Haverhill's Fires & Other Disasters Throughout the Years

Haverhill, a city in Northeastern Massachusetts, is located in the Merrimack Valley approximately thirty-two  miles north of Boston and sixteen miles up river from the Atlantic ocean. The Merrimack River flows along twelve miles of Haverhill’s shore. Known as Pentucket in 1642, this Colonial river port was bought from the Passaquo and Saggahew Indians by English settlers twelve years after the Pilgrims had left England aboard the ship Mayflower and landed at Plymouth. 

Over a span of two hundred and eighty years--since 1671, when Haverhill’s historians first started keeping records of disasters and other phenomena, Haverhill has experienced fires and conflagrations, train wrecks and plane crashes, freshets and floods, gales and hurricanes, twisters and tornadoes, blizzards and hailstorms, tremors and earthquakes, drought, "dark days," and meteorites.  Many have been responsible for property loss and/or loss of life. But the two major disasters that stand out in the city of Haverhill’s annals are the conflagration of 1882,  which nearly obliterated Haverhill’s shoe industry and took a fire fighters life, and the flood of 1936 where 636 families, and 549 buildings in Haverhill were affected.

Haverhill’s Fires and Conflagrations 1671- 2000’s


 There have been several memorable fires in Haverhill’s history.  Some very serious fires that took human lives and many very destructive, causing heavy financial loss.  Those reflected in this chapter were chosen to cover a variety of different types of fires.  Some serious, others destructive but hopefully all capturing the interest of the reader. Often the colorful style of newspaper reporters, reporting their interpretation of an exciting fire, or other disaster, has been purposely reflected without change in this chapter to tweak the interest of the reader.

Though these fires are not elaborated on, the list does reflect the property involved, the extent of fire loss (when known) and the approximate date of the fire.

Haverhill’s First Recorded Fire

The first fire recorded in Haverhill’s annals, in 1671, completely destroyed the Matthias Button homestead, a thatched roof house near the Edward Bricket mansion on Pond Street (present-day Kenoza Avenue). 

Haverhill’s Need for an Organized Response to Fires

 During the early years of the 18th century, many of Haverhill’s fires were reportedly set by "marauding Indians," urged on by the French in Canada. On at least two occasions--one on March 15, 1697 and another on August 29, 1708--the Indians massacred settlers, took others captive, and torched their homesteads. These incidents, and others, demonstrated Haverhill’s need for an organized response to fires as well as Indians.

The Disastrous Fire of 1775

On Sunday afternoon, April 16, 1775, a disastrous blaze swept down the west side of Haverhill’s Main street from Court street to Merrimack street at White's corner. Before the flames had been finally checked at nightfall, seventeen buildings in all had been destroyed. It was obvious that one engine would not hold back the ravages of such a fire. Among the principal structures lost were a large brick tavern of John White, the stores of Joseph Dodge and James Duncan, a distillery, and several residences.

Handtubs Supplied Water by Bucket Brigade

On New Years day, 1847, the first parish meeting house (Unitarian church), located on the Common, caught fire. The flames had gained much headway before the handtubs arrived.  The roads were in bad condition and "Veto," the Bradford East Parish engine, arrived at the fire too late to be of any service.


 The Haverhill handtubs were supplied water from the river by a bucket brigade made up of men, women, and children.  Despite their heroic efforts, they were unable to save the edifice, which had been erected only ten years earlier.  The fire caused twelve thousand dollars damage, including the loss of a fine organ and the town clock. The Haverhill firefighters thanked and complimented the Bradford company for responding so quickly to the alarm.  The handtub "Veto" and company were returned home to East Bradford on a horse sled by Haverhill’s Chief Engineer; Rufus Slocomb, they crossed the river on the ice at chain ferry, which was owned and operated at the time by George Mitchell, Sr. 

Later that year, the Stage street stables burned; the same method of obtaining water was used, with similar results.  This time, however, the flames were prevented from spreading to adjacent buildings. 

Bradford's "Franklin" Handtub 

In 1855, an independent engine company in West Bradford was formed. It purchased a new first-class handtub from the William Jeffers company In Pawtucket, Rhode Island, for $1200 and christened it the "Franklin."  The "Franklin" responded to its first alarm of fire on the morning of February 20, 1856. The fire, in Haverhill, involved a building and an adjoining stable on Fleet street. While Haverhill engines pumped water from the river, the "Franklin" connected to the town pump, opposite town hall, and played through Court street, saving the stable. See Table G  in the appendix for Bradford’s original list of Franklin engine company members.



