More than 100 years after Bangor Opera House burned, two firefighters who died in line of duty to be honored

Ice encrusts the Bangor Opera House after a fire there on Jan. 15, 1914 in which two firefighters lost their lives. The Bangor Fire Department will honor the memories of Fire Lt. Walter Morrill, Hose Co.3, born Dec. 16, 1871 and Firefighter John Leonard, Hose Co.3, Born Aug. 21, 1877 at a graveside ceremony on Sept. 11 at Mt. Pleasant Cemetery.
File Photo | BDN
Ice encrusts the Bangor Opera House after a fire there on Jan. 15, 1914 in which two firefighters lost their lives. The Bangor Fire Department will honor the memories of Fire Lt. Walter Morrill, Hose Co.3, born Dec. 16, 1871 and Firefighter John Leonard, Hose Co.3, Born Aug. 21, 1877 at a graveside ceremony on Sept. 11 at Mt. Pleasant Cemetery.
The Bangor Opera House on Main Street before it burned in a fire in 1914.
Courtesy of Dick Shaw
The Bangor Opera House on Main Street before it burned in a fire in 1914.
A family photograph of Bangor Fire Department Lt. Walter J. Morrill, one of two firefighters killed battling a blaze at Bangor Opera House in 1914.
Courtesy of Morrill family
A family photograph of Bangor Fire Department Lt. Walter J. Morrill, one of two firefighters killed battling a blaze at Bangor Opera House in 1914.
Posted Sept. 04, 2014, at 3:33 p.m.
Last modified Sept. 04, 2014, at 5:26 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — A century ago, a brick wall collapsed on a group of firefighters battling a winter inferno at the Bangor Opera House on Main Street, killing two and injuring five.

Walter J. Morrill, lieutenant of Hose 3, and John Leonard, a member of the same company, died around 2 a.m. Jan. 15, 1914, while dousing the fire, which was first spotted about two hours earlier. The brick wall of the “scenery loft,” which rose 15 or 20 feet above the main roof, fell on the firefighters, burying them in a pile of rubble and timber.

On Thursday, Sept. 11, members of the Bangor Fire Department will honor the sacrifice of their fallen predecessors and pay respects to their families during a 10 a.m. ceremony at Mt. Pleasant Cemetery. The public is invited to attend.

Several members of Morrill’s family will be in attendance, according to Chandler Corriveau, a six-year Bangor firefighter and paramedic, who was tasked with organizing the remembrance and tracking down relatives of the men who gave their lives. Morrill, who was 42 when he died, left behind six children. One of his sons, Walter J. Morrill II, would serve with the Bangor Fire Department as well.

Morrill has relatives in Maine and New Hampshire, according to Corriveau, including a great-great-grandson who still lives in the Highland Lane home Walter Morrill built in Bangor.

Corriveau said he has had less luck tracking down family members of John Leonard, who was 36 years old and newly married at the time of his death and doesn’t appear to have fathered any children. He also may not have had siblings, according to Corriveau.

“We’re still hoping we can find a relative,” Corriveau said.

The ceremony is expected to include an honor guard, bagpipes and flag presentation to the family members.

Corriveau said the event is being held on Sept. 11 because of the importance of that date to fire departments across the country, who use it to remember the sacrifice of hundreds of firefighters and other first responders who died in the line of duty in New York City after the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Later that winter morning in 1914, after the lengthy battle with the blaze ended, the opera house was shrouded in a thick layer of ice, much like Bangor’s Masonic Hall would be when it was gutted by a winter fire 90 years later.

Newspapers described it as an “ice palace.”

The pastor who presided over the firefighters’ funerals said, “The heroes of the fire are as brave as those who fought at Little Round Top and San Juan Hill.”

It would be six years before a new, redesigned Bangor Opera House opened in the same Main Street location, eventually becoming the Penobscot Theatre. During the rebuilding effort, several other Bangor theaters, including the Bijou, filled in the gap.

The local firefighters union is hosting another event at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 9, at the Penobscot Theatre, where it will be showing the film “Toxic Hot Seat,” an HBO documentary focused on how chemicals used in furniture and household products can harm firefighters who battle flames around these burning objects throughout their careers.

After the film, there will be a round-table discussion on Maine’s role in legislation to ban such chemicals.

“We’re proud of what we do, and it’s always good to recognize those that made the ultimate sacrifice,” Corriveau said. “We all know what could happen to us when we go to work, but we have to put that at the back of our mind.”

Anyone with information that might lead to including more family members of the deceased firefighters, or questions about the events, may reach Corriveau at corriveauc@hermon.net or 207-551-4804.

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