The Day Downtown Burned: 1964 Blaze Killed Two and Left City’s Center in Ruins
Rick Goodhue sits at Rogers House in Lebanon, N.H., on June 9, 2014. Goodhue worked at the tannery in downtown Lebanon at the time of the 1964 fire. (Valley News - Will Parson)
Marylin Babineau sits at her home in Lebanon, N.H., on June 9, 2014. Babineau's parents owned McNeill's Drug Store, which was destroyed in the 1964 Lebanon fire. (Valley News - Will Parson)
Ed Ashey, curator at the Lebanon Historical Society, sits at the Marion Carter House in Lebanon, N.H., on June 9, 2014. Ashey worked at Western Auto Store in Lebanon at the time of the 1964 fire. (Valley News - Will Parson)
The Currier and Company fabric store burns in the fire that destroyed 22 businesses in Lebanon, N.H., on June 19, 1964. (Courtesy Lebanon Historical Society)
A good portion of downtown Lebanon, N.H., was reduced to rubble after the fire on June 19, 1964. (Valley News photograph)
Firefighters battle a blaze on Mill Street in Lebanon, N.H., on June 19, 1964. (Courtesy Lebanon Historical Society)
Part 2 of 3. Visit the series homepage at www.vnews.com/lebanonfire.
Lebanon — Even before the first sparks flew, June 19, 1964, was a scorcher. Unaware of the blaze that was spreading through the city, Ellen Daniels was driving from her Hanover home to Lebanon to go shopping when she was caught up in traffic on Benton Hill on Mascoma Street. She sat for half an hour or so, but it seemed like forever.
Overwhelmed by the smell of smoke, she rolled up the windows. But then the heat became unbearable, said Daniels . “It was scary.”
Back home hours later, as she got ready to go out with her husband, Daniels reached into her purse for her lipstick — and discovered that it had melted.
That weekend in Lebanon was supposed to be full of activity. Preparations were underway for the annual Alumni Parade, the crowning of the Alumni Queen and a Father’s Day turkey dinner at the Lebanon Grange. Muscle Beach Party, featuring Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon , was playing at the Opera House. But then, one man’s actions changed everything.
Albert Healey, 21, sat idly on the steps of Lebanon City Hall with Alphonse “Joe” Thibideau, 16. At approximately 4 p.m., the two walked down Hanover Street. Healey bummed a book of matches and lit a cigar.
Healey and Thibideau moved down the street, past a collection of wood-framed buildings, built following an 1887 fire, that formed the heart of downtown. They then turned left onto the Boston & Maine railroad tracks and headed toward Mill Street. The street, which no longer exists, once connected Mascoma and Hanover streets.
Through an unlocked door, they entered 13 Mill St., an abandoned blacksmith shed and a hangout for the city’s homeless. Healey rolled up a green rug, put it against a wall and lit it with a match. Then, he and Thibideau walked to Mascoma Street, where they would watch the smoke as it furled overhead.
Four hours later, one man was dead and another dying. The city’s worst fire in nearly 80 years destroyed 22 businesses, left 100 people homeless and caused $3 million in damage — more than $20 million in today’s dollars.
Around the same time, Ed Ashey and a co-worker stepped outside Western Auto to catch a breeze. The front and back doors were open in the store, which sold sporting goods, automotive parts, appliances and paint. But even the wind was hot that day, Ashey said. As they stood looking out over the parking lot, he spotted a plume of black smoke going up over Mill Street.
“I no more got it out of my mouth, when flames shot up,” said Ashey, who is now the city historian. “The fire whistle blew and firemen ran down Hanover Street telling all the store owners to get out and lock their doors.”
The wooden buildings on Hanover Street were built soon after the 1887 fire, which destroyed about 80 buildings in central Lebanon. They were “like tinderboxes,” he said. A dry, warm breeze blew through downtown, and the fire spread quickly from the blacksmith shed to neighboring buildings.
Charles Blair, then 15, ran up the street to the fire station to report the fire. Dispatcher Roland Thibodeau sounded the first alarm at 4:08 p.m.
By 4:15 p.m., Fire Chief Herman Coutermarsh called for help from Hanover and Hartford. Before long, more than 150 firefighters from as far away as Claremont, Woodstock, Fairlee and Sunapee were on the scene.
Flames brought down telephone poles and electrical lines. The power went out in the eastern part of the city, cutting the water pump that fed the fire hydrants. Firefighters turned to the Mascoma River as a backup.
At 4:20 p.m., Harold Blodgett, Russell Upton and “Gabby” Herrin rescued George LeMay, 67, from his third-floor apartment in the old Granite State Free Press building on Mill Street. LeMay’s clothing had caught fire, burning Herrin’s arm in the rescue.
Burns covered 85 percent of LeMay’s body. He died the next morning at Mary Hitchcock Memorial Hospital.
The fire traveled farther up Mill Street to the Howard Block, on the corner of Mill and Hanover streets, engulfing Brown’s Bicycle Shop, Creighton’s Taxi Stand, The Modern Record Shop, Lora’s Beauty Shop and the Valley Yarn Shop.
From there, sparks flew across Mill Street to strike the building containing Lander’s Restaurant and Sea Grill. The fire spread south to an apartment building on Mill Street known as the Jordan Block, which housed a laundry, and then to the old grist mill.
Marylin Babineau, who owned Hildreth’s Hardware on Hanover Street with her husband, was at the armory on Heater Road that afternoon, preparing for the alumni parade and dance. When she heard about the fire, she rushed to town, where her husband was taking all the records out of the store, “just in case.”
Fire had formed a funnel and was making its way along both sides of Hanover S treet. Her parents’ business, McNeill’s Drugstore, was destroyed. The Babineaus’ hardware store, next to Woolworth’s, was undamaged.
