It might be difficult for the millions of tourists who flock every summer to Bar Harbor to envision, but 60 years ago, thousands of people were trapped in the downtown seaside resort, desperately trying to flee what resembled a bombed-out and blackened war zone.
The frightening event made newspaper headlines across the country and drew hundreds of soldiers, students and volunteers from throughout Maine to Mount Desert Island to help residents survive and recover.
In October 1947, a cataclysmic forest fire swept across 17,000 acres of eastern Mount Desert Island and permanently changed Bar Harbor. It leveled the grand hotels that catered to East Coast high society and destroyed seasonal mansions owned by the old, wealthy families of Boston, New York and Philadelphia.
The large hotels were replaced by smaller motels where tourists of more modest means now stay on average for a few nights. In neighboring Acadia National Park, the fire wiped out large swaths of red spruce and promoted the growth of the park’s now-familiar aspen and birch trees.
These changes notwithstanding, not all traces of the fire and what the town was like before it happened have disappeared. Some residents still have vivid memories of what they and their families went through as they reacted to and tried to escape from the monstrous blaze.
“It was a horrible sight,” Otter Creek resident Paul Richardson said last week, pointing out the window of his home to where the smoke and flames had come down the south ridge of Cadillac Mountain. “The wind kept shifting. God, it was crazy.”
Richardson, then 16 years old, was in class at the former Gilman High School in Northeast Harbor on Oct. 23, 1947, when the Mount Desert Fire Department was called to help with a fire in Bar Harbor that had spread out of control. Bar Harbor firefighters thought they had extinguished the blaze on Oct. 17, when it first was spotted in a dump near Northeast Creek on Crooked Road.
But it had not rained in Bar Harbor for 108 days. The blaze lingered in the peat and roots and then came back to life a few days later as winds intensified. How it first was started has never been determined.
“It burned underground, unfortunately, and the rest is history,” Deborah Dyer, curator of the Bar Harbor Historical Society, said last week. “It was a very dry summer, just like this one has been.”
Many regions across the state battled large and small fires during that dry 1947, including a 35,000-acre fire in Washington County that took more than 25 homes and camps, mostly in the Machias area, a couple of notable fires in central Maine, and several in the western part of the state, according to Bangor Daily News archives.
Richardson, 76, said that after the call came, he joined Mount Desert firefighters as they headed toward Hulls Cove to see whether they could keep the renewed fire from reaching the village there.
“Then the wind shifted and [the fire] went right toward Bar Harbor,” Richardson said.
Downwind from Bar Harbor lay Otter Creek, where Richardson’s home sat a few yards over the town line from Bar Harbor. He and others raced back to Otter Creek, driving through Northeast Harbor because Route 3 was cut off by the flames.
Florence Ames was 30 when the fire advanced toward town. She was working her usual overnight shift as a telephone operator in downtown Bar Harbor when the phone line kept ringing.
“People kept calling in. ‘Where’s the fire? Where’s the fire?’” Ames said, sitting in the living room of her home on Forest Street off Eagle Lake Road. Sixty years ago, she lived directly across the street, where the fire left behind only the charred cement foundation of her former home.
On the morning of Oct. 23, Ames had been home from work for only a few hours when her neighborhood had to be evacuated. She had been talking on the phone with her mother when the line went dead.
She, her husband, Fred Ames, and their three children grabbed a violin, a clarinet, and the bedding off two beds and headed to her sister’s house on Hancock Street to escape as the flames crossed Eagle Lake Road. Diplomas, the couple’s wedding certificate, photographs and other belongings they left behind were lost forever.
Later that evening, Ames heard that everyone in town was to go to the municipal pier, where they would be evacuated by water. The flames had cut off Route 3 to Hulls Cove, Eagle Lake Road, and had circled around Spring Street back to the highway south of town. The road to Otter Creek was blocked and The Jackson Laboratory was in flames.
Down at the pier, many people didn’t want to take their chances out on Frenchman Bay. The wind that had whipped the fire into an inferno also had turned the bay into a raging sea. People stood on the pier, looking at the smoke and then at the angry waves, trying to figure out which way to go.
“All these hotels started going up [in flames],” she said. “We didn’t know if we would have to go in the water.”
Some people got into whatever boats were available, but the evacuation went slowly, and others stayed on the pier, hoping roads would open up.
Eventually, Route 3 to Hulls Cove was reopened, Ames said, enabling everyone who was left at the pier to drive to safety. Along the route, members of the National Guard sprayed the convoy of cars with water to protect them from the intense roadside heat.
“It was red-hot coals on both sides of the road,” Ames said. “Everything was black. It was a disaster.”
In Otter Creek, Richardson and other volunteers ran hoses and water tanks up to the ridge in the woods behind the village and for several days held the flames at bay. The winds died down and the fire sputtered out before it reached the village, but it destroyed houses on the east side of the creek that gives the village its name.
Besides torching thousands of acres between the western shore of Eagle Lake and Crooked Road, the fire burned everything east of Cadillac Mountain, from The Jackson Lab to Otter Cliffs. It was not officially declared extinguished until Nov. 14, nearly a month after it first had started.
“That first night, it was horrible,” Richardson said. “It would drive you nuts trying to figure out which way it was going.”
According to Dyer, 67 seasonal mansions and 170 year-round homes were destroyed in the flames. But only a handful of people died during the fire, and none from its direct effects. Two died in an automobile accident, she said, and a couple more from natural causes such as heart attacks.
Residents, including the Ames family, built new homes in Bar Harbor, but the town would never be the same.
Grand hotels named DeGregoire, Malvern and Belmont had vanished in the fire. Many of the wealthy summer families whose seasonal estates offered employment to year-round residents never rebuilt or returned.
New places were built to help draw seasonal visitors back to Bar Harbor. Ocean Drive Motor Court, Wonderview Inn and Eden Brook Motel, which Dyer said were the first three lodging establishments built after the blaze, still stand today.
“That’s where the turning point for Bar Harbor was,” Dyer said. “There was no tax base [after the fire], so the town was commercialized.”
Bar Harbor Fire Chief David Rand, who grew up in Bangor, said that advances in firefighting technology, communications and training would make the response to such a blaze much different today. Fire departments didn’t have portable radios 60 years ago, and helicopters had not yet been adapted to help fight fires from the air. The 1947 blaze is the reason towns throughout Hancock County have mutual aid agreements with one another today, he said.
The chances of such a disaster happening again are low, according to the chief, but he is not one to tempt fate.
“You never say never,” Rand said.
Deborah Dyer, curator of the Bar Harbor Historical Society, will give a 35-minute talk and slide show about the 1947 fire when the Southwest Harbor Historical Society meets at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 16, at the American Legion Hall in Southwest Harbor.