A 19th century painting by an unknown artist of a fire in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. The Cobbs Auctioneers

Maine had barely become a state when Jonathan and Mary Watson rolled into the Maine woods with at least a few children in tow, their possessions piled in an ox cart.

They settled on a plot of land in Cambridge, a tiny town about halfway between Waterville and Moosehead Lake, and began clearing fields.

On Oct. 7, 1825, Mary Watson stood in the kitchen of their small house doing some baking. She put a loaf of brown bread in the fireplace oven.

Then suddenly, taking the family by surprise, fire swept toward them.

“The fire appeared to come all at once,” with “nothing but destruction before our eyes,” wrote one eyewitness near New Castle in Canada.

In Cambridge, the flames came so fast and so near that the Watsons rushed to take refuge in the only place they could — out in the middle of a plowed piece of ground.


Within minutes, their house and everything they had was gone, save for a family Bible someone had grabbed on the run.

Once the flames had died down, the Watsons dug through the ashes to the fireplace oven, to feed that loaf of bread to their hungry children, a history of the town recorded.

All through the area, people sought shelter in streams or in fields, and they felt lucky that in the end nobody in Cambridge died even though every house in the town went up in flames with just a single exception.

A fire raging through the Maine woods. Maine Forest Service

What happened that day in Cambridge was just one small piece of a series of large, but disconnected fires that burned through some 3 million acres in Maine, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, fed by a hot, dry summer that left the Atlantic Maritime region vulnerable.

Though largely forgotten today, the blazes collectively made up one of the largest fires in North America’s recorded history, usually called the Miramichi Fire, after a river in Canada.

The Great Fire, as some in Maine called it, was the biggest and most destructive forest fire ever seen east of the Mississippi River. At least 832,000 acres burned in Maine, destroying large swaths of forest. By comparison, Maine’s well-known fires of 1947 burned about 200,000 acres.


At least 160 people died in the fires of 1825, mostly in New Brunswick, and many towns vanished in the flames, though there were no reported deaths in Maine.

The fire appears to have started in Guilford, northwest of Bangor, where a strong breeze fanned smaller blazes to create a single inferno that raced along with the wind.

That first night, according to historian William Geller of Farmington, it reached Sebec Lake’s Bucks Cove about 10 miles north of its starting point. By midday on Oct. 8, it had reached Pleasant River, 22 miles to the east, before the wind died down and fires spread more haphazardly, extending as far as 95 miles from its origin before ceasing to burn.

John E. Godfrey, in his “Annals of Bangor,” said the roaring of the fire sounded like thunder and could be heard up to 15 miles away as it ravaged houses, barns and mills.

“Our whole country is on fire, more or less,” for more than 100 miles, someone in Hallowell wrote in an Oct. 10, 1825, letter.

The letter, printed in The Scots Magazine, said Ripley and three neighboring towns lost 21 houses and 150 acres of woods. Exeter, it said, was “almost destroyed.”


In Monmouth, 300 tons of hay caught fire, the correspondent wrote.

“I rode last week 30 miles through the devastation. The most awful sight of the kind I ever beheld,” he wrote, adding that the fire advanced a mile every four hours.

In Medford, 42 miles northeast of Cambridge on the Piscataquis River, three-quarters of the town burned.

It was windy and smoky in Medford on Oct. 8 when James Campbell left for work, his wife, Elizabeth, and a baby staying home until she suddenly recognized that a fire was racing toward her.

Elizabeth Campbell grabbed her baby, rushed to the river, waded out and covered both her and the wee one with a wet blanket.

When her husband returned later, he found only smoldering ruins. His painful wail prompted his wife to echo his scream until he found her still in the water with the child.


A town history said “a large stand of pine trees, which were used in the town’s industry, a combination sawmill and shingle mill” were among the things destroyed in the fire.

The largest sawmill in the town, erected in 1820, survived but because so many trees burned, it soon went out of business because nobody could find suitable lumber.

A publication in Halifax called it impossible to describe the sad reality of the devastation wrought on so many.

“Were we to give vent to the feeling that actuate us upon this occasion, we might depict a scene at which the heart of the most indifferent would sicken,” it said, “and even then we probably should fall short.”

A Penobscot leader, John Neptune, accused officials of setting the fires intentionally at the height of a drought in order to drive off the American Indians left in the region.

Neptune said a state land agent set one great fire on the Piscataquis River “to burn out the Indian trappers of beaver,” a Maine History article mentioned.


Given the times, it was a real possibility. But it is much more likely that farmers using small fires to help create new fields were to blame.

