South Berwick Volunteer Fire Fighters
c. 1870 – Engine House – 30 Portland Street
This house is part of the South Berwick Village District on the National Register of Historic Places. In July, 1870, a devastating fire swept Main Street, South Berwick, and destroyed a row of wooden stores where the brick business block now stands. The town then built a new firehouse for better protection, as shown on an 1872 map (excerpt at right). This building was the fire station for about 50 years.
In the last decades of the 19th century, South Berwick was protected by its 50-member Piscataqua Fire Engine Company and 40-member King Engine Company. Members were compensated for their service through abatement of their poll taxes. In the 1880s a third company was added. In 1891 the entire town was divided into three forest fire districts, each with a warden, to protect outlying areas as well as the village.
For a time, a cistern was maintained as a water source right in Central Square. In 1894 the first fire hydrants were connected to town water pipes running through the village area. A Sanborn's Insurance map of 1913 indicates 4-inch water pipes running under the village streets, an 18,000 gallon cistern under Portland Street near the fire house and a 15,000 gallon cistern underneath the front lawn of St. Michael's Convent (the old Frost/Paul Hotel) on Main at Paul Street.
In 1896 South Berwick installed a steam fire alarm. Firefighters were paid $5 per year. Hose Company No. 1 was formed, complete with its own bylaws spelling out rules of procedure and gentlemanly conduct. In 1900, the town spent $500 to purchase 1,000 feet of rubber-lined linen fire hose, according to town reports.
As the modern era began, the arrival of electrification brought advantages but also new hazards. In 1893, for example, a blaze destroyed the beautiful Academy Street estate of the late Congressman and woolen mill owner, Capt. John Holmes Burleigh.
By 1913, the fire department complex included five or six buildings to house all the equipment.
One of South Berwick’s fire trucks from the 1800s has survived to modern times. It can be seen today at the South Berwick Community Center.
-- written by Wendy Pirsig from South Berwick town reports and other Old Berwick Historical Society archives. (Revised November 2020.)