The face of Main street in Vineyard Haven has changed more by the act of fire than any street in any other Island town.
The town is like a Greek mythological phoenix, always turning the negative into the positive, and rebuilding bigger and better than before.
Main street in Vineyard Haven has a history of big fires. The greatest of them was the night of Aug. 10, 1883, when all of the street — 62 buildings — burned to the ground in a span of six hours. Coincidentally it was Illumination Night in Cottage City, now known as Oak Bluffs.
In the book The History of Martha’s Vineyard, How We Got to Where We Are, author Arthur R. Railton writes that Tisbury at the time had no fire department.
“At 9 p.m., flames were seen coming from the rear of [Rodolphus W.] Crocker’s harness factory on Main street,” Mr. Railton writes. “The men who spotted the fire ran to nearby churches and rang the bells, arousing the neighbors, who could do little except get out of their houses, taking the few possessions they could hastily gather. The village had no fire apparatus and no alarm system, only its church bells.”
The fire was fought by a citizen bucket brigade drawing water from the harbor, and by fire equipment brought by hand from the newly created Cottage City, now Oak Bluffs.
According to the Cottage City Star of August 15, 1883, “The light of Sunday morning disclosed an area of upwards to forty acres, studded with standing chimneys and the lines of underpinnings defining the locations of the vanished houses, but otherwise swept as clean as though a light growth grass was all that the flames had had to devour.”
What was so visually striking after the fire was what remained of the century-old village. A recounting of the story appeared in the August 5, 1920 Vineyard Gazette, written by Henry Beetle Hough and his wife Elizabeth Bowie Hough. The Houghs interviewed witnesses to the fire.
“‘Burned to the ground’ is not so suggestive of the facts in a big city fire where the steel, concrete and brick skeletons of the victims still remain if blackened and twisted,” they wrote.
“You would not know that wood could be reduced to such little piles of ashes, that great timbers could be utterly consumed, that burned house furnishings could leave no trace of their passing unless you had seen Vineyard Haven on its morning after. So utterly had the familiar landmarks of Main street disappeared that some old timers found it difficult to get their bearings when they ventured forth. A tribe of homeless cats was abroad too, suffering as only such home lovers can suffer.”
James H.K. Norton, a Vineyard Haven historian, wrote in his book Walking in Vineyard Haven that two traumatic events brought Vineyard Haven into its new era: the Great Fire of 1883 and the Gale of 1898.
In fact, Vineyard Haven has suffered through a number of major fires since the 1883 conflagration.
May of 1930 brought the LaBelle’s Restaurant fire. According to a May 23, 1930 Vineyard Gazette article: “The fire spread rapidly, bursting through the roof, windows and doors, as the dry woodwork, impregnated with grease smoke, caught fire. The roof was covered with tarred paper which also burned briskly, the flames soaring high in the air.”
The Renear Ford Garage fire in April 1966 on Church street involved at least three buildings.
Writing for the Vineyard Gazette, Joseph Chase Allen described the blaze: “The worst fire, both in effect and potentiality, that Vineyard Haven has experienced in three-quarters of a century, occurred early Saturday evening when a blaze raged for two hours, virtually destroying one building, damaged another to such an extent that it may be necessary to demolish a large part of it, damaged a third seriously, and destroyed stock in trade in all three amounting to thousands of dollars.”
In December of 1969, Carter’s Electric Store at the corner of Main and Union streets caught fire.
“In spite of the ample manpower and modern equipment, it was a long and tedious battle to contain the fire in the basement and protect the building itself,” the Vineyard Gazette reported in its Dec. 12, 1969 edition.
“Located on Main street in the heart of the town’s business section, buildings are extremely close together and the danger of the fire spreading was imminent and constant,” the Gazette reported. “However, the building suffered but slight damage, thanks to efficient work on the part of the firemen and the torrential rain which fell in heavy showers from time to time.”
In October of 1973, The Vineyard Haven Garage owned by Donald Bristol Jr. burned. Fire chief Everett E. Tilton described the fire as suspicious.
In an Oct. 19, 1973 Vineyard Gazette article: “At some time, probably before the fire, three service trucks and two cars owned and parked on the adjoining property of Brooks H. Carter, were ransacked and the wheels were removed from two bicycles and carried away.”
“The fire was kept contained in the building, but only because of its metal siding, the chief said.”
Recent decades brought two large fires near but not on Main street: one at the Gannon and Benjamin boat yard off Beach Road, the other at the Golden Dragon restaurant on Water street.
The Gannon and Benjamin blaze in the early hours of Oct. 18, 1989 burned the business to the ground. The boat yard off Beach Road is the home of one of the few wooden boat building operations in New England.
Nat Benjamin and Ross Gannon were quick to rebuild after that fire with the help of many friends they didn’t know. The community support for rebuilding after the fire almost eclipsed the news of the fire itself. Hundreds of spirited carpenters, boaters and followers of the boat yard showed up for weeks to help rebuild the shop. Fund-raising events helped underwrite the rebuilding of the business.
On Labor Day, Sept. 5, 1994, the Golden Dragon, a Chinese restaurant, burned. Former fire chief Richard Clark remembers that fire vividly.
“It was Labor Day and we had to shut down the whole street,” Mr. Clark said yesterday. That was no small effort since the street is the main access to the Steamship Authority’s wharf and ferries.
The fire took hours to control and the damage was considered severe. The fire reportedly began in the deep-fry vat and spread upward in the duct.
The biggest fire in Vineyard Haven in the memory of many Islanders is the the Tisbury Inn fire, which began mid-evening on Saturday, Dec. 15, 2001.
The inn, at the corner of Main street and Beach Road, was the second largest building in town. The fire burned well into the night. By morning, smoke still was rising, though much outside was shielded in ice. Although the structure still stood, the inn was a complete loss.
Coincidentally, Ann Nelson, the longtime owner of Bunch of Grapes — a bookstore seriously damaged in Friday’s fire — spoke about the devastation of the inn and the impact on Main street in a Vineyard Gazette article that appeared on Dec. 21, 2001.
She told the Gazette no other business in town had powered the economy like the Tisbury Inn, the health club and its restaurant.
“Each morning practically every day of the year,” she said, “I have recognized people in exercise outfits coming in and out of the store. And with the bookstore open evening hours, the spillover from Zephrus was just as noticeable.
“A browser one day and a buyer the next,” she said. “It’s going to be a tremendous loss.”
The inn, rebuilt as the much larger Mansion House, officially reopened in June of 2003.