Chester Chatter: Sparking memories of a fire

By Ruthie Douglas
©2020 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Editor’s Note: This week — and this week only — Ruthie is turning over her column to Warren Mackensen, whose parents used to own the Chester Inn, which is now known as the Fullerton Inn.

On July 25, 1956, at about 4:20 p.m., a brief but vicious late afternoon summer thunderstorm roared through Chester.

The limb of a tree fell of the hood of a car parked on Main Street in front of the inn. Although its fall was softened by the overhead electrical wires, it still took down power lines along Route 11.

The occupant of the car, miraculously, was uninjured, though quite shaken by the crash, and she was surrounded by high voltage wires that sagged around the automobile. Telephone lines were also disrupted.

Behind the inn stood a cavernous, three-story wooden horse and buggy barn from the 1920s, when the inn was built. With no use for the barn after the arrival of automobiles, the E.R. Wiggins Building Supply Co. of Springfield acquired the building for a lumber outlet in Chester.

I loved going into Wiggins and, staying safely away from the machinery, watch large slabs of wood being cut to size, then planed smooth for construction projects. The workmen knew me well as  “the little 8-year-old boy from the inn” next door. I have never lost my love for the smell of fresh-cut lumber.

With the loss of power from that thunderstorm, the workers at Wiggins locked the doors and left for home.

On that same July day, the Chester Fire Department had planned to hold its annual firemen’s picnic 20 miles away at Hapgood Pond in Peru, but for reasons I do not know, plans changed at the last minute. Instead, they held a water ball event at the end of School Street, on the loop side of the Green.

Water ball consists of two teams of firefighters — dressed in bathing suits — who use fire hoses to push a volleyball to the other’s sides. Everyone got soaked that hot afternoon, but no one minded it a bit.

As it turned out, the Fire Department’s change in plans was fortuitous, for around 7 p.m., power was restored to downtown Chester and soon after, someone at the ballfield behind the inn ran toward the water ball festivities shouting that the ER Wiggins Building was on fire.

As some firefighter drove the trucks, others dragged their water ball hoses down the street to the front of the inn toward the sawdust-and-wood-filled Wiggins Building, where flames shot high into the air and a dense cloud of smoke settled over the community. Fire officials found it difficult to summon aid from the Chester Depot and Springfield Fire departments because telephone service had yet to be restored.

Linemen still working on the electrical lines used their radios to contact Claremont, N.H., where a call was relayed to the Springfield Fire Department.

The fire was finally brought under control around 10 p.m.

An investigation revealed that when the power outage occurred, the Wiggins workmen did not turn off all the machinery. So with power restored, machines restarted, sparking the fire.

Chester Inn backed up to the front of the Wiggins Building, which stood some 30 feet away. To protect the inn from the heat, my father took a candle and leaned out windows on the backside of the inn to activate each exterior sprinkler head, which sprayed water against the clapboards, keeping them wet and preventing the inn from becoming part of the blaze.

The successful water curtain proved the wisdom of the sprinkler system design that called for outdoor sprinklers wherever there was an adjacent structure that could catch fire.

The Wiggins fire gave me a heightened respect for the devastating effects of thunderstorms and related electrical outages.

Warren Mackensen, who now lives in New Hampshire, donated a collection of STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — books to the Whiting Library last summer.

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Filed Under: Chester ChatterCommunity and Arts Life

About the Author: Ruthie Douglas is originally from Springfield but has called Chester her home for 58 years, and has been writing the Chester Chatter column for more than 40 of those years. Ruthie is also a longtime volunteer throughout the community.

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