Historic image showing an aerial view of the 1933 New Auburn fire.

Arthur Pontbriand was working in his New Auburn auto garage when he heard someone scream “Fire!”

“I had no time to do anything,” he told the Lewiston Daily Sun on that catastrophic day on May 15, 1933. “I looked out and saw the rear of my garage burning. I did not even have time to take the cash from the register. I went upstairs and got everyone out and carried out a bird cage. After that, I could do nothing more.”

Photo of the May 15, 1933, fire in New Auburn.

Nor could anyone else. From his garage on Mill Street — located between present-day Happy Days Diner and Broad Street — the early afternoon fire, fanned by a strong breeze, spread more than two miles southward along the Androscoggin River and destroyed structures on four city blocks, including First, Second, Third and Fourth streets (First Street is now Riverside Drive).

“Downtown New Auburn was doomed,” proclaimed the Lewiston Evening Journal, which printed the first account of the fire even as it continued its rampage.

It took the effort of 12 fire departments to extinguish the blaze six hours after its start. By then, 249 buildings had been destroyed, leaving 422 families and 2,167 individuals homeless. Dozens of businesses, two schools and a synagogue were among the losses. Officials estimated the fire resulted in more than $2 million in damages, roughly $46 million in today’s currency.

Police said the fire was started by 11-year-old Renaud Cote, who a psychiatrist later deemed to have a mental age of a 6-year-old. Rather than be tried in court, the boy was sent to Pownal State School, an institution for people with mental illness formerly located on the Pineland Farms campus in New Gloucester.


Officials believed it was the boy’s love of fires and fire engines that led him to start the fire. His family home was among the many structures destroyed.

Nearly a century later, the fire in downtown New Auburn remains the most devastating in Lewiston-Auburn history.


The first account of the fire was dictated in part by a Lewiston Evening Journal reporter from inside one of the burning buildings, the paper noted, likely via telephone. Alas, once discovered the reporter was ordered to leave.

Front page of the Daily Sun on May 16, 1933.

With a print deadline at 3 p.m., the hastily written article detailed chaotic scenes witnessed at the start of the uncontrollable fire. More details were available in the Daily Sun’s account the following morning.

Firefighters could do little to stop the fire’s swift spread.

“The high blaze jumped from building to building, almost burning them flat before the tenants knew what was going on,” reported the Evening Journal.


People were rescued from housetops, with bedding, household furniture and swaddled babies in hand, and streets were lined with household goods as residents furiously worked to save their belongings.

Others splashed water on their roofs in vain attempts to stop the fire from burning it to the ground. Residents armed with garden hoses were indignant after their water was shut off, not realizing firefighters were attempting to boost their water pressure.

The lack of water available to douse the flames was perhaps the greatest shortcoming of the emergency response.

Aerial view of the aftermath of the 1933 New Auburn fire. Acme photo

“Hose after hose trickled forth a stream of water that would hardly do to wet a flower garden,” the Evening Journal noted. “It was this which made the fire impossible to stop.”

Frequent explosions from hot water and oil tanks, in addition to falling chimneys, only added to the firefighters’ difficulties.

Many small fires were started in Lewiston by windswept sparks. Several homes caught fire on Prospect and Southern avenues, in addition to Knox and Maple streets.


One section of New Auburn smolders after the 1933 New Auburn fire. Androscoggin Historical Society

One assessor noted he found small fires started from the New Auburn blaze “easily” 3 or 4 miles away.

However, it could have been far worse. Officials credited a shift in winds for saving the thousands of people living in Lewiston’s Little Canada, just across the river, from downtown New Auburn’s fate.

Thousands watched the fire from the Lewiston side, climbing atop roofs and other high points along the banks of the Androscoggin.

The Daily Sun reported that there were many accidents, but none very serious. A fractured ankle was the worst injury identified.

“Although wild rumors of persons burned to death and others severely injured kept excitement intensified late Monday night, none appeared authentic or could be verified,” a reporter wrote.


No one was more crushed by their losses than the older people who had worked hard all their lives to own a home only to watch it destroyed by flames in minutes, noted the Daily Sun. In the chaos, many panic-stricken parents lost track of their children.


