The history of Portland’s destruction and rebirth, in pictures

Maine’s largest city has burned down quite a bit.

Fire has even been inspiration for those of you entering our Portland flag contest. Many design submissions have featured a phoenix, which is a mythological bird that rose from its ashes to live again. 

The phoenix is a pretty apt symbol for a city that has continually remade itself after fire. So we went looking for pictures of the former iterations of Portland — the city that kept rising from the ashes.

Fire destroyed the Merchant's Exchange building on the night of Jan. 8, 1854. This view is from a daguerreotype in the collection of the Maine Historical Society. (Courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress)

Fire destroyed the Merchant’s Exchange building on the night of Jan. 8, 1854. This view comes from a daguerreotype in the collection of the Maine Historical Society. (Courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress)

You’ve probably heard of the July 4, 1866 fire — apparently started by fireworks and dry temperatures. It began on the waterfront and burned through the area where most people lived and worked, destroying 1,500 buildings and leaving 10,000 people homeless.

People described it as the worst fire of its kind in an American city up to that point.

Portland installed a fire alarm signal system in 1867, to prevent a similar tragedy from happening again. And the mayor in 1868 signed a contract to pipe in water from Sebago Lake to increase the city’s water supply, according to the Maine Historical Society.

Portland is shown in ruins after the fire of July 4, 1866. (Courtesy of U.S. Library of Congress)

Portland is shown in ruins after the fire of July 4, 1866. (Courtesy of U.S. Library of Congress)

Portlanders were kind to others who lost everything to fire. Here, they held a benefit for a man who lost everything in a Bangor fire. (Courtesy of U.S. Library of Congress)

Portlanders were kind to others who lost everything to fire. Here, they held a benefit for a man who lost everything in a Bangor fire. (Courtesy of U.S. Library of Congress)

This map of Portland for 1876 shows the city rebuilt and flush with homes. If you click on the map, you can zoom in to see the railroad tracks, street names and other details. (Courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress)

This map of Portland in 1876 shows the city rebuilt and filled with homes. If you click on the map, you can zoom in to see the railroad tracks, street names and other details. (Courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress)

But extra water doesn’t matter if the fire alarm doesn’t work.

Portland City Hall on Congress Street, which burned in the 1866 fire, was equally unlucky again, in 1908. That year, historians believe a fire started in the electrical wiring in the fire alarm room, located on the third floor of the building.

Unfortunately the fire destroyed the city’s fire alarm, meaning the firefighters at the station right across the street didn’t know about the fire until it was too late.

Here is city hall before the fire, in 1904:

Portland City Hall in 1904. (Courtesy of U.S. Library of Congress)

Portland City Hall in 1904. (Courtesy of U.S. Library of Congress)

And here it is after the fire, sometime between 1910 and 1920:

The Portland City Hall pictured sometime between 1910 and 1920. (Courtesy of U.S. Library of Congress)

The Portland City Hall pictured sometime between 1910 and 1920. (Courtesy of U.S. Library of Congress)

The area we know as Portland today was also destroyed during King Philip’s War in 1676 and again in 1775 by the British.