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Town’s Worst Fires

The Daily Times and Chronicle, Tuesday, January 18, 1983

Burlington Past and Present, by John E. Fogelberg (Article # 187)


The worst fire ever to occur in the town of Burlington was the one which destroyed the Sewall mansion on Lexington Street. The fire destroyed hundreds of historical documents which could never be replaced, memorabilia belonging to the first four ministers of the Burlington Church of Christ, Congregational, and practically all the furniture and furnishings of the Sewall family.

The “Woburn News” for May 1, 1897 began its report of that fire by saying: “The famous Sewall mansion in Burlington was destroyed by fire Friday evening, Apr. 23. Ashes now mark the site of the dwelling which sheltered Hancock and Adams during the troublous times at Lexington in 1775. This landmark, now erased, has furnished matter for many stories in history, and for nearly three-quarters of a century has been an object of interest to antiquarians.”

Mr. John Dunn, who worked for Mr. Sewall, slept in the ell of the house. He happened to be awake about 11:30 p.m., Friday night, and smelled the smoke. He could not get through into the house on account of the fire so was obliged to break out a window and arouse the occupants by calling from the outside. The neighbors promptly responded to the call of the meetinghouse bell. By persistent effort, they were able to save some furniture, pictures, etc. in the parlor, front hall and sitting room. All else perished.

Another disastrous fire from a historical point of view was that which destroyed the old Richardson Tavern which once stood on the corner of Adams Street and the Turnpike. During Prohibition days it was known as the Red Dog Inn. In January 1938, on one of the coldest days of the year, with temperatures well below zero, the ell of the old house caught fire. Hose was laid to the Mill Pond to the rear of Wood’s store but both the hose and the pump froze. Lexington came to help and laid a line from the pond on Adams Street, a spot still further away. They had no better luck with the temperature for their pump froze as well.

The flames, out of control, soon consumed the entire building. The “Burlington News” for January 22 (not today’s paper) reported: “The fire was discovered by Mrs. Isaac Burnstein. Her screams aroused her husband who was sleeping at the time in one of the bedrooms on the upper floor. When he went to investigate the screams he found himself trapped in the ell as the fire had spread to the stairway. Braving the blaze and smoke, without stopping to dress, he made his way down the stairs but was severely burned about the arms, head and face. He went to the store of Harry Woods, where adequate clothing was supplied, and he was later taken to Lexington for medical aid.”

The reporter was Mrs. Teresa Ward. The two fires which Charlie Bunton remembers most vividly were the fire which destroyed the Terrace Hall Inn and the brush fire which swept through much of Pinewold. The inn also caught fire at night. The inn stood about where the Francis Wyman Middle School was built later. The Fire Department laid hose the whole way down Terrace Hall to the old swimming hole. The pond across the street which had been the pride and joy of a previous owner was sucked dry in no time. The house was completely destroyed – 1940 – “the inmates,” says Mrs. Dunham, “just escaping with their nightclothes.”

The other was a fire in the heat of August which blackened much of the area back of the site of the Terrace Hall Inn. That fire just rolled along fanned, by the wind, and Charlie saw it jump Humboldt Avenue as though it wasn’t there at all. Some 2500 feet of 2 1/2 inch hose was run from the brook at Fairfax Street.

The end held a gate from which several other 1 1/2 inch hose was run. additional hose and help came from Billerica, Bedford and the State unit from the Andover barracks. The tower at Andover had spotted the smoke as had the tower at Chelmsford and by a series of triangulations including the tower at Waltham had pinpointed the blaze, as could be done for any major fire in the area. Charlie operated the pump of the old White at the brook at Fairfax for the whole afternoon and night of that fire.

He was an expert on pumps and on a number of occasions in addition to the two fires mentioned, Chief Skelton called him from the actual fire scene to man the pump to guarantee a continuous supply of water. Burlington’s permanent duty Fire Department was not born until Fire Chief Walter Skelton asked Charlie Bunton to become a full-time man in March of 1936. Walter kept the two pieces of fire apparatus the town then owned in his garage just across the street from his home on Francis Wyman Road.

That equipment included a Model A 1 1/2 ton truck with a 4 cylinder portable pump behind the driver’s seat and a 1927 Dodge with a pump on the front end. Since Walter had very little money in the budget, Charlie went to work those first few months for $8 a week, manning the station from 8 a.m. to midnight, with one evening off each week.

Young Dave Skelton, who lived with his father at that time, filed in the hours from midnight to 8 a.m. and then went off to his work as a carpenter and builder. One of the duties in the winter was to keep the stove going so that the engines would be ready to roll on call. Those early calls came through the operator of the telephone switchboard then stationed in Charlie Dearborn’s store on Center Street.