Windham Fires - Part 2
by Pete Zizka

Fires (part 2)
The Chronicle reported that the area of the fire that threatened Windham Center was contained by the efforts of, “most of the male population of the village”. The Hartford Courant as well mentioned that, “ the strong wind which blew the fire rendered it impossible to successfully fight its progress and it was with the utmost difficulty that several farm buildings were saved. The damage was many thousand dollars”. The second fore of May 19, 1896 started near the river just south of Saint Joseph’s Cemetery, burned through the pine grove there and then was blown across the road where it spread out and burned through the woods to the edge of Bricktop hill.It did not threaten any buildings but ruined many fences. The fire then continued through what was then referred to as “the Ballyhack Woods, which are undoubtedly the largest in the town until the road that runs from Phelps Crossing to Bricktop was reached where it spent its fury”.(It’s difficult today to narrow down exactly where location of the Ballyhack Woods was but most likely was the somewhat triangular area bordered by today’s RT 6, RT 14 and RT 203. But Ballyhack was also used to refer to a section of North Windham and a brook that ran in somewhat the same direction as Beaver Hill Road toward Windham Center.) As with the fire that threatened Windham Center village that same day, many houses escaped being burned solely through the efforts of many citizens. “The trace left by the fire bears a very destitute look as there is scarcely a green spot to be seen anywhere”. A reporter from the Chronicle spoke with many farmers in the area of the fire and all said that it was the worst fire they had seen in a long time. The Chronicle reporter waxed eloquent and said, “It was a grand sight to witness the flames after dark last night from the hill, especially when one of the big pine trees was enveloped, spouting a stream of fire into the heavens”. Interestingly, the Windhams had no organized fire companies at that time of the fires mentioned this week and last. In 1821 “the corporate fire district” (known as the “Center District”) purchased a fire engine for $180. Fire wardens were appointed and a fire company of 24 members was formed. A small engine house was built and the members were provided with “cisterns, wells, buckets and other apparatus for working at fires”. However, the fire company disbanded in 1850.Windham’s citizens were fortunate, however, to be able to count on the assistance of the Willimantic borough and its fire departments. Eventually a system similar to today’s “mutual aid” was developed. For example, in 1885, a house and store were found to be on fire in Windham Center. “A general alarm was at once sounded and a telephone dispatch was sent to Chief Engineer Charles S. Daniels of the Willimantic Fire Department to help.” Daniels responded along with Assistant Chief C.E. Leonard and members of both the Excelsior Hook and Ladder Company and the Alert Hose Company. The fire, which had been discovered around 4P.M. was under control by 6:30. The fire, however, had gotten a good start by the time it was discovered and so not only were the house and store destroyed but also the “ell” of an adjoining house. The fire had started in a defective chimney. The Courant reported that, “Much praise is due to the members of the Willimantic Fire Department and the citizens who were in the vicinity for their efforts were finally successful in preventing the spread of the fire and averting more disastrous results”. There had been a general fear at the time that several nearby buildings would become involved in the fire. An editorial comment noted, “What the fire department needs is a fire steamer”. In April, 1911, another fire destroyed two houses and threatened Windham Center village. Windham Center had a hand engine and bucket brigade but they were insufficient and so help was called from Willimantic and South Windham. ”A large detail responded in automobiles carrying a large quantity of extinguishers.” After several hours, the fires were controlled. Two weeks after that fire, the citizens of Windham met and a fire company was once again formed. Over forty people volunteered to
join. Then, in June, 1911 South Windham citizens formed a department and bought a fire steamer which they proudly showed off in Willimantic’s 1911 July 4th parade ( photo - courtesy of Michael E. Tirone).

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