Three Portsmouth fires, all at Christmas, destroyed 500 buildings within a decade in the early 19th century. Miraculously, no one died in the blazes.
Portsmouth, N.H., was then a gracious seacoast town, home to wealthy merchants and the first federal shipyard. It had served as the colony’s seat of government before the Revolution, and remained so until 1808.
The fires would spare the wooden mansions of the wealthy, separated by wide lawns. But the poor and middle class who lived in crowded quarters would find themselves out on the street, again and again.
1st Portsmouth Fire
The first of the Portsmouth fires started early in the morning of Dec. 26, 1802. It began in an old wooden building downtown, swept through the city and destroyed 100 homes.
Firefighting then amounted to ‘engines’ – water pumps on wheels – which fed the bucket brigades. Homeowners hung leather fire buckets (now highly collectible) near their doors for use in the bucket brigades. ‘Rescue’ involved fire societies, who salvaged items from burning homes. Members carried bags to rescue household valuables and bed keys to quickly dismantle beds and remove them.
Women and men fought the fire in bucket brigades until they dropped, relieved by volunteers from neighboring towns. When it was all over, only the North Church and the Old State House still stood. “The whole beauty of the town is gone! is gone!!!” wailed The New Hampshire Gazette.
Most of the building owners had no insurance, and they had to rely on private charity to recover. Donations came in from near and far, amounting to f $45,410.43.
Congress stepped in – for the first disaster relief ever. In January 1803, Congress passed a law to temporarily suspend “the collection of bonds due by merchants of Portsmouth, in New Hampshire, who have suffered by the late conflagration of that town.”
New Hampshire businessmen also responded by incorporating the N.H. Fire and Marine Insurance Co.
2nd of the Portsmouth Fires
Four years later, the second of the Portsmouth fires broke out on Bow Street, raced up Market Street and gobbled up a row of wooden commercial buildings along the Piscataqua River.
The blaze wiped out Market Square, which had barely recovered from the previous fire, as well as St. John’s Episcopal Church, built in 1732. The damage was estimated at $130,000, about $2.7 million in today’s dollars.
The disastrous fire preceded two more blows to the city: the Embargo of 1807 and the War of 1812. Both events sent Portsmouth, heavily dependent on shipping and trade, on a long downward slide. The industrial revolution bypassed Portsmouth, spurring growth in nearby mill towns like Dover and Rochester.
Last of the Portsmouth Fires
Then almost exactly seven years after the second fire, on Dec. 22, 1813, the worst of the Portsmouth fires caused more devastation. The blaze started in Mrs. Woodward’s barn at the corner of Court and Church streets, allegedly set on purpose by an angry servant.
The fire then marched down to the river, burning everything in its path. The conflagration wiped out 300 buildings, reducing 15 acres to smoking rubble and, as one resident put it, ‘a forest of naked chimneys.’
The huge fire could be seen as far away as Salem, Mass. Volunteers from that town traveled 48 miles in six hours to help put out the blaze. Help also came from Newburyport, Mass., and the New Hampshire towns of Dover, Exeter and Durham.
The fire sent the N.H. Fire and Marine Insurance Co. into bankruptcy. It destroyed many businesses that had relocated after the first fire of 1802.
After the Fires
Portsmouth had been growing at a good clip before the fires. Its population increased 13.1 percent from 1790 to 1800, and then at a spectacular 29.9 percent from 1800 to 1810. After the fire of 1813, the city’s growth slowed to only 5.7 percent from 1810-1820. to 7,327. Some people, including a young lawyer named Daniel Webster, packed up and left.
In 1814, the New Hampshire General Court passed the Brick Act, requiring every building over 12 feet high to be built of brick with a slate roof. Portsmouth rebuilt its downtown in brick, and tried to enjoy the holidays.
You can still get a feel for what Portsmouth was like before it went brick at the Strawbery Banke collection of house museums, right in the middle of the city.
With thanks to Dennis Robinson, The Three Fires of Christmas, SeacoastNH.com, 2005. Images: North Church By Billy Hathorn – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34161214. Gov. John Langdon House By Daderot – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5643711. Jefferson Street By Ken Gallager (Ken Gallager from en.wikipedia) – Author, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15734947. This story about the Portsmouth Fires was updated in 2023.