1933 Fire that Ravaged Maine Town Remembered

May 16, 2013
By the time it was under control six hours later, 249 buildings were destroyed.

May 16--AUBURN -- Linda Gross was quick to point out that the famous 1933 New Auburn conflagration didn't start in a parking lot where everyone gathered Wednesday but back under the building constructed by her grandfather, Arthur Pontbriand.

"My father was only 16 years old when it happened," Gross said. "All I know is what my father and my uncles have said over the years. And they said it was a scary thing."

Gross, a New Auburn resident, was among the group that gathered alongside Mill Street in New Auburn to mark the fire's 80th anniversary.

According to accounts at the time, the fire was started by an 11-year-old boy in a car repair shop behind a Mill Street gasoline station just after lunchtime on May 15, 1933. The exact spot currently is in a back room of a pawnshop in the Pontbriand Building, Gross said.

After the fire leveled the Mill Street buildings, it spread quickly to the rest of the city. By the time it was under control six hours later, 249 buildings were destroyed along a 600-foot tract from Pulsifer Street half a mile southeast, almost to Loring Street. It destroyed 125 tenements, leaving 422 families and 2,167 individuals homeless.

Gross' grandfather built the Pontbriand Building that stands today, as well as the building next door, home to Happy Days Diner. That's where city officials and New Auburn residents gathered Wednesday.

Auburn fire Chief Frank Roma said the fire not only changed the face of the city, it helped shape fire codes and building ordinances.

"The area was a classic for a conflagration -- low humidity, high winds, warm weather, debris, wooden buildings with cedar-shake roofs," Roma said. "Much of what happened here in Auburn has actually gone into the fire codes that has made the United States a better place to live. We learn lessons from these disasters."

Roma and Mayor Jonathan LaBonte took the opportunity to applaud the city's firefighters, past and present.

"I'll venture to say that while the firefighters of that time were just completely overwhelmed, they were no less diligent in their duties in attempting to bring this fire under control," Roma said. "I would also say that the community probably lent a hand. Neighbors helped neighbors remove equipment and possessions. They helped firefighters stretch hose lines and in some cases may have helped operate hose lines, trying to cut off the spread of the fire."

LaBonte unveiled a simple sign that will be placed along Mill Street, marking the location of the fire's start. He said a bigger effort is under way to create a permanent memorial for Auburn firefighters, especially for those who died in service. LaBonte said he hoped the memorial would be placed along the river in New Auburn.

He and local historians are trying to document the area's history, he said. He's especially interested in finding photographs of New Auburn before the fire.

"We really don't have any, and no way to really show what we lost," LaBonte said. "But I'm sure somewhere, in some longtime Auburn family's closet, there is a shoebox there with old photos that we'd like to see."

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Copyright 2013 - Sun Journal, Lewiston, Maine

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