October 1947: The Fire of 1947

1947-students join firefightA

This photo is said to show Bates students joining the volunteer effort to fight the 1947 fires in Maine. (Muskie Archives and Special Collections Library)

In late October 1947, out-of-control fires in southern and coastal Maine burned 205,678 acres — equivalent to a mile-wide swath from Kittery to Fort Kent — leveling nine communities and destroying 1,000 houses.

Sixteen deaths were attributed to the natural disaster, the worst in Maine history. At Bates, nearly 300 male students, about 40 percent of the student body of 767, volunteered for firefighting duty.

Quoting President Charles Phillips, the front page story of the Oct. 29, 1947, issue of The Bates Student declared that the volunteer firefighting by Bates students was "superior."

Quoting President Charles Phillips the front page story of the Oct. 29, 1947, issue of The Bates Student declared that the volunteer firefighting by Bates students was “superior.”

A state disaster committee dispatched the volunteers to help fight the fires in towns like Bowdoinham, Kennebunk, Cornish and Richmond.

Meanwhile, female students conducted watches on campus and at Thorncrag, raked leaves away from residence halls, and collected clothing donations for the Red Cross.

Three accounts, two written in ’47 and one looking back after 50-plus years, describe the days of fire:

William Dill ’51 describes firefighting in Richmond in this edited excerpt from a letter to his parents in Edgeworth, Pa., dated Oct. 24, 1947.

Robert Foster ’50 wrote this first-person account, Volunteers fight forest blaze; Kennebunk crew is one of many,” for The Bates Student of Oct. 29, 1947.

Elizabeth Thomes Hobbs ’51 wrote a more lyrical remembrance of October 1947 a few years ago, recalling how she drew the dreaded pre-dawn fire watch.