The Great Kennebunk Fire of 1903

Kennebunk 1903 Fire Whitcomb

In the wee hours of May 3, 1903 the town fire alarm startled the people of Kennebunk awake. The immense shoe factory at the Mousam River bridge was ablaze. James Day, the night watchman, had extinguished a small shaft machinery fire at the factory around midnight but shortly after 2 am he and Officer George Wentworth were eating their lunch in the boiler room when they heard a crackling sound coming from the same part of the building. This time the flames were out of control. The fire alarm was sounded at once. The Kennebunk fire company was unable to stop the fire and companies from West Kennebunk and Biddeford were called. Portland eventually sent their steamer by rail but it did not arrive in time to help get the fire was under control.  The town of Kennebunk had no insurance on the factory building and the electric light plant, which were valued at $35,000. Rice & Hutchins, the former tenants of the building, had shut off the water to save money. The town authorities who had taken over responsibility for the factory had not yet had it turned back on. Had the water been on the fire could have been isolated to the factory but as it was the flames spread and eventually destroyed many buildings at that intersection. The fire had consumed the largest employer in town and the light plant along with other businesses listed below the photo. No lives were lost but the impact on the economy of Kennebunk was significant.  Byron J. Whitcomb, a photographer who had recently set up shop in Kennebunk, was at the scene of the fire and artfully captured the devastation with his camera.  The drama of those photographs would ensure his reputation in Kennebunk as a gifted photographer.   He also offered portraits of a cat that had miraculously survived the blaze who became a symbol of hope for the future of Kennebunk. Sales of the views were brisk.