Saturday, September 17, 2022

In Their Footsteps: Cape Cod History - The Great Hyannis Fire of 1904

    Natural disasters come in all forms. Hurricanes, tornadoes, blizzards, earthquakes, tsunamis, and more attack without remorse and change land and lives in their wake. Fires are sometimes natural disasters and sometimes man-made. They are no less devastating whatever their origin is.

    Cape Cod has seen its share of fires. There have been some terrible forest fires over the centuries. However what about fires that caused an overwhelming loss of property? One of the deadliest such fires occurred in the first decade of the 20th century and forever changed Downtown Hyannis. This is the story of Main Street’s great fire of 1904.

Looking west down Main Street before the fire. Everything on the right was basically wiped out.

    In the 2020s it’s hard to imagine that there was a time when Hyannis’ Main Street was anything but wall-to-wall shopping and restaurants. A century ago however it was dotted with residential homes as much as businesses. It has always been referred to by its ‘ends.’ The East End lies near the end of the railroad tracks and is close to Cape Cod Hospital, while the West End is today near a rotary and close to the Cape Cod Melody Tent.

    The Main Street area of Hyannis had actually seen a pair of large fires in the preceding years both in 1892 and again in 1894. What came in the early morning hours of December 2-3, 1904 topped both of them in terms of loss.

    The exact location and cause of the fire itself have never truly been established. However, it can be traced to one of two places. Although the fire could have begun at either L.P. Wilson’s grocery store or Walter Baker’s neighboring department store, both located near Center Street across from the railroad depot. It was Wilson who first was made aware of the blaze.

    Living above his store Wilson’s mother alerted him and his wife and two children just before midnight on September 2nd. They were all able to escape the fire in the nick of time with only the clothes on their backs. Wilson’s store was the easternmost location to be lost. Wilson’s mother thought the fire began next door in Baker’s building. However with the buildings all being built so close together, some as close as six feet, it will likely never be known where the actual ignition location was.

    Shortly after midnight on Saturday, December 3rd the alarm had been sounded for the fire department in the form of the bell atop the nearby Universalist Church. It is unknown just how long the flames had been roaring before being brought to anyone’s attention. Wilson’s Hyannis Public Market and Walter Baker’s Department Store were the first structures to go, but they weren’t the last.

    Strong northeast winds coupled with the wooden buildings being so closely packed together meant that the fire spread easily. The flames were essentially blown right down Main Street. Luckily many of the buildings in the path of the flames had items removed by volunteers before the flames could reach them. This included stock from some of the businesses. The Hyannis Fire Department got five pieces of apparatus together but it was no match for the growing fire. Calls were made to other local departments with firefighters from as far away as Middleborough, Provincetown, and Brockton making their way to help. In an extreme act of bravery, a man from the Telephone Exchange Co. was atop a nearby telephone pole sending messages for help as long as he was safe.

    The fire ate through more than 600 feet of Main Street real estate. The exclamation point in the carnage came at just after 3am when the steeple of the Universalist Church came toppling to the ground. A perimeter was set up using wet rugs and blankets on and around buildings that were just out of the fire’s reach. Eventually, the strong northeast winds died down, and by 4am the fire had been contained.

    Heading west along Main Street the following businesses were totally destroyed by the fire: The Universalist Church, post office, Richardson Bros. Photographers, William P. Bearse & Co. who sold meats and provisions, P. F. Campbell & Co. who were tailors, Singer Sewing Machine Co., Charles W Megathlin’s pharmacy, A. P. and E. L. Eagleston’s department store, New England Telephone Exchange, Julia Stevens dressmaker, James E. Baxter boots/shoes, Thomas Nickerson’s marble, and granite works, and finally A. B. Nye & Co.’s paint store.

Postcard of the fire's aftermath, taken by Walter Baker whose department store was destroyed.

    When all was said and done fifteen buildings had been destroyed. Conservative estimates had the damage somewhere in the neighborhood of $150,000($5 million in 2022). For A. B. Nye it was the third time that his paint store had burned down in twelve years. Only once had the fire started on Nye’s property. Sadly sixty-nine-year-old retired sea captain William Penn Lewis died of a heart attack while in the process of saving his house from the fire. As day broke on that Saturday morning all that was left was carnage. Nearly ten acres of property, retail and residential, government and worship, all lay in ruins.

    With the perseverance of a bygone generation, those Hyannis residents who lost their homes or businesses did not stay down for long. In fact, the post office was quickly moved into the home of Mrs. E. C. Benson. Thanks to the determination of Postmaster Percy Goss it was delivering its first shipment of mail by 7:30 that same morning. Most of the businesses quickly set up temporary locations in and around the charred remains of their establishments. Insurance adjusters came later in the day on Saturday, and by the end of the day, plans were already being made for rebuilding Main Street.

Main Street as it appears today. (Google Maps)

    By April 1905 nearly all of the lost buildings had been rebuilt, most of them in the same locations where they previously stood. Today there is little to no reminder of the devastating fire that changed the face of Main Street Hyannis. The ‘new’ buildings are all now nearly 120 years old themselves. They have seen generations of change on Cape Cod and in the world. The solitary reminder in plain sight is a historic marker at the intersection with Ocean Street. It was roughly where the fire was stopped and shows a photo of the aftermath of the blaze.


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