 On the afternoon of August 7, 1860,  a serious fire totally destroyed many wooden buildings, and badly damaged or greatly endangered numerous others, in the Washington Square area.  It was the town of Haverhill’s most destructive fire since April 16, 1775.

 The fire started shortly after three o'clock in a barn owned by Oliver H. Roberts and his brother Stephen, in the rear of their homes on the corner of Washington and Essex streets.  The barn contained, among other things, more than ten tons of hay recently stored there.  The blaze was so intense that in minutes the barn was fully involved.  The fire,  fanned by high winds,  spread quickly in a westerly direction completely destroying another barn owned by Stephen Roberts and badly damaging Oliver Roberts' house on Washington street and Stephen Roberts' house on Essex street.  Firemen found it necessary to completely flood Stephen Roberts' house in order to extinguish the flames, causing extensive water damage.   

 The fire then spread to a small shop, then north to a one-and-a-half story house, both in the rear of Essex street and belonging to the Farnham Plummer estate.  It then spread to a large duplex house belonging to Mrs. S. Hale and J. J. Marsh, esq.All three buildings were totally destroyed. A house belonging to Charlotte Pettingell and William Goss,  on the easterly side of Essex street, was in imminent danger and was only saved because citizens passed water to the roof of the house by means of a ladder.   

The "Torrent" hand engine No.2,  usually housed at the Essex street fire station,  would have had the fastest response time due to the stations proximity to the fire area; unfortunately, the "Torrent was unable to respond because it was at the Hunneman & Company in Boston, being repaired and overhauled due to damage it had sustained in a Bradford fire four months earlier.  Those companies that did respond were the "G .W. Lee" handtub No.4 company, housed at the Court street fire station; the Zouave hook-and-ladder company, out of the Fleet street fire station; the "Tiger" double-deck handtub No.1 company, housed at the Water street fire station; and the "Franklin" handtub company, out of the Bradford station.

Haverhills first engine house was constructed on Water street in the summer of 1769 to house, the newly acquired  hand-tub, the Philadelphia.”  The new engine house was a small structure, just large enough to hold the hand-tub. It  remained in service until a more up-to-date station was built in 1842. 

In 1842, Mr. Paul Fletcher purchased the old engine house and moved it to a location, close by on Water street, opposite Mill street. Mr. Fletcher used it as a shoe shop in the days when shoes were hand-pegged. The engine house remained on this spot until the flood of 1936 when the Merrimack River overflowed and moved it some distance from its second  site.  Due to its historical value the Haverhill Historical Society acquired and razed the structure with the intention of rebuilding it on the Societys property. However, before the lumber of the razed structure could be removed, it was carried away in the flood of 1938.

Haverhill's Remedies to Fire Fighting Problems

In 1875, Haverhill had only sixteen hydrants in the entire city. The hydrants were often ineffective since they provided little or no water pressure. Since the rebuilding of Washington street and the construction of new wooden blocks and sheds in the rear of the stores on Merrimack Street, it was often impossible to set Haverhills steam fire engines at the river. 

What follows are some remedies that Haverhill, and its fire department, used to combat the aforementioned problems: 

(1) Fire patrols were instituted in the shoe district to keep fire loss in that area to an absolute minimum.

(2) As many as thirteen reservoirs were constructed in various strategic locations in Haverhill’s city proper. Four additional reservoirs were constructed in Bradford, three in Ayers Village, and two in Rocks Village.

(3) Existing reservoirs were made larger to increase their volume of water in needed areas.

(4) Arrangements were made with private parties owning the land that adjoined the river to provide accommoda­tions for setting Haverhill’s steam fire engines.

(5) Grading at Little River and Essex Street fire station landings allowed engines to be set at low water. 

(6) Additional gates and larger water mains were adopted to control and increase water pressure and Patent hydrants were installed at suitable locations.

(7) The board of engineers adopted a list of suggested locations to set engines taking more effective advan­tage of the water resources in the city.

(8) The introduction of the chemical engine to Haverhill’s complement of firefighting apparatus resulted in faster response time, decreased water damage, and afforded increased protection to citizens living far from water supplies. Chemical engines also required less men to operate them.  For these reasons a decision was made to supplement and finally replace hand engines with chemical engines at both Ayers Village and  Rocks Village.