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January 24, 2013

Great Portsmouth fire recalled in Athenaeum exhibit

The brick buildings that make the downtown areas of Newburyport and Portsmouth, N.H. so distinctive each have their origins in fire — catastrophic blazes that swept through each city two centuries ago.

Newburyport’s fire of 1811 was followed two years later by Portsmouth’s “great and distressing fire” of 1813, in which 272 buildings burned, most of them wooden.

The legacy of the Portsmouth fire — as well as two other conflagrations in 1802 and 1806 — is being explored at the Portsmouth Athenaeum in “Going to Blazes,” a free exhibit that opens Feb. 1 in the Randall Room.

“Why does the center of town look as if it were rebuilt at the same time? Basically, it was,” said Sandra Rux, who is co-curating the exhibit with Joyce Volk.

Volk said before 1840, fires were fought by individuals, not professionals. The focus was on saving the contents of a house and trying to stop the fire from spreading, she said.

“The first thing you’d do was empty the house,” she said. “Of course, not everything came back.”

Fire societies were formed to protect fire victims from thieves, Volk said. Members were unanimously elected.

“Members were taken to the houses of all the other members and shown where the valuables were kept,” Volk said. “Each one had to have two fire buckets, a big canvas bag to carry items in, and a bed wrench to take apart the four-posters, because the bed hangings were usually the most expensive items in a house. The society had one man stationed at the door; you had to give the password, so strangers couldn’t get in.”

At one time, there were six such societies in Portsmouth. Two survive and continue to meet — the Federal Fire Society, founded in 1789, and the Mechanic Fire Society, which dates to 1811.

“The fire societies were drinking and dining societies,” Rux said.

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