The Bald Head Cliff house burned twice. Both conflagrations occurred during years of rampant fires in southern Maine.
The year 1887 was one of catastrophic fire losses. On April 16, half of Kennebunkport’s business district was consumed.
The fire started in the riverfront skating rink owned by George F. Wilson of Lawrence, Mass. Once a popular attraction, the business had been closed for lack of patronage. A suspicious character was spotted running away shortly after the flames were discovered. The rink burned with alarming rapidity leading authorities to conclude that “combustibles” had been used. Within moments the fire was raging out of control. It destroyed 14 buildings, including the rink, The Spring Hotel and the fire house. Less than a month later the Great Plains of Kennebunk also burned under suspicious circumstances.
On June 22, 1887, the Biddeford Journal reported another devastating fire:
“Last night fire broke out in the large summer hotel known as Bald Head Cliff House and as no adequate means were at hand to check it, the entire structure, with most of its contents, was destroyed. The house was being put into readiness for the summer business, the day for its opening having been set for June 27. Two persons who slept there had a narrow escape from the flames.
“The Cliff House is located on Cape Neddick, in the town of York about two miles from Ogunquit village and was conducted by Mr. Theodore Weare. The house would accommodate one hundred guests. Total loss estimated at about $10,000. The insurance is said to be $7,000 on the house.”
A week later the village of Ogunquit suffered a fire of undetermined origin that was described as its biggest one to date.
The Weare family began rebuilding the Cliff House immediately. By October the frame was up, thanks to the able carpentry of Henry Perkins and it was predicted that the new building would be ready for plastering by Christmas.
When the hotel re-opened in 1888, Edward T. Weare had taken the management over from his father Theodore and his mother Elsie Jane. His advertisements in the Boston and New York papers boasted that the hotel had all new furnishings.
Another change occurred under Edward’s direction that elicited mixed reactions. The road to Bald Head Cliff was closed to the public and a fee was charged for viewing the natural wonder, to all but paying guests of the hotel. Today the grounds of many hotels are open only to their guests, but at the time this kind of exclusivity was unprecedented and it did not escape the notice of watering place reviewers sent by big city newspapers.
Nathan Haskell Dole, reporter for John Wanamaker’s Philadelphia publication, Book News, editorialized in 1892 that the Cliff House was being “run on queer parallel lines of democracy and exclusion. Casual visitors seeking it are required to pay a fee for admission to the grounds, and are by no means allowed to penetrate up to the second story, nor can they get anything to drink or even cigars. The regular guests — and some of them have been visitors for eighteen or twenty years — are kindly permitted to take care of their own rooms if they like, and there is an old-fashioned simplicity about the place which is exceedingly attractive.”
Though the beautiful hotel was known to many, Porter Sargent, author of A Handbook of New England, expressed bitterness about the fee that took on a punitive tone. He wrote, “Bald Head Cliff, with its treeless moor and rather ugly hotel, is reached by a private road, for the use of which a fee is demanded.” Edward Weare’s brother, Charles continued the fee policy when he became proprietor.
The Cliff House burned again on Jan. 30, 1898. On the same night, just a few miles away and a few hours earlier, the Ocean Bluff Hotel in Kennebunkport was burned to the ground in what was determined to be an incendiary fire. Later that year two Kennebunk Beach hotels, The Ridgewood and The Oaks, were destroyed by fire. The Ocean Bluff Hotel was never rebuilt though The Breakwater Court, later known as The Colony Hotel, was built at the same location 16 years later.
The Cliff House rose from the ashes yet again and to this day, loyal hotel guests are rewarded with the beauty and serenity of a private Bald Head Cliff.