DerryNews.com, Derry, New Hampshire

October 25, 2012

Column: On a bitterly cold night, fire took Derry’s Adams Building

Rick Holmes
Derry News

---- — One of the most attractive buildings in Derry is Broadway’s stately Adams Memorial Building. It was build in 1904 with funds from a $10,000 bequest from lumber mill owner Benjamin Adams. The building-designed by architect George Adams (no relation) is intended to impress and was the visible symbol of the town’s growing industrial prosperity. Derry, in 1904, was a town on the make. It deserved a proper town hall and opera house.

Originally, its first floor held all the town offices, the court room, and the library. The basement was home to the Police Department and the town’s jail. It also had a school room to help relieve the overcrowding in the West Derry schools. The top floor was the opera house which became the site of many plays, musicals, political rallies as well as the annual town meeting.

The month of January 1914 was bitterly cold. Schools and factories had to be closed because their furnaces proved unequal to the task. Many home owners awoke in the morning to find their water pipes were frozen because on several occasions the nighttime temperatures fell to a reported 40 degrees below zero.

About 11 o’clock on the night of Jan. 13, 1914, a couple of young men were walking on Broadway when suddenly they heard a loud explosion coming from the Adams Building. They were hit by a shower of flying glass as the building’s windows exploded and immediately flames burst from the building. Within seconds the alarm was sounded and the Fire Department, which was just across the street, rushed to the site.

Soon streams of water were being shot at the burning building from the hand-pumped fire engine. Water splashing from the hoses quickly froze on the clothes, hands and faces of the firemen. Quickly the fire chief realized that there was no saving the building. All his men could hope to do was confine the fire to with in the building’s four walls. A call was soon made to Manchester’s fire department for help. Within a couple hours they had sent, via the B&M railroad, two steam fire engines and a team of burly firemen.

The winter wind was constantly blowing cascades of sparks from the Adams Building which were threatening to ignite nearby homes, stores and the sprawling Pillsbury Shoe factory. The “nearly frozen” fire fighting teams risked their lives to extinguish these glowing embers before they could do any damage. It was well into morning before all the flames were extinguished and the firemen could go home and warm-up. In the daylight, the Adams Building looked like a surrealistic ice sculpture with frozen water completely encasing the four sides of the building. The cause of the fire was never determined.

The greatest damaged was to the basement and the opera house on the top floor. These two areas were pretty much guttered and nothing could be saved except for the brick outer walls. The middle floor was spared from the flames but did experience considerable smoke damage. The town’s records had been saved because they were in a brick vault in the basement which was covered with a thick coating of ice. The $13,750 damage to the building was totally covered by insurance.

The town offices, library and Police Department were quickly moved to the newly built Knights of Pythias Hall at 45 East Broadway. By Jan. 31, the library was up and running. The thousand books that had been brought to the Knights of Pythias Hall had to be dried out or repaired before they could be shelved; several hundred other books however were too badly damaged and reluctantly had to be trashed.

A special town meeting was held on Feb. 7 that voted to rebuild the Adams Building. Work went amazingly fast and the building was re-opened less than seven months after the fire. A few changes were made to the building. The original drive through carriage port was made into a room. The opera house’s auditorium was enlarged, with a higher ceiling, better lighting and could now seat 800. A new theater curtain painted with a pastoral scene by local artist James Duffy was hung from the top of the opera house’s stage. It replaced the fire-damaged original curtain by Charlie Bodwell that featured a wedding scene with a shockingly buxom bride.

A week after the fire, a poem on the fire appeared in the Derry News by Mrs. J. H. Ross; it was titled “Faithful Firemen”:

It was late in the night,

And most all were in bed;

When the fire alarmed sounded

And the horse carriage sped.

Straight down Broadway,

The crowd was turning,

And the cry went forth,

“Memorial is burning.”

The firemen worked hard,

As do men of their class,

And sent stream after stream

On the burning mass.

Tho it wasn’t much use,

And they saw it must go,

It wasn’t because

Derry’s firemen were slow.

T’was a bitter cold night,

More than twenty below;

Not a man left his post,

Until told he might go.

Were there more like the firemen

In this little town,

Derry would soon

Be a place of renown.

Now we are grateful to Manchester

And all the others

Who stood by our men

As if they were brothers.

And we hope they will call us

If ever an need;

God bless the brave firemen,

May they ever succeed.

Well I suppose we all can’t be a Robert Frost! The sentiment is nice though. The Adams Memorial Building would burn again in 1927. It has been on the National Register of Historical Places since 1982.

---

Rick Holmes is the official town historian of Derry and plans to hold office hours at the municipal center. He is the former chairman of the Derry Heritage Commission. Several of his books on local history are available at Mack’s Apples and Derry’s libraries.