October 21, 2017
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70 years ago this month, the Great Fires of 1947 raged across Maine

By Emily Burnham, BDN Staff
Updated:

It was an abnormal year, weather-wise, in 1947. An unusually warm spring meant snow melted early. Starting in July, the state entered into one of the worst droughts it had seen in decades. By October, Maine was essentially a tinderbox — the fire danger was as high as it had ever been.

On Oct. 17, 1947, when a fire started in a cranberry bog near Dolliver’s Dump, just off Crooked Road, near Hull’s Cove on Mount Desert Island, firefighters rushed to put it out, though their efforts had only just begun. That fire was just one of a series of multiple devastating fires that swept across the state that month — the largest natural disaster in Maine history, that involved municipalities from Wells to Bar Harbor.

For Mount Desert Island in particular, the fires raged for nearly a month, spreading east from Crooked Road to Hull’s Cove, then south towards Bar Harbor and nearly to Otter Point, with the final embers not completely extinguished until Nov. 14. It cut a swath of destruction across more than 17,000 acres, 10,000 of those within Acadia National Park. In total, 170 homes and five hotels burned; the Jackson Laboratory, then a still relatively new institution, sustained massive damage.

Now, 70 years later, evidence of the destruction still remains.

“Even today, if you go to the top of Gorham Mountain, you can look to the southeast and see the contrast between the unburnt, dark green spruce trees, and the bright colors of the beech and maple that rose up in the 70 years since,” said Tim Gerrity, executive director of the Mount Desert Island Historical Society. “Right across the street from College of the Atlantic, you can still see ruins of cottages. That’s where the winds turned, and firefighters made their last stand. The scars are still there.”

Nearly 200 miles south of Mount Desert Island, other fires raged across northern York County, including in the towns of Waterboro, Shapleigh and Lyman, all of which suffered extensive damage, including most homes in Waterboro and Shapleigh. Other communities affected included Newfield, Kennebunk, Kennebunkport, Arundel, Dayton and Wells, as well as parts of the cities of Saco and Biddeford. There were also small blazes reported in Portland, Bowdoin, Harpswell and near Moosehead Lake.

High winds only exacerbated the blazes, and as the fires grew, they quickly outpaced the capabilities of local fire departments, who in many cases were equipped with little more than water tanks strapped to their backs. Support from the Army Air Guard, Navy and Coast Guard were called in, and volunteers from the University of Maine, Bangor Theological Seminary and Bates College responded to blazes both north and south. Residents escaped via car, on foot, and in the case of some Mount Desert Island residents, by boat.

In total, more than 180,000 acres burned, 15 people were killed, and $30 million in property damage was reported — which is the equivalent of more than $300 million in 2017, adjusted for inflation. Mercifully, in Bar Harbor, the downtown business district was spared.

In her 1979 book, “Wildfire Loose: The Week Maine Burned,” reissued in 2014 by Down East Books, author Joyce Butler described the damage the fires wrought, and the response from both local police and fire, and from the National Guard, which was called out to assist.

“Nine communities had been practically wiped out, four more had suffered severe damage, and scores of others had lost buildings. Property damage was estimated at $30 million. Fifteen had died,” wrote Butler, in the book. “In many sections the earth itself had been consumed. Maine had become an armed camp, her roads patrolled by the National Guard, Legionnaires, the police, and self-appointed vigilantes.”

Not only does physical evidence of the fires remain in the regions where they hit, but the memories of those who lived through it — all of whom are in their 70s and older now — remain clear as a bell. Many of those memories are collected in filmmaker Peter Logue’s new documentary, “Fire of ‘47,” which focuses on the Bar Harbor fire, featuring extensive interviews interviews with survivors. Screenings are set for Oct. 19 at the Criterion Theatre and Oct. 23 at the Jesup Memorial Library, both in Bar Harbor.

Historical societies across the state maintain extensive records of the disaster, and throughout York County signs commemorate the destruction in the towns that were hit. In April 2017, novelist Anita Shreve published “The Stars Are Fire,” a romantic suspense novel set against the backdrop of the fires in the village of Biddeford Pool.

In the aftermath of the fires, a number of things changed for the state. It forced municipalities across the state to modernize their fire departments, getting state and federal funding to purchase trucks and updated equipment, and to make sure their firefighters had the same rigorous, standardized training. In 1949, the Northeast Forest Fire Protection Commission was founded, first including the New England states and New York, and later including the Canadian provinces of Quebec and New Brunswick.

For Mount Desert Island specifically, the fire helped to usher in a new era. Prior to the 1940s, MDI was a summer colony — a playground for America’s wealthiest families, like the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts and Astors. When the fire swept down Route 3, then dubbed “Millionaire’s Row,” it destroyed 67 palatial summer homes that belonged to those families, as well as five grand hotels, effectively ending the summer colony era that began in the Gilded Age. Instead of mansions replacing mansions, motels and tourist attractions went up on Route 3 after the fire.

“These extraordinarily wealthy individuals, who had this lifestyle that afforded them these opulent homes and servants and chauffeurs, they were already on the decline, with the effects of the Depression and the war,” said Gerrity. “But the fire really put a definitive end to it. It really hastened the transition from resort community to what we see today.”

It also created an opportunity for city planners to redesign Bar Harbor so that it wouldn’t be quite so dependent on the summer population.

“It paved the way for a more balanced economy. It made it so a place like College of the Atlantic could exist, so there was a population of students here outside of the summer months,” said Gerrity. “Jackson Lab totally recovered. MDI Biological Laboratory developed from that. It created new opportunities to house those employees. [Bar Harbor] also began to market itself as a place for people to retire … It’s a long list of things that changed as a result of the fire.”

 

Correction: An earlier version of this report misstated the title of Joyce Butler's book, “Wildfire Loose: The Week Maine Burned.”


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