November 20, 2018
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An arsonist burned 4 Portland schools in less than 9 months, but was never caught

PORTLAND, Maine — Capt. James C. Kent, of city fire engine no. 6, led his men up ladders, toward the fire. The flames were already breaching Deering High School’s roof. Then, an overhanging brick cornice gave way. Kent and another firefighter were swept from their perches in a hail of rubble and flaming timber.

Kent fell several yards, hit the ground and lay buried under the blazing rubble. His comrades dug him out by hand and rushed him the hospital. But Kent had several fractures, including a broken pelvis, internal injuries and severe burns. He didn’t survive.

Kent joined the list of now 22 Portland firefighters who have died in the line of duty.

It was the fourth city school fire in less than a year. All were thought to be arson but nobody was ever caught.

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Retiring Portland Fire Chief David Jackson speaks at a short ceremony marking the department's 250th birthday at the Portland Fire Museum on Spring Street on Thursday. The department was founded in 1768.

That was on May 21, 1921 and it’s just one of the tidbits published in a new history of the Portland Fire Department. The book, “Portland Firefighters” marks the department’s 250th birthday. It features around 220 photographs and was put together by the husband and wife team of Sean and Andrea Donaghue. Lt. Sean Donaghue is a 12-year veteran of the department.

“It was her idea,” said Donaghue, of his wife. “One of us is a writer and one of us is a firefighter. We mostly did it together.”

Almost all the images came from the Portland Fire Museum. Donaghue also gives a lot of credit to Michael Daicy, the department’s historian. The book traces the origins of the department growth from its humble beginnings on March 29, 1768.

That’s when five fire wardens were appointed at a town meeting. The wardens would walk the streets of Portland every day at dusk, looking for fires. They carried six-foot red poles as a symbols of their office. They were also in charge of raising the alarm and organizing bucket brigades in emergency cases.

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
The Portland Fire Department's Honor Guard stands at attention during a short ceremony marking the department's 250th birthday at the Portland Fire Museum on Spring Street on Thursday.

Further digging in the Portland Public Library’s microfilmed newspaper collection reveals a few more details about the 1921 fire that killed Kent. The Portland Evening Express front page headline read: “Firemen brave death in battle with flames — one loses life.” Six other firefighters were injured in the conflagration.

The fire was called in by a Deering High School neighbor at 4 a.m. and fire crews were on the scene as fast as they could get there. Some of the engines were still horse-drawn at the time. The fire was thought to have started in the school’s library. The fire then raced skyward through a ventilation system.

“The entire upper part of the structure was in a mass of flames,” wrote the Express that night, and by the time the engines arrived, “The roof was undulating like an inflated balloon.”

Despite the inferno’s death and destruction, firefighters were able to save much of the building. It still stands today, now housing Lincoln Middle School.

Fire officials said the there was no fire in the library fireplace and no lights were burning at the time. That led them to believe arson was the cause, saying they “believed it to be incendiary in nature.” The school had already been broken into, some months before, as well.

Later in the day, State Insurance Commissioner Weldon Smith arrived on the scene saying it was the 35th school fire in New England since the start of the year. It was also the fourth school blaze in Portland since the previous October when the Presumpsot Street School burned. That incident was followed by a December fire at the Monument Street School and another on Peaks Island just before the Deering fire.

By the weekend, it was still front page news in Portland. A Portland Sunday Telegram story bemoaned the loss of the school’s baseball, football and shooting team trophies, which were in the library. They also noted a Chickering grand piano and taxidermy specimens were also housed there.

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Retiring Portland Fire Chief David Jackson speaks at a short ceremony marking the department's 250th birthday at the Portland Fire Museum on Spring Street on Thursday. The department was founded in 1768.

A story in the Philadelphia Inquirer stated, “Chief of Police Irving S. Watts received an anonymous letter late today announcing the Portland High School would be burned next, followed by blasts of buildings on Cumberland avenue.”

A search through the Portland papers of the day turned up no such account. They did state Portland’s mayor appointed a investigative committee to look into the fires. However, no story reporting any findings could be located.

No report of anyone ever being brought to justice for the rash of school fires could be found, either.

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This photo is item no. 20327 at the Maine Memory Network | BDN
This photo is item no. 20327 at the Maine Memory Network | BDN
Deering High School on Stevens Avenue in Portland burned on May 21, 1921. The building was mostly saved and is now Lincoln Middle School.

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