An illustration showing the areas burned by the 1933 New Auburn fire.

Some children safely evacuated from the ruined school on Second Street attempted to rush toward the fire. It took “every trick — persuasion, wile, threats (and) stern commands” for the nuns to lead the children away from the fire, eventually moving all of the children out of New Auburn.

Distraught parents didn’t know for certain whether the children had survived until late that night.

One 7-year-old child, concerned for her mother who was sick in bed with a baby, twice broke from the grasp of two American Legion members as she made a dash for her home on First Avenue.

“She had the strength of two women,” said one, with tears in his eye. “Her only thought was of her mother lying helpless in that hemmed-in bed … I’ve heard of the astounding fury and strength of the ‘possessed,’ but until I had this 7-year-old tot in my own arms, I never really realized what profound strength can come to a half-crazed and distracted person.”

One woman who refused to leave her longtime home, even as it burned, struggled as a firefighter picked her up and carried her to safety.

Families burned out of their home sought shelter with nearby friends “only too often to discover what they had hoped a sheltering haven, nothing but a mass of flames,” according to the Evening Journal.


Many families took shelter at the Lewiston Armory in the following days. Others stayed with neighbors, families and friends, or in tents erected around New Auburn.

A photo of the 1933 New Auburn fire.

But not all was lost. Although surrounded by destruction on every side, the St. Louis church on Dunn Street still stood, virtually unscathed. Even as household goods burned on the steps, the brick building did not catch fire.

The church, which still stands today albeit abandoned, held Mass as scheduled the following morning.


While most residents worked tirelessly to save their belongings, one New Auburn man was content to watch his home burn.

The fire chief told the Daily Sun that the man “absolutely refused” to move his belongings from his burning home.

“Let ’em burn,” the man reportedly said. “Everything I’ve got is insured.”


The man changed his tune after the fire chief threatened to take action against him for defrauding the insurance company. The homeowner then went to work, managing to save a good part of his furniture.

It wasn’t the only odd detail recorded in the papers.

“A woman rushing screaming from a blazing house, with a Pekingese clutched as though it were more precious than life itself, was one of the sights,” noted one Evening Journal reporter.

An aerial view of the 1933 New Auburn fire.

One hot water tank blew up, throwing its top into a crowd of spectators situated a block away. No injuries were reported.

At the height of the blaze, a taxi caused a scene when it “drove madly” up to an apartment building near the fire. A man rushed out from the car to rescue his four small children hiding under beds and “scared out of their wits,” according to the Daily Sun. The children had been locked inside by their parents after leaving for work.

One man, entrapped by the flames along the riverbank, was rescued by a boat sent from Lewiston.


“So intense was the heat that the man could be seen to hold a coat or blanket over his head at times,” noted a Daily Sun reporter.

A woman in Lisbon Falls found a half-burned postcard believed to have blown more than half-a-dozen miles from the fire in New Auburn.

Five drunken men fighting over a single glass of home-brewed beer were discovered by a group of Edward Little High School students during the blaze. The men didn’t pay the students, nor the flames shooting out of the building next door, any mind.

Eventually, the students left the men “in disgust.” All of the men were said to have later left the building alive.

Two well-known “fire chasers” from Boston drove up to Auburn and were found “in the thickest of the battle” when they arrived around 6 p.m. Monday.

A bowl of goldfish rescued from the New Auburn blaze reportedly sat on the Cedar Street bridge Tuesday afternoon, waiting for its owner to reclaim it.

And the Daily Sun, generous in its recognition, congratulated one officer for a seemingly mundane accomplishment.

“Officer Bart Wing demonstrated to the satisfaction of some hundreds of passerbys during the fire yesterday that a man can direct traffic with a cup of coffee in one hand and a sandwich in the other,” one reporter wrote. “It is quite a trick Bert says until you get the hang of it.”

The Sun Journal’s archives are accessible to subscribers online at no extra charge. Read the original reporting on the New Auburn fire from the Lewiston Daily Sun and Evening Journal here.

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