the fate of those around them, being burnt. He first set to work to save his own things; but, struck by the forlorn condition of his tenant, he did his best to save her effects, even to the detriment of his own; for when they were examined, the greater portion of them was found to be hers. Time has not exhausted the truth and beauty of the saying, that "in the night the stars shine forth," and the stars did not pale even in the terrible light of the fire that consumed half a city.

This work was published before January 1, 1927, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.