“In the widespread and severe drought of that time, the necessary conditions for starting fires were present in almost every town,” Lyndon Oaks wrote in his history of Garland, Maine.

A 1906 illustration of firefighting in the woods, which appeared in a Missouri newspaper. Jackson (Missouri) Herald

An 1894 report to Maine’s forest commissioner provided as good an overall account of what happened as anything.

It said the fire likely began in the Piscataquis River valley before spreading north and east for many miles until it reached, and crossed, the Penobscot River. Miles and miles of timberland burned.

The great newspaper editor Horace Greeley, most famous for telling young men to head west, mentioned the Great Fire in an 1861 letter to naturalist Henry David Thoreau.

In his letter, Greeley said a great pine forest had covered much of Maine when a sweeping fire swept through a district 40 miles long and up to 20 in width following a drought.


“Not only is the timber entirely killed and mainly consumed,” Greeley noted, “but the very soil, to a depth varying from six to 30 inches, is utterly burned to ashes, down to the very hard-pan.”

Amasa Loring, a minister who wrote a history of Piscataquis County, left one of the more detailed accounts of what residents saw at the time.

No rain had fallen in August or September, they told him, and by early October wells had dried up, streams ceased to flow and fish lay dead on dry, stony beds or gathered in large numbers in deep pools.

Throughout the area, much of the newly cleared land for farming “contained decaying stumps, and was enclosed with log fences, while the stubble upon the grain and mowing fields was thick and rank, and all as dry as tinder,” Loring wrote.

“Still those who were clearing up new land, in their eagerness to burn off the fallen growth, set fires as fearlessly as ever,” he said. “And these fires did not go out, but lingered and smoldered still.”

Then, on Oct. 7, “after a still and smoky day, a violent gale from the north” fanned those flames to create “a furious and rushing blaze,” Loring wrote.


“Men and boys were hurried to the earlier points of danger, but were soon summoned back to fight the fire from their own threatened dwelling,” he said.

In woodlands, they “rolled on in solid column, while the wind scattered the sparks and blazing fragments like chaff, lighting up stumps, fences and often dry stubble.”

The fire, he said, “traveled as fast as a horse and the air was filled with flying brands,” fusing into “a great body of too great volume and power to be fought. It overpowered the settlers.”

“That night was the wildest” people ever experienced, Loring said. “Men thought the fire rained down.”

“As morning broke, the wind subsided, the fires lulled away, relieving the terror-stricken and weary inhabitants,” Loring said. “Then a dense and distressing smoke covered the land, darkening the air beyond the limits of our state.”

“Near the fire this was painful to the eyes, and so affected the lungs that some of the cattle fell sick by it,” he said.


Historian Geller unearthed an old story of Luther Keen and his family, pioneers on the Pleasant River near Brownville village, who raised wheat on their small farm.

When the fire approached, 7-year-old son Lyman smelled the smoke and heard the roar of the approaching flames.

Lydia Keen, the boy’s mother, collected all the blankets, quilts and coverings she could find, wetted them thoroughly at their well and supervised as Lyman spread them on the roof of the house and over a pile of wheat in an open barn.

As burning embers fell on the little homestead, Lyman raced around putting them out as his mother hauled more water.

His father, who’d been away in the village, couldn’t follow the road back so he put his load of goods on the animals’ backs and drove them into the river, which they followed to his home despite the terror of the noise and smoke.

Keen arrived to find that his wife and son had come through it safely and saved the farm.


The Niles Weekly Register of Baltimore reported that in Bangor, ferrymen on the Penobscot River needed to use a compass to know which way to go because the smoke was too thick to see through.

In the evening, it said, people in the town saw their images reflected in the smoke when they lit a lantern.

Finally, after more than a week, rain fell and doused every spark.

Among the towns with widespread devastation were Chester, Elliottsville, Harmony, Kingsburg, Mayfield, Ripley, Shirley and Wellington.

More than one historian has noted, though, that with so much of Maine lightly settled or almost entirely without people, there is no way to know just how widespread the fire was.

But later surveys of timber lots took note of the miles of burned stumps — data that Geller pored through for his new book, “832,000 Acres: Maine’s 1825 Fire and Its Piscataquis Logging Aftermath.” Taken together, they paint a reasonably clear large-scale picture of the disaster.

Fortunately, it happened so early in the state’s history that it spared Maine from the death and destruction something similar would cause today.

Historian William Geller recently produced the most accurate map showing where the 1825 fire raged in Maine. Provided by William Geller,”832,000 Acres: Maine’s 1825 Fire and Its Piscataquis Logging Aftermath”

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