Ellsworth, ME Great Fire Disaster, May 1933

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The catastrophe that erased 130 homes and downtown businesses during a single grim night in the depths of the Great Depression is known locally as the Fire. There have been countless blazes and even conflagrations in Ellsworth before and since, but only one qualifies for the capital F. When someone refers to the Fire, there is no question which fire.

Sunday, May 7, 1933, was an ordinary sort of day. In the morning, people went to church. Then as now, they had plenty of choices: Catholic, Unitarian, Congregational, Baptist and Methodist houses of worship. There would be fewer venues next Sunday.

Some folks stopped on the way at Charlie Pierson’s shoeshine. Others dropped in at Min’s store for the Sunday paper, or at Charlie Holz’s bakery. It was a calm day. But there was, nevertheless, unease.

Somebody was setting fires. There had been unexplainable fires at the Steam Laundry and at Sen. Eugene Hale’s house. Why, only the previous Monday the old shoe factory at Church and School streets went up in flames. In the May 3 Ellsworth American, W.H. Titus banged out an editorial titled “Get the Firebug.”

But the firebug struck first. Norman Moore set fire to the Old Bijou Theater Building. By the time the fire was extinguished, three fourths of the business district along with the residences south of Main Street were flattened. One hundred and thirty buildings were destroyed and many others damaged. The total for the fire was in excess of $1,200,000.

Embers from the theater were carried to neighboring buildings by strong winds. Very early in the fire it was evident that Ellsworth did not have sufficient equipment to battle the blaze. Calls for assistance went out to neighboring towns. Before it was over departments with pumpers from Blue Hill, Belfast, Bangor (two pumpers and a supply wagon), Old Town, Bucksport (one town and one mill pumper), Southwest Harbor, Northeast Harbor (pumper and hook & ladder truck), Brewer, and Bar Harbor answered the call for assistance. With the arrival of more and more apparatus on the scene, the small eight inch water main could not supply the needed water to fight the blaze. In an attempt to save Hancock Hall where the city's records were kept, firefighters dynamited the Partridge house. The explosion inadvertently sent burning lumber into the building and Hancock Hall was lost. Compounding matters for the survivors of the blaze was the fact that President Franklin D. Roosevelt had closed the banks just a few weeks prior due to the depression. Residents were forced to borrow money on good faith from friends and institutions just to survive.

The arsonist who caused this disaster was later apprehended and punished. Ellsworth was rebuilt into a more modern city with many relatively fire-proof buildings after as the lesson had been learned. Generations have come and gone since but the events of May 7, 1933 will long be known in local lore as the "fire".

Compiled from archives of the Ellsworth American newspaper, history of the Ellsworth, ME fire department and research and book by Darlene Springer.