This week in Block Island’s history, April 9, 1925; When Old Harbor burned to the ground — almost
This week in history 87 years ago, on April 9, 1925, the Block Island Fire Department was formed. Unbeknownst to the volunteer firemen at the time, this remarkable piece of preventative medicine changed — or rather protected from change — Block Island for centuries to come.
No one now could imagine waking up one morning and finding every building in Old Harbor missing, from Dodge Street to Spring Street, but that is what the islanders in the mid-1920s feared.
The warning had come two decades earlier, in 1902, when a swath of Water Street near the Surf Hotel burned to the ground, taking the original National Hotel, the nearby Narragansett Hotel, the U.S. Weather Bureau, and a few shops.
One eyewitness of the midnight conflagration that August night wrote the next day:
“The sight was almost pitiful, for one good stream from an ordinary city fire department hose would have made short work of the fire, while the puny stream from the only available hose was totally ineffectual.
“The guests of the hotel had become thoroughly alarmed and had all betaken themselves and their belongings to other hotels. At last, with a triumphant leap, the flames embraced one end of the National and it was at once evident that the struggle of the fire fighters had simply postponed the inevitable. It was a most spectacular sight as the flames now circled lovingly about the wood work and piazza. In less than an hour, the entire building was a heap of glowing ruins.”
In the middle of that night, islanders, hotel guests and other visitors formed a bucket brigade from the harbor, up the embankment, across Water Street and ascending four stories to the roof of the National, trying to save the hotel. But the beautiful building, built in 1888 with a double-decker front porch, was lost.
If that wasn’t enough tragedy, the Baptist Church at the old Center burned completely in 1909, the magnificent Hygeia Hotel was turned to ashes and just a stone foundation in 1916, and in 1923 the very heart of the island — the building at the Center that housed the town hall, the high school, and the town library — disappeared overnight, in a Halloween evening blaze, as though in a bad Hollywood horror movie.
The ocean might as well have been dry around the island, and the ponds too, for Block Islanders were essentially powerless to stop fires.
On April 9, 1925, the Block Island Fire Department was formed when the men of the island — most veterans of World War I — met at the Masonic Hall on High Street, now the Health and General Store, and voted to create the Block Island Volunteer Fire Company.
The original officers were chairman Lester Littlefield; chief R. Adelbert Negus; assistant chief William P. Lewis; treasurer Leslie H. Dodge; and secretary George G. Sheffield.
For headquarters they used a long, new building built behind Water Street, where a new fire engine pumper was kept. That is where Aldo’s bakery has been for the past four decades, growing in size to become a restaurant and ice cream shop, as well.
The effort in 1925 was headed by R. Adelbert (“Del”) Negus, owner of the Star Department Store on Water Street, and the head of the town council from 1928 until his death in 1936. In 1970, the present-day fire station was built near New Harbor, and a few years later the land behind it was landscaped and named Negus Park in Del’s honor — that’s were the farmers market is held on Saturdays now during the summer.
On November 2, 1925, a housewarming party was held in the fire department’s new quarters at Old Harbor.
Just in time.
Two months later, in early January 1926, the town would have burned — every building from the present-day Gables II on Dodge Street, which housed the telephone office in 1926, all along the several hundred feet of solidly packed buildings on Water Street to the Manisses Hotel on Spring Street. All gone.
The salvation of the island — and of the part of it we cherish today as a National Historic District — is best told by another eyewitness, who wrote on January 9, 1926:
"A fire that for a time threatened to wipe out the entire hotel and business district at the Old Harbor ushered in the New Year at Block Island, and had it not been for the excellent and courageous work of the local fire department, assisted by citizen volunteers, it would have accomplished its task.
"The fire was discovered about 8:45 Friday night breaking through the roof of the barn on the New National Hotel property, directly in the southwest corner, and was being fanned by a 40 mile southwest wind.
"Within a few minutes the new motor pumper and truck were driven on to the beach in front of the Post Office [the Phelan family’s store in 2012], and nearly a thousand feet of hose laid to the seat of the blaze. By this time the huge sparks were alighting on the roof of the New National Hotel and several large holes burning briskly.
“A volunteer crew mounted the roof and with wet brooms and pails managed to extinguish the fires nearly as soon as they were ignited. In the meantime a six-car garage nearly adjoining the barn was a mass of fire and the pumper was pouring 400 gallons of saltwater a minute into the roaring flames.
“So effectually did the pumper perform and the fire fighters work that in spite of the prevailing high wind, only the New National barn and garage were destroyed.
“Had it not been for the fire truck, it is a forgone conclusion that the entire Harbor district would have been totally destroyed, as shortly after the fire was under control the wind shifted to northwest, leaving the entire village directly to the leeward of the flames.”
Even so, in 1944 just before Christmas, the magnificent Baptist Church on Chapel Street burned to the ground in the night, although buildings as far away as High Street were saved from flying sparks. And in 1966, the island was utterly impotent to stop the gargantuan Ocean View Hotel, all 350 feet of it, from burning to its stone foundation on the afternoon of July 6.
With a new revitalization, the present-day fire station at the corner of Beach Avenue and Ocean Avenue was built, and then expanded in recent years. And an aerial ladder truck was purchased in time to save the Eureka Hotel from burning to the ground in a major fire in 1982. Back packs with air canisters, coupled with serious training, gave volunteers new capabilities to enter burning structures.