Aurore Eaton's Looking Back: Manchester's worst fire strikes the heart of the city
The New Hampshire Fire Insurance Company began issuing policies in early April 1870, and established its office in the Merchants Exchange Building, located on the east side of Elm Street, between Hanover and Manchester streets.
This was the largest building in the city, at 4 stories high, 200 feet long and 100 feet deep. The Merchants Exchange housed newspaper and printing offices, law firms, a dry goods store, a dentist's office, an eatery and other businesses.
On Friday, July 8, 1870, at around 2:30 a.m., a man was walking home after a long night spent in the Waverly Rooms, a seedy "gambling resort" on Hanover Street. He noticed smoke and flames coming out of a wooden building on Manchester Street at the rear of the Merchants Exchange. He alerted others, and soon panicked people started pouring into the streets. It was later determined that the fire was likely started by a burning ember escaping from a coffee roasting machine. The wooden structure was soon engulfed in flames, and the fire quickly spread to nearby buildings.
Next door, connected by a bridge to the Merchants Exchange, was the brick building that housed the steam-operated presses used to print the local newspapers. Everything flammable in the building burned, and the presses were lost. A pressman, Mr. Wilmot, was asleep on the second floor. He escaped in the nick of time by climbing out a window.
Local historian Fred W. Lamb, recalled the details of the fire several years later in the Amoskeag Bulletin, "From this point the fire spread in all directions, the wind blowing strong all the time. North was the wooden building occupied by paint shops and carpenter shops.The fire then moved east, taking the wooden buildings in its course." The fire destroyed the three-story Masonic Temple on Hanover Street, and several business blocks and tenements. The Mechanics' Hotel on the south side of Manchester Street was obliterated. In a stable nearby, horses were harnessed and led to safety, and the carriages were removed. The post office on Hanover Street caught fire several times, but survived.
The firefighting effort was hampered by the fact that the city had only three steam fire engines, and these were dependent on a limited supply of water from ponds and "fire plugs," which were small reservoirs located in strategic places. What made matters worse was that the person responsible for letting the water out of the fire pond at the park on Hanover Street had forgotten to open the gate, so the fire plugs at City Hall and at the corner of Hanover and Pine Streets dried up.
People were desperate to save the Merchants Exchange. Goods and documents were carried out onto the sidewalk. David Furnald, who had a photography studio in the building, climbed to the roof with A. C. Wallace, a member of the city's Board of Engineers. The fire department's steam pumpers poured water to the top of the building, but most of it escaped down a drainage pipe in the middle of the roof. The two men plugged the hole with debris, and then grabbed brooms which they wet in the puddles. They ran back and forth along the south end of the building where burning embers were falling, and stamped out the flames as fast as they could.
Furnald noticed fire and smoke coming out of a window below. He signaled Wallace, who ran to find help. He and several men managed to put the flames out before they could spread, and other fires in the building were also extinguished. The Merchants Exchange Building was saved.
After the fire had raged for about an hour, the wind calmed down and it started raining. Finally the conflagration was contained. The next day, only a few buildings were left standing in a nearly six-acre stretch bordered by Hanover, Manchester, Elm and Chestnut streets. Numerous businesses suffered losses and 200 families were homeless. This was the biggest and most devastating fire that Manchester had ever seen.
The New Hampshire Fire Insurance Company, being new in the business, only had one customer that was affected by the fire, but this proved to be an important one.
Next week: The New Hampshire Fire Insurance Company pays a claim, and everyone notices.
Aurore Eaton is executive director of Manchester Historic Association; email her at firstname.lastname@example.org