A fire commenced about nine o’clock in a stable in Mechanic Row in Newburyport on the evening of May 31st, 1811. (The description below is from The Fireman’s Own Book by George P. Little, 1918.)
The fire soon extended to the Market and to State street, and spread in such various directions as to baffle all exertions to subdue it. In a few hours it prostrated every building on the north side of Cornhill, and both sides of State street, from Cornhill to the market; it then proceeded into Essex street, on the northeast side, to the house of Captain James Kettell, where it was checked — on to Middle street as far as Fair street, on the north-east side and within a few rods thereof on the south-west side — into Liberty street within one house of Independent street, and down Water street, as far as Hudson’s wharf, sweeping off every building within that order.
The wind blew strong; these buildings which were the highest in the street, threw the fire in awful columns many yards into the air, and the flames extended in one continued sheet of fire across the spacious area. At two o’clock in the morning, the fire seemed to rage in every direction with irresistible fury, and the inhabitants saw very little prospect of preserving any portion of the town. About four in the morning the danger diminished, and at six the fire had, in a great degree, spent its fury. The whole of Centre street was laid in ashes, and the whole range of buildings in Merchant’s row on the Ferry wharf, also all the stores on the several wharves, thus clearing sixteen and a half acres in a part of the town containing a much larger proportion of the wealth of the town than any other part. It is estimated that nearly 250 buildings were burned.
The scene, says a gentleman, who was present during the night, was “the most truly terrible I have ever witnessed. At the commencement of the fire, it was a bright moonlight night, and the evening was cool and pleasant. But the moon gradually became obscured, and at length disappeared in the thick cloud of smoke which shrouded the atmosphere. The streets were thronged with those whose dwellings were consumed, conveying the remains of their property to places of safety. The incessant crash of falling buildings, the roaring of chimneys like distant thunder, the flames ascending in curling volumes from a vast extent of ruins, the air filled with a shower of fire, and the feathered throng fluttering over their retreats, and dropping into the flames; the mooing of cows, and the confused noise of exertion and distress, united to impress the mind with the most awful sensations.”
The loss of property was immense, estimated at a million dollars. Upwards of ninety families were driven from their habitations with the loss of a very considerable part of their furniture and clothing, and many of them deprived of the means of furnishing themselves with the necessities of life. The sufferings of those whose dwellings and property were consumed immediately excited the sympathy of the liberal and the charitable. Meetings were held in many of the large towns in various parts of the country, and generous donations were received from different quarters, for the relief of the inhabitants. The citizens of Boston collected over twenty-four thousand dollars, which, with characteristic liberality, they presented to the sufferers by the fire.
The inhabitants of Newburyport, at town meeting in June, 1811, offered their gratitude “to the people in the neighboring towns, Newbury, Salisbury and Amesbury for their vigilance, like brothers rescuing brothers from the fiames; and to the people of Rowley, Ipswich, Danvers, Beverly, Haverhill, Topsfield, Bradford, and the towns of the State of New Hampshire in our vicinity, for they flew to our assistance as soon as information of our distress was given; to the people of Salem, for they rendered us the most active and necessary assistance in guarding our lives and property on the night succeeding the destruction, when we were exhausted by trouble and fatigue. The conduct of all our friends, who afforded us help in time of need, will be held as an example for the good and benevolent as long as the memory of our calamity lasts, and they have our best wishes for their welfare, and our prayers to Almighty God that they may be preserved from similar evils.”
Here’s another story of the fire, from Reminiscences of an Octagenarian: