BRATTLEBORO — Since its humble beginnings around 1762, when a grist mill began operating just above the area of the Whetstone Bridge on Main Street, downtown Brattleboro has been built, only to be rebuilt over and over again as the result of fire - one after another, every ten years or so.
In fact, on Oct. 31 of that year, it was the Great Fire of 1869 that took down all the buildings on the west side of Main Street between Elliot and High Street that provided the opportunity for George Brooks to build the Brooks Hotel (see story, facing page).
Here is a list of some of the major fires in the area of downtown Brattleboro since the first recorded one in 1852, as reported by The Vermont Phoenix and the Brattleboro Reformer though the years.
The increasing sophistication of the art and science of firefighting can be documented as the fires became easier to manage with new equipment and techniques and serious injury and deaths diminished with the advent of better alarms and smoke detectors.
It is clear that if the Brooks House fire had occurred 100 years ago, many lives could have been lost.
• Feb. 23. 1852: Vermont House and its outbuildings, Main Street. “At about two o'clock p.m., the cry of fire was raised and hardly had our citizens rushed into the streets to answer the call, when the roof of the Vermont House was seen to be on fire for nearly the whole of its length....After the fire wardens had long endeavored but in vain to form a double column of men to the river, the women volunteered, and promptly filled the wide gap which men could not be found to occupy.”
• Sept. 5, 1857: Gates Bliss & Co., 16 buildings burned. “About half past one o'clock, a.m., Dr. E.C. Cross, who was sitting up with a sick child, discovered a fire in the Cabinet manufactory of Messrs. Gates, Bliss & Co. As soon as possible he gave the alarm, but it was 15 minutes or more before the citizens generally were aroused....the flames were soon communicated to Joseph Clark's drug and hardware store on the north and Estey & Green's large Melodeon manufactory and warehouse on the south.”
• Oct. 31, 1869: Main Street and Elliot Street. “The Great Disaster of the Great Fire of 1869 has burned all the buildings on the West side of Main Street from High to Elliot. Discovered Sunday morning about 2:30 a.m. by the night watchman, Vet Burlingame. ... The Phoenix #6 was out of order, as some evil disposed person had carefully placed shoe leather, paper, and chamois skins in the hoses, which took a half of an hour to remove...within three hours all the building on the west side from High Street to Elliot were consumed by this devouring monster.”
• 1877: Revere House, Elliot and Main Street. “On Saturday night last, about five minutes before 11 o'clock, a fire broke out in the Revere House stables which spread with great rapidity to all the wooden building connected with the house, and then seized upon the house itself, totally destroying it so that by half past two Sunday morning the whole of this valuable property was only a mass of smoldering ruins.”
• 1886: Valley Mill. “There was a spectacular fire in this village which is of interest for the history involved but also because it shows the deference and respect shown the old engine companies.... The Old Valley Mill was located on the north side of Bridge Street between that and the brook. When discovered, the fire had such headway that about all that could be done was to save other nearby properties.”
• Nov. 3, 1914: Flat Street, four buildings burned. “Between 11:30 o'clock and 8 o'clock this morning Brattleboro was visited by two disastrous fires, one of which fireman declared to have been incendiary. Property losses aggregating $29,000 were entailed. ... Only desperate and well-directed work by the fireman prevented the town from suffering its most serious fire loss of all time.”
• Oct. 21, 1915: Ray and Judge buildings. “Fire from unknown cause this morning destroyed wooden structures on Main Street, causing loss of $25,000, dozen of tenants burned out, 10 streams of water...buildings were overrun with rats, sidewalk cleared of debris, but few tenants have secured new locations.”
• Feb. 15, 1929: Princess Hotel. “Miss Theodora Chase had returned to the burning structure to secure her belongings...The fire, which was thought to have started in a bin of soft coal under the theatre, destroyed the Princess Apartments, and the Princess Motion Picture Theatre at the junction of Elliot and Church Street. Miss Chase was found lying on the floor of a room in the second story over the theatre by firemen.”
• Jan. 31, 1930: Stellman & Son Machine Shop. “Fireman have difficult task under temperature of 4 degrees below zero as fire lays waste to the building owned by Twin State Gas & Electric Company....The blaze was discovered by George Rosebush, railroad telegraph operator at the Railway Station.... Dense smoke poured from the burning building into the former Tyler block, later known as Odd Fellows block, on Main Street in front of the machine shop.”
• March 15, 1937: Princess Hotel, again. “Ernest Cloutier dies, screaming roomers leap to ladders.... Two men were burned beyond recognition, a third was burned so badly that he died in memorial hospital, and four others were still unaccounted for today.... Roaring flames raged through the Princess Hotel and Capitol Theatre building.”
• December 1939: Holbrook House. “Within 24 hours after conquering one of the most threatening oil fires this town has witnessed, local firemen Wednesday afternoon were confronted with a stubborn blaze in partitions of F. Cabot Holbrook's residence at the junction of Terrace and Tyler streets, where damage roughly estimated at $4,000 or more was caused.”
• December 1958: Carroll's Drug Store. “Lyman Streeter [a barber in Brattleboro since 1903], 74, victim as $100,000 fire guts the three story Leonard Block at 14 Elliot Street....When fireman entered the building, Mrs. Streeter was at the top of the first flight of stairs. She was taken to the office of Dr. John P. Lord for treatment.”
• Nov. 20, 1972: Woolworth and Grant buildings. “A massive pre-dawn fire, its heart feeding on a basement paint storage area, destroyed Woolworth's store on Main Street today, sending four firemen to the hospital. Brattleboro Fire Chief T. Howard Mattison declared the fire under control at 8 a.m., he said, “It was a near miss” at one point that none of his men were seriously injured or killed. Injured firemen included Randal P. Sage, 26, Wayne Shepard, 19, Louis Perham, 24, and Philip Rancourt Jr., 18, all with first and second degree burns of the face, head and ears.” Future Fire Chief David Emery was caught for a while in the burning basement as well.
• Jan. 23, 1977: Barrows Coal Co. building. “The four-story brick building at 39 Main St. housed the Barrows Coal Company offices, the All States Cafe, an H&R Block tax consultants' outlet and a number of apartments.... Lower Main Street was virtually blanketed with ice at the height of the blaze.”
• March 20, 1978: Via Condotti Restaurant, Elliot Street. “A fire that apparently started in the cellar of the crowded Via Condotti Restaurant on Elliot Street Sunday night shortly before 8 p.m. destroyed the two-story landmark buildings which also housed the Wings boutique clothing shop.”
• April 30, 1991: Paramount Theater, Main Street. More than 100 firefighters from Vermont and New Hampshire fought this fire for more than five hours, and managed to keep it from spreading to nearby buildings. The Art Deco-style movie theater was totally gutted, but was later renovated into retail and office space by local architect Leo Berman.
• Dec. 5, 2004: Wilder Building, 39 Main St. “Woman severely injured in blaze that consumes the Wilder Building at 39 Main St....The Latchis Hotel, which was half full, was evacuated and surrounding streets, including the bridge to Hinsdale, N.H., was closed.”