Town's Biggest Fire

By
Doug Maine
July 2005

It is was early on a Friday night, May
20, 1955, and Gerard Stewart was dressed up and on his way to a greater
Hartford Jaycees function when horns sounded, summoning volunteer firefighters.

           

In the days before volunteer firefighters
had radios or beepers, Mr. Stewart, a member of Wethersfield Fire Department
for several years, knew from the number of horn blasts the approximate location
of the blaze.

           

Heading north from Brimfield road,
where he lived at the time, “you didn’t have to go very far when you saw the
smoke in the air,” he said.

           

The fire at the Wethersfield Lumber
Co. at Jordan Lane and the Silas Deane Highway, would turn out to be the
biggest in the town’s history.

           

The next day the lumberyard fire was
at the top of the front pages of both Hartford’s daily newspapers, the morning
Courant and the afternoon Times.

           

“Fire burned the heart out of New
England’s biggest lumberyard last night,” began the story by Ralph Minard of
the Hartford Times.

           

Town's Biggest Fire_1955 fire whs-thumb-320x247-598.jpg“Feeding on 20-foot high piles of
valuable hardwoods as well as pine and hemlock, the blaze engulfed the
Wethersfield Lumber Company yard on Jordan Lane near the Silas Deane Highway,
south of the Hartford town line.

           

“In less than three hours it
destroyed the two-story brick mill building, devoured several acres of stacked
lumber, ate into storage sheds and charred five old trucks used for yard
work.  Company officials and firemen were
unable to say how the fire started.

           

“Damage was estimated between
$400,000 and $500,000.  Insurance
coverage on buildings and contents was placed at from $250,000 to $300,000.

           

“Thousands of Wethersfield residents
forgot about supper to watch the seething flames soar 60 feet into the air,”
according to the Times.

           

The Courant reported that the fire
drew a crowd that peaked at about 10,000 people, with police from surrounding
towns helping Wethersfield Police in detouring traffic around the scene and
keeping the crowd from getting too close.

           

Discovered by watchman

           

According to the Times, a watchman,
John P. Redman, noticed a wisp of flame and some smoke at 6:45 p.m., as he was
looking up at the sawdust separator on top of the mill building, which was
located in the southeast corner of the lumber company property.

           

Inside the mill building was a kiln
big enough to hold a flatcar load of green lumber for drying, a planer and
other heavy machinery, including matchers for tongue and groove work and band
saws, as well as a cabinet shop and a trim department, the newspaper said.

           

“Within two hours the mill building
was a roofless giant barbecue pit into which were tumbled sheet steel sawdust
separators, bricks from the collapsed west wall, pipes, glowing beams and
heat-twisted machinery.” The Times reported.

           

Fortunately the company’s 40 or so
employees had already left for the day.

           

A 200-gallon fuel tank exploded
early on, but a 5,000 -gallon tank buried under the mill building did not
ignite.  Still there was plenty to keep
the fire going.

           

“They had a lot of dried wood that
would be used for furniture making,” Mr. Stewart said.

           

With the fire feeding on stacks of
aerated lumber, it would take Wethersfield firefighters three hours and the
assistance of several other fire departments to finally bring the blaze under
control.

           

The town had two fire companies at
the time.  For each company, “I think our
quota at the time was 25 members,” Mr. Stewart said, so the department had a
total of 50 members and some people were bound to have been unavailable.

           

“First of all, when the fire was so
hot, you couldn’t get near it,” he said, recalling that the suit he was wearing
was ruined.

          

“We really couldn’t knock it
down.  Hartford came up with an aerial
ladder.  The flames were leaping up 100
feet or so,” Mr. Stewart said.  With the
city’s ladder truck it became possible to wet everything from the top down and
stem the spread of the fire.

           

“When the fire finally knocked down,
you could walk through the yard with your boots.  There was an awful of water; it was
knee-high,” he said.

           

“Lugging that hose and dredging
through the water was certainly a lot of work.” Mr. Stewart said.  Firefighters had to drag lines from hydrants
as far away as Hartford Avenue.

           

Sections of wire fencing were cut
away so that they could bring lines into the lumberyard, the Times said.

           

Besides Hartford, firefighters from
Rocky Hill, Newington, Bloomfield, South Windsor, Cromwell and the Westfield
section of Middletown also assisted.

           

Members of the Poquonock Fire
Department brought a 3,300 -gallon water tanker down from Windsor,

           

“Scores of firemen swarmed over
(stacks of lumber) and between storage sheds in an effort to stop the fire
before it swept the north end of the yard. 
Then efforts were hampered by a light wind which kept the blaze shifting
into new (stacks).  It was close to 10
p.m. before fire officials, led by Wethersfield Fire Chief John F. McCue and
Hartford Assistant Chief Thomas F. Lee called the blaze under control,” the
Times reported.

           

The paper reported that out-of-town
fire companies left the scene at about daybreak on Saturday, while local
firefighters continued to spray water on burning embers.

           

In the Times, Chief McCue praised
firefighters from all towns for successfully preventing a total loss.

           

“The men did a very good job
considering the speed with which the blaze spread and the long distances we had
to drag hose by hand,” he said.

           

William J. Kirby, the state civil
defense fire coordinator, said, “I’m amazed that firemen could stop the blaze
at all, with the intense heat radiation we had here.”

     

Drawing a Crowd

      

Given the intensity of the fire and the
attention it attracted, keeping onlookers at a safe distance was a continuing
concern.

     

Then, as now, high-voltage power lines
ran alongside the railroad tracks on the east side of the property.  A lot of people were standing along the
tracks, Mr. Stewart said.

     

“I know the fire department tried to call
the power company but they chose not to shut it off,” he said.

     

According to the Hartford Times the
Hartford Electric Light Co. did shut off power to the lumber yard and
eventually shut off electricity in the high-voltage lines, where two lines
melted, causing them to snap loose and wooden utility poles caught fire.

     

The fire trucks on the Silas Deane
Highway and those watching from the west side of the highway were far enough
away to be safe, Mr. Stewart said.  There
was a lot of room for people across the Silas Deane, where the Hughes Brothers
garage was one of the only buildings between Jordan lane and Cumberland Avenue.

     

A police sound truck was used to keep
onlookers off the highway and later, to instruct motorists on the nearby Wilbur
Cross parkway to keep moving, the Times said.

     

Three brothers, Louis, David and Max
Mitnick, who operated the lumberyard, pledged to rebuild.  They told the Times that it was the largest
in New England in terms of the volume of lumber processed annually.

     

According to the Times, the Wethersfield
Lumber Co. had provided lumber and millwork for hundreds of homes in the area
for 20 years.  A related firm, the
Eastern Lumber Co., was a major supplier of hardwoods to furniture makers.

    

“I heard on some newscast later, (one of
the owners) had the audacity to say with a little bit of water they could have
put it out,” Mr. Stewart said.

     

But firefighters had little choice but to
soak the site and let the fire burn itself out.

     

The lumberyard continued to operate until
1961, when the property was sold to a shopping center developer.  A Motts Supermarket opened one portion of the
site in July 1962; another major tenant, a W.T. Grant department store opened
in April 1963.  The plaza is now anchored
by the Price Rite supermarket.

Reprinted with permission from Wethersfield Life. 


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