The fire that ripped through four Water Street buildings and engulfed the area in smoke Thursday afternoon was the latest in a number of destructive fires that have occurred in or near downtown Gardiner over the years.

The most destructive blaze occurred late on April 25, 1860, and its cause was never determined. Records show that the “great fire” destroyed four stores on Water Street and a dozen more on Bridge Street as well as the bridge, a gristmill where it started, and seven houses, leaving 17 families homeless and 150 workers jobless. A photo from that era shows the destruction, with many of the buildings reduced to standing timbers. The destruction was appraised at $72,000, of which only $27,000 was insured.

Water Street buildings also were damaged by a fire in 1931.

“Unfortunately, the history of Gardiner has been marked since the late 1800s with a series of fires in our historic downtown,” Gardiner Mayor Thom Harnett said during a news conference Friday about Thursday’s fire. “But with each of those fires, the community has responded with great support and resilience.”

Among the larger fires in recent memory was the blaze that destroyed the former Yorktowne Paper Mill in September 2009, sending plumes of smoke high over the city. Operated most recently as the Gardiner Paperboard Corp., the mill had closed its doors in 2001 before Paul Rheaume bought it in 2005 and reopened it as a home to four businesses. Firefighters from Gardiner and 10 surrounding communities spent hours fighting that blaze, which was reported about 3 a.m. in two areas of the defunct mill on Route 126.

Cousins Jack Russell Downs, now 25, of Gardiner, and Joshua Russell Lund, now 26, of Richmond, were indicted by a Kennebec County grand jury on arson and burglary charges for setting the blaze.

In July 2010, Downs pleaded guilty to both charges and was sentenced to 10 years in prison, with all but 2 1/2 years suspended, and four years of probation. Three months later, his co-defendant, Lund, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 10 years in prison, with all but 18 months suspended, and four years of probation. Both men are free on probation.

In 1985, a fire destroyed 317-321 Water St., which housed the Business Systems & Service Center. Building owner Anthony Naoum later was convicted of arson for burning his business to try to collect insurance proceeds. In 1987, Naoum was sentenced to 25 years in prison, later reduced to 15; and his girlfriend at the time, Marion Gidney, also was convicted of arson. She was sentenced at first to 15 years in prison, a term that was later reduced to 10 years.

The structure was never rebuilt, and the site is now known as McKay Park.

Betty Adams — 621-5631

[email protected]

Twitter: @betadams


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