AUGUSTA — More than 150 years after fire ripped through downtown, firetrucks on Saturday again descended on Water Street, but this time they were called on for a celebration rather than calamity.

Hundreds of people turned out for the 150th anniversary of the Great Augusta Fire of Sept. 17, 1865, which destroyed nearly 100 downtown buildings. The crowd gathered on Water Street, which was closed to vehicular traffic for the event, and Front Street, where there was a mix of modern firetrucks and vintage steam pumpers, some of which were the very same ones used to fight the great fire.

“I don’t like the older ones,” said 7-year-old Connor Poirier, adjusting a plastic fire helmet on his head. “I like the ones with seats.”

The fire leveled nearly 100 buildings, including every lawyer’s office, all the banks, two hotels, the post office and the telegraph offices, not to mention stores and shops, bringing commerce to a virtual standstill. The New York Times’ coverage of the fire described the entire business district as “a smoking mass of ruins.”

The commemoration included exhibits to help take people back to the 1800s. There were dozens of pieces of vintage fire equipment dating to the 1830s, including the Atlantic and Pacific from Augusta and the Tiger from Hallowell, which were used the day of the fire. Augusta Fire Chief Roger Audette has said it was probably the first time the hand tubs, large manual pumps, were together since the fire.

Augusta’s Tom Doore, who in 2006 retired as a lieutenant from the Augusta Fire Department after 29 years of service, surveyed the old firefighting equipment as it stood on display on Water Street. Doore said he once helped pump water with the Pacific as part of a demonstration.

Doore said the city at the time of the fire had catch basins built under the street to catch rainwater that then could be used by the hand tubs. Some of the covers over those basins were there when he served on the department.

Doore said there were other reminders of the fire as well. As the buildings were built and re-built to updated codes, the contractors often erected a new outside wall on Water Street, leaving intact the walls behind the new outside wall. The construction technique proved to be a big problem for firefighters in January 1983 when fire destroyed the Waterbeds East and Brooks Drug store buildings and badly damaged a third on Water Street.

“We were going through three or four walls before we could get into the building,” Doore said. The fire burned for more than 12 hours.

Doore said Saturday’s event was an important reminder not only of the city’s past, but also of the firefighters who used to protect it.

“Kids nowadays don’t get to see stuff like this,” Doore said.

One of those children, 10-year-old Billy Dumond, checked out the displays with his friend Connor Poirier. Billy, like Connor, favored the modern firetrucks, which are powered by engines rather than people.

“I like the new ones,” Dumond said. “You don’t have to run.”

Dumond said he has heard about the great fire.

“It wiped out all of the downtown,” he said.

Ayla McCurdy, 6, of South Gardiner, who wore a plastic pink firefighter’s hat as she strolled Water Street with her parents, said her favorite part was the touch-a-truck display on Front Street.

“I got to go in a firetruck,” she said.

Her father, David McCurdy, said the vintage fire equipment was familiar thanks to a neighbor, Rob Soucier, who restores the equipment.

“We’ve actually seen some of these coming and going,” McCurdy said.

Audette said the vintage equipment brought to Augusta helped make the event a fitting tribute to those who fought the fire a century and a half ago.

“We are so pleased with the great turnout for this very special and historic day,” Audette said. “The historic equipment on display was most impressive, and we thank all of the fire departments and private collectors that made the journey down to Augusta. ”

Craig Crosby — 621-5642

[email protected]

Twitter: @CraigCrosby4

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