More than 102 years ago, on October 18, 1916, a great fire changed the face of Watch Hill forever and ended the era of the great iconic hotels. The summer tourist season had just ended around Columbus Day and fortunately, most of the large hotels were empty. It was 5 p.m. when a fire was discovered by a hotel watchman on the third story of the east wing of the Watch Hill House.
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The hotel, which was similar in size to the Ocean House, was one of the largest hotels in Watch Hill with 100 guest rooms. It was located on Bluff Avenue next to the Watch Hill Chapel. That day the weather was changing and a front was starting to move through with gale force winds from the southeast. The gale force winds quickly spread the flames and the large wooden hotel burned fiercely.
Within minutes firefighters from Watch Hill brought their hose wagon to the scene and hooked their hoses into the fire hydrants. They put out a call to Westerly and Stonington for assistance as they struggled to control the blaze. By 6 p.m. the entire Watch Hill House was a raging inferno. Sparks and flaming debris driven by the 50-mile per hour wind rained down pushing the fire from Bluff Avenue toward Bay Street. Two cottages downwind caught fire forcing the residents to flee.
By 7 p.m. two other large hotels caught fire, the Columbia House and the 75-room Colonial House. The large fire burned so hot that geese flying over caught fire and fell, their feathers burning, into the sea. At one point some of the firefighters had to jump into the water in the harbor to avoid being burned. Many of the firefighters were injured. Two Mystic firefighters sustained serious injuries from a gasoline explosion, with severe burns to the face and hands.
The firefighters were forced back to the harbor and with their backs to the water, they made their stand. By this time soldiers from Fort Mansfield along with crews from the Coast Guard Lifesaving Station, volunteers from the Watch Hill, Westerly, Pawcatuck and Mystic fire companies, numbering over 150 firefighters, fought the flames. Mystic sent their fire truck which was an American LaFrance Triple Combination 750 gallon per minute pumper. It joined two motor fire trucks and a hose cart.
Around 9 p.m. that night the wind let up and it started to rain quickly turning into a downpour. The torrential rain lasted several hours. The American LaFrance Fire Truck aided by the heavy rain was able to help firefighters finally bring the fire under control. The truck became known as “the little engine that could.”
The next morning Fire Chief Walter H. Nash returned to his home. He was the grandson of Winslow Nash, owner of the destroyed Watch Hill House. He slumped down onto the kitchen table totally exhausted and said to his wife, “It’s gone. It’s all gone.” He closed his eyes and immediately fell asleep. And indeed the great fire signaled the end of the landmark hotel era in Watch Hill.
The citizens of the Watch Hill Fire District were stunned by the disastrous fire and outraged over the refusal by the Westerly Fire Chief to send his two new fire engines to assist. This led to many meetings and discussions over what to do next but one thing everyone agreed on was that the little fire truck from Mystic had saved the day. Subsequently, in 1917, a two-bay fire station was constructed on Bay Street and a new fire truck was ordered. The truck was a newer version of the “little engine that could”, a 1917 American LaFrance (A.L.F.) triple combination pumper.
The 1917 A.L.F. affectionately dubbed “Alfie” served the Watch Hill community for almost 50 years until sometime in the 1950s. The now old truck was damaged fighting a large brush fire in Charlestown. Its rotary pump ingested sand from a pond from which the water was being pumped to fight the fire. The pump was removed to be repaired and was stolen so Alfie was retired and sold.
After numerous owners, Alfie was discovered in 1985 by Richard Froh from the Groton Long Point Fire Company at Seaport Marine in Mystic. He was able to obtain the truck and an Antique Restoration Committee was formed to restore Alfie. Many years of painstaking work and a large sum of money went into the restoration which was finally completed on Memorial Day 1993.
This past summer on July 31, Alfie returned to the Watch Hill fire station for a historical presentation. Froh spoke about the truck: “When you see this thing, it isn’t just an old truck. They’ve gone through every detail; this truck was fully brought back to life.”
Watch Hill Fire Chief Robert Peacock said, “If you see it in person, you wouldn’t believe it’s 101 years old.” He was right. Alfie’s bright red paint accented by gold pinstriping gleamed in the sunlight. She looked brand new and ready to delight and educate generations to come.