The Great Fire of 1888

A walk behind Cumberland Farms on Elm Street brings you to a different time and place. Rising out of Oakland Street like a monolith, the Biddle and Smart Automobile factory is a reminder of what was once Amesbury’s industrial heart. And while this building has seen tenets as recent as 2015, its brick skeleton is a haunting but fascinating reminder of the workers who made up Amesbury’s working class.

According to the Massachusetts Cultural Resource Information System (MACRIS), the history of the Biddle and Smart building is colorful:Screen Shot 2017-03-29 at 10.17.17 AM

A street view of the area:

Lining the area between Washington Street and Marston Street are remnants of other factories that made up Amesbury’s economic hub, “Carriage Hill.”  It was this bustling center of industry that fell victim to a massive fire on April 5th 1888. The Biddle and Smart factory was spared but 24 other factories were damaged, some without insurance.

Joe Callahan, former Salisbury fire chief, wrote this about the Great Fire in an article for the Daily News:

“The first, known as the Carriage Hill fire, occurred on April 5, 1888. About 8:45 p.m., the night watchman at the F.A. Babcock Carriage Company on Chestnut Street discovered a fire in the company’s five-story brick building. He quickly gave the alarm, but before the arrival of the fire department, the fire had gained such headway that it had spread through all five floors and soon was engulfing the company’s other four buildings.

It then began to spread to other factories. The Lambert Hollander Company lost two buildings, next came the three buildings of the M. N. Dennett Company, then four buildings of the John H. Clark Company; its adjacent neighbors, the Hume Carriage Company and C. M. Dennett Carriage Company, then lost three buildings each. A building owned by Shields and Walker was destroyed and it contained 500 finished carriages ready for shipping.

The fire occurred at the worst possible time of the year for the carriage makers. Most of the affected companies had floors and floors of finished carriages ready for the spring season, which was the busiest time of year for sales. All the companies lost their machinery, tools, stock and records. The only mutual aid called was Newburyport, which sent a steam fire engine and a hose wagon. Cause of the fire was undetermined. According to a 1972 news article, most of the companies were back in business in a year.”

Today you can walk among the buildings of Carriage Hill and see where many made their living in Amesbury. These photos were taken several months ago, juxtaposing what this complex looked like in the late 19th century. As you can see not much has changed:

You can even take a peak inside – – in 2015 someone bought what was once the Biddle and Smart factory and posted a YouTube video of their findings. You can view it below:








In honor of this fantastic blizzard, this excerpt from John Greenleaf Whittier’s 1865 idyl, Snowbound, seems appropriate:
Shut in from all the world without,
We sat the clean-winged hearth about,
Content to let the north-wind roar
In baffled rage at pane and door,
While the red logs before us beat
The frost-line back with tropic heat;
And ever, when a louder blast
Shook beam and rafter as it passed,
The merrier up its roaring draught
The great throat of the chimney laughed;
The house-dog on his paws outspread
Laid to the fire his drowsy head,
The cat’s dark silhouette on the wall
A couchant tiger’s seemed to fall;
And, for the winter fireside meet,
Between the andirons’ straddling feet,
The mug of cider simmered slow,
The apples sputtered in a row,
And, close at hand, the basket stood
With nuts from brown October’s wood.