By Joe Callahan
Special to The Daily News
---- — 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.
The Newburyport engine pumped water from the creek near what is now the entrance to the state reservation. A long line of hose was laid into the south end of the beach. This water supply along with the efforts of dozens of volunteers who manned bucket brigades and shoveled sand onto structures as they ignited finally stopped the spread of the fire southward.
However, this was not to be the end of the destruction. The northeast wind had stopped and a good breeze from the south suddenly came up. Back at the area of the fire’s origin, the ruins of the Cushing and other large buildings were still burning unattended. The southerly winds then started blowing embers from these structures to the north and before long several cottages were ablaze and all the fire equipment and manpower were a great distance away at the south end.
The area to the north was heavily congested with cottages and it was determined that the only means of stopping the northerly spread was to use dynamite.
A contractor from Newburyport arrived with the dynamite and after many more cottages were lost, several were leveled by using the dynamite, thus ending the advancing flames.
As the time Salisbury had a handtub and a small chemical wagon for fire protection at the beach and another chemical wagon and a ladder truck uptown. All were useless in a fire of this magnitude. As for the water supply, it really was only a few years ago when the beach was provided with water supply adequate for firefighting.
Because of the distance they had to travel, it took much more time for help to arrive from Haverhill and Portsmouth. Haverhill sent a steam engine and Portsmouth sent an auto chemical truck, which was the first motorized fire apparatus ever used in Salisbury.
Beside the Cushing, the other well-known hotels, almost all on the ocean front and destroyed, were the 50-room Atlantic House, The Ocean View, Castle Mona, Newark House and the Leighton House, which was said to be the prettiest on the beach.
Remarkably, only one person was reported injured in the fire — an Amesbury man who jumped from the third floor of a hotel to escape the flames.
The fire provided an unexpected financial boom to the trolley companies as thousands of people from the Merrimack Valley and beyond descended upon the beach in the days following the fire to view the destruction.
The Great Fire of 1913 was not the first to devastate Salisbury Beach — the fire of 1908 destroyed 64 buildings. Nor was it the last — a 1920 fire destroyed the landmark Ocean Echo building, and fires in 1947 and 1948 consumed about 40 buildings in total.
But the 1913 fire was remarkable in the amount of destruction it wrought, particularly to the beach center. In the years to come, Salisbury Beach would be rebuilt, but its core commercial area would never look the same.
Joe Callahan is a former Newburyport firefighter and a Salisbury resident. His columns on local history appear monthly in The Daily News.