“We escaped, but it was a scary day,” she said. “You’ll never know the emotions.”
Across the river on High Street, employees hosed down the roof of the E. Cummings leather tannery in hopes of protecting the chemical-filled structure from the blaze. It was saved when the wind, clocked at more than 20 miles per hour, shifted from east to west.
The change in the wind was fortunate for the tannery, but not for several businesses on Hanover Street, including a Suburban Gas building, Lewis Brothers’ Hardware, Richard Courtemanche’s barber shop and Tom’s Toggery, which was adjacent to Woolworth’s.
With the help of volunteers and employees, Tommy Keane, the owner of Tom’s Toggery, saved $25,000 worth of merchandise. Nevertheless, even after factoring in the insurance payoff, he still lost more than $200,000.
While his father was fighting to save his sports equipment inventory, 8-year-old Jimmy Keane was off swimming with friends in Mascoma Lake. When he got back to Lebanon and saw the smoke and flames, it looked as if the tannery was burning. Standing with hundreds of residents and onlookers — all restricted to viewing the fire from the area around the Lebanon post office — the boy realized it was the city’s downtown that was being consumed by fire.
And with it, his father’s business.
“I could see the store,” recalled Keane, now the owner of TK Sportswear in Enfield. “You could see everything was burning.”
What he couldn’t see was if the employees were safe. Or his father.
“It was tough for a kid so young,” he recalled. “It wasn’t until later that evening that I saw my father and knew he was safe.”
Suburban Gas tanks fed the fire, shooting flames hundreds of feet into the air. The blaze engulfed Fletcher’s Paint Store, where the heat caused paint cans to explode.
“That really got things going,” said Rick Goodhue, then a bookkeeper at the tannery.
As the fire grew, the wind increased, shooting flames across 50-foot-wide streets, mocking the water being sprayed from the firefighters’ 2-inch hoses. Seventeen firefighters went to the hospital, eight with heat exhaustion and the others with minor injuries. Some stepped on nails. Two fell when the Hanover Street Bridge collapsed onto the Boston & Maine Railroad tracks.
Onlookers pitched in, too.
“People were trying not to panic and trying to do their best to save the town,” said Goodhue, who didn’t know about the fire until after work, when he wandered up toward the park.
Firetrucks were rolling in from out of town, and Goodhue jumped into a crowd helping business owners carry clothes, food and other goods out of the stores as the blaze spread. “Everybody was going crazy trying to get the fire out,” he said. “It was one of the worst things in my life that I will never forget.”
He remembers standing side by side with Healey, a childhood friend, “fighting the fire and emptying the stores. ... I was so shocked that he was the one who did it.”
Ashey, who lived near downtown on Mechanic Street, remembers the chaos. “Everybody was running around and milling about and could hardly believe their eyes,” he said. “It was just terrible.”
Shaken, he went home for a while to see his wife and children, wondering if he’d even have a job at Western Auto to go back to. Later that day, he walked back up the street, where a swirl of firefighters from at least 10 towns struggled to control the blaze and people wandered “almost in shock.”
“Everybody was just roaming around from one side of the river to the other, trying to take it all in,” he said. “There was so much damage you just couldn’t believe it.”
Lois Wood was in the home on South Park Street that she owned with her husband, the physician Myric Wood Jr . She was sewing in a second-story room overlooking Colburn Park when her son told her about the fire. Looking outside, she saw an “astonishing amount of smoke.”
She walked outside to her husband’s office, attached to the back of the house, and knocked on the door of the exam room.
“I said, ‘Myric, there is a giant fire downtown.’ He said, ‘Really?’ And the entire office emptied out,” Wood said, laughing. “All the sick people instantly got well.”
Wood recalls standing on the corner of the park, near what is now the pedestrian mall. “It was just an inferno,” she said. “Before very long it was feeding itself and creating its own wind.”
Throughout the day, onlookers also gathered in front of her home, across from the park.
“There were just tons of people camping out on my lawn watching the entertainment for the day,” said Wood, who now lives in Maine. “People were afraid it would come across the park. I never was.”
The following day, the Woods walked past the bike shop on Mill Street where they recently had their tandem bike tuned, and saw “all the twisted, burned bikes.” Heat also mangled the railroad tracks, closing Lebanon to train traffic for two days.
Witnesses heard blasts as ammunition exploded in Lewis Brothers Hardware.
A bucket brigade on the corner of Hanover and Court streets, which included Healey, formed to remove cans of flammable paint from the Sherwin-Williams paint store.
At 6:15 p.m., firefighters reported the fire under “fair control.” Its rampage down Hanover Street came to a halt at masonry firewalls at Woolworth’s on the north side of the street, and the Pulsifer Block, which housed Western Auto, on the south.
“If it hadn’t been for those firewalls, Lebanon wouldn’t be Lebanon,” Goodhue said.
After turning Mill and Hanover streets to rubble, the fire was finally declared “under control” at 8 p.m.
The remains of Henry LeBlond, who lived in an apartment in the Free Press building, were found early Saturday morning in the rubble of Mill Street’s Hickory Block. LeBlond was the fire’s second fatality.
Police arrested Healey on Sunday, June 21, at 1:45 a.m., as he arrived home from a drive-in movie.
He pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter and arson on Oct. 4, 1965, and was sentenced to 13 to 25 years at hard labor in the state prison in Concord.
After eight years in jail, he was paroled in 1973. He was on parole until 1981 and resettled outside the Upper Valley.
Lebanon’s worst fire of the 20th century changed the face of the downtown forever.
Tomorrow: The fire’s legacy can be seen in the city’s pedestrian mall, one of the few such malls in the country that can be declared a success.
Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3213. Aimee Caruso can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3210. Don Mahler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3225.