Starting in a repair shop behind a Mill Street gasoline station just after lunchtime on May 15, 1933, it spread rapidly through the tenements and shops, with cinders blowing from rooftop to wood-shingled rooftop.

By sundown, it had consumed New Auburn; 249 buildings were destroyed along a 600-foot-wide tract from Pulsifer Street half a mile southeast, almost to Loring Street.

Of the burned buildings, 125 were tenements crammed full of Depression-era families, many of them recent immigrants; 422 families and 2,167 individuals were left homeless, according to the National Fire Protection Association report.

It was a gut-shot to the city, according to current Mayor Jonathan LaBonte, and one of several that would burn New Auburn in the coming years. The 1933 fire was followed by a flood in 1936 and a shoemaker strike in 1937. The busy downtown, once a rival to anything in Lewiston or Auburn proper, never quite recovered.

“They never really finished reconstructing New Auburn to the scale it was before the fire,” LaBonte said. “Having grown up there, and understanding people’s passion for the neighborhood, I know there is a lot that goes into that love. But there never has been a study as to how that happened, how the village was never fully rebuilt.”

LaBonte and other city officials will gather for a ceremony at 3:30 p.m. Wednesday to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the fire that reshaped Auburn.

“We are gathering at the site where it started, which is essentially now the parking lot of Happy Daze Diner,” LaBonte said. “We’ll play the National Anthem and have a couple of color guards. We’ll recount a little of the history, a fire-prevention message.”

LaBonte said he’s working to have a historic marker placed at the Mill Street site of the fire.

Despite being new to the area, fire Chief Frank Roma said he’s very familiar with the historic fire. It and other New England mill-town fires from the time are studied by firefighters around the country.

“New England at the time was rife with huge conflagrations,” Roma said. “You can look at Quincy, Mass., Lowell, Mass., just huge conflagrations. A lot of that is because of the old wooden construction, the density of the construction.”

The 1933 fire had much in common with the recent plague in Lewiston. All started in downtown areas filled with wood-framed tenements and all left people homeless.

“In general, they started in urban areas where there is clutter and trash and things that help to spread the fires into different buildings that are in much the same condition,” Roma said.

And like the fires on April 29 and May 3 of this year, the 1933 New Auburn fire was started by a preteen boy — “… a mentally deficient 11-year-old boy who has since been committed to a state institution,” according to the National Fire Protection Association report.

But the result was very different. While the three Lewiston fires devastated the city and destroyed three or four structures each before being doused, the New Auburn fire went on, seemingly of its own will. News photographs and pictures from the association’s report show city blocks utterly reduced to ash.

It didn’t stop until it burned itself out just north of Oak Hill Cemetery.

Roma said many things account for the difference. Zoning codes today require buildings to be more fire-resistant. Firefighters have better equipment and are better trained than their 1933 counterparts, and the city has a better and more powerful water supply. Newspaper accounts of the earlier fires report water pressure that was too weak to reach the second stories of most of the burning buildings.

A lack of radio contact among firefighters was key, as well.

“One of the contributing factors in New Auburn was that it was a dry day and most of the Fire Department was already out on calls in other parts of the city,” Roma said. “All reports were done by the old box system, so there was a delayed response from the fire departments.”

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