SALISBURY BEACH — One hundred years ago today, the face of Salisbury Beach changed forever.
The most devastating fire the beach has ever seen destroyed over 125 buildings, including all of the high-valued business structures at the center. In the end, water alone was no longer capable of stopping the out-of-control fire. Firefighters turned to dynamite to destroy buildings and create a fire break that finally halted the destruction.
Salisbury Beach at the time was a wildly popular amusement and vacation destination, populated by several hotels and hundreds of cottages. The beachfront was a major attraction for immigrants and workers in the Merrimack Valley, who used a thriving trolley service to get them to the beach.
The fire started shortly before 4 in afternoon as a result of a kerosene lamp being overturned and igniting chemicals in the photography studio of Arthur Williams at the rear of the Cushing Hotel located on the north side of what is now called Broadway. Fanned by a northeast wind, the fire quickly spread to the 100-room, three-story Cushing. Sparks from the blazing hotel soon ignited several two- and three-story structures across the street. These buildings housed a dance hall, bowling alley, a roller skating rink, a hotel and the “Spiral Thriller” roller coaster.
Because of a poor water supply system and the lack of an adequately organized and equipped fire department, the fire continued south for well over a quarter of a mile, consuming everything in its path. Several fine oceanfront hotels were lost. The Bijou Theater, all of the restaurants, mostly all of the amusements, the only drugstore and several small grocery stores fell victims to the flames, as did numerous concession stands and over 100 cottages.
Calls for assistance were sent out to Newburyport, Haverhill and Portsmouth. Newburyport responded with a steam engine pulled by four horses and a horse-drawn hose wagon. Coast Guard lifesaving crews stationed at Salisbury Beach and Newburyport were also credited with providing crucial aid to the firefighting efforts.