Maritime Log #50: Fire Has Influenced the Development of the City

By Dyke Hendrickson, Outreach Historian for the Custom House Maritime Museum

Damage by fire has been in the local news lately, following the death of a firefighter in Worcester.

The development of downtown Newburyport has been influenced by major fires, including the Great Fire of 1811 and the Million Dollar Fire of 1934. Both leveled parts of the city and forced rebuilding that has influenced the look of the community. (Shown here is a newspaper photo of Merrimac Street after the 1934 blaze).

In each case, associated events made these times of major hardship. In 1811, the community not only had to rebuild but it was facing an embargo that limited trade. Shortly thereafter, the War of 1812 brought international commerce to a standstill.

In 1934, the Depression had taken hold here as it had around the country. The destruction caused by the fire created major challenges, including homelessness, unemployment and growing fear of the future.

Historians say the 1811 fire started in an unimproved stable in Mechanic Row (now Inn Street), and it swept up State Street and into Middle Street as far as Fair Street, Liberty Street and parts of Water Street. The area encompassed most of the city’s downtown.

Nearly 250 buildings were burned, most of which were stores and houses. It was estimated that 16 developed acres were destroyed.

More than 90 families were driven from their homes.

State officials in Boston provided financial support to rebuild but passed measures that mandated that the city be rebuilt with brick and stone.

Today’s distinctive brick downtown is a direct outgrowth of the rebuilding that took place after the Great Fire of 1811.

The fire of 1934 came during the Depression, and was known as the Million Dollar Fire.

Local historian Jean Foley Doyle wrote in her two-part history of the city, “It had a major effect on the economy in Newburyport. It wiped out what remained of the shoe industry, left people homeless and added to the fear of destitution that was sweeping the country.”

She writes that the fire broke out at the Dodge Brothers Shoe Company near the corner of Merrimac Street and Bridge Road. The fire jumped to the Gillis building on Bridge Road, then across Merrimac Street to the Kerkian buiding, and proceeded down both sides of Merrimac Street, driven by a strong wind from the southwest.

Foley wrote that “By the time the last ember was extinguished, 15 families were homeless, and 500 people were unemployed. Damage was estimated at $1 million.”

That was a large sum of money in Depression-era Newburyport and thus the fire earned the name the “Million Dollar Fire.”

Municipal reports stated that 22 pieces of firefighting equipment were used, with 268 regular firemen on duty from at least a dozen neighboring communities.

Also, a blaze on Merrimac Street in 1894 did significant damage.