The town now known as Old Orchard Beach, Maine was settled in 1636 by Thomas Rogers, formerly of Salem, Massachusetts. At that point, Maine did not exist, but was part of the state of Massachusetts. Mr. Rogers planted grapes and fruit trees on the high land above the sand beach; and his plantation came to be shown on maps as “Rogers’ Garden.”
Down-beach, the landscape was wilder; pine trees grew to the water’s edge, and weird blasted chunks of rock showed, black and covered with dripping weed, at low tide. One of those was “Googins Rock” — it’s still there; I’ve seen it, and it’s plenty strange looking.
In 1675 a party of militiamen surprised a party of attacking Indians at Googins Rock; the raiding party was creeping up on the homesteads that had clustered around Mr. Rogers’ plantation through the thick cover of pine. The militia, so the story goes, were outnumbered, 150 to 10. Only the fact that the tide was out, which gave them the Rock to shelter behind, saved their bacon.
The Indians swept on about their business; Mr. Rogers’ home was burned, one of his sons, among others of the town, perished.
The remaining members of the Rogers’ family relocated to Kittery, leaving behind the vineyards, and the apple and pear orchards, which prospered for another 150 years. Over time, the nautical maps were changed to reflect the landmark — there was an “old orchard” to be seen along the shore.
People continued to travel up-country and to settle along the sea. In 1820, the same year that Maine achieved independence from Massachusetts, the first Publick House was opened at Old Orchard Beach, to serve travelers. In 1837, E.C. Staples began taking summer boarders at his farm. Business was so brisk that a couple years later he built the Old Orchard Boarding House.
Things perked up even more when the steam railroad came up from Boston, stopping just two miles out of town. Then the “Grand Trunk Railroad,” opened in 1853 and the seashore was suddenly within reach of the population of Montreal, Canada.
The Civil War slowed things down some, but by 1898 Old Orchard Beach boasted a merry-go-round, many restaurants, rooming houses, hotels, and all sorts of pleasurable diversions.
Between 1896 and 1900, several small fires took out various landmark hotels. Old Orchard Beach didn’t take the warning; it kept growing, building like a boomtown.
The Emerson Hotel, built in the teeth of the sea wind, was the terminus point for the Pier, a steel structure extending 1770 feet into the sea. A train ran from the Casino at the seaward end, to the Emerson, to accommodate those guests who couldn’t — or shouldn’t — walk back from a night of drinking and dancing.
In short, Old Orchard Beach was the place to vacation, and everything was coming up roses.
Then, beginning on the evening of August 16, 1907, there was a fire. The Fire. One man was killed when a tank of soda water exploded; three others nearby were injured.
There were no other deaths; the rest of the reported injuries much milder than one might anticipate from such an. . .encompassing event.
The town — the fire ate out the town like it was candy. All the structures lining East Grand, the bowling alleys, the livery stables, the shooting galleries, bars, concessions. . . And the big hotels — the Emerson, the Olympia House, the Alberta, the Irving, the Fiske, the Velvet, the Seashore House. . .
The fire burned so hot that the water from the tanker trucks blew into steam before quenching a single flame. It ran so fast the entire town was engulfed before the fire department at Biddeford got its men down to help.
The Pier, connected to the Emerson by the train tracks, and a walkway, lost its plank flooring to flame for a distance of 50 feet or more, and the entry towers were completely destroyed.
Having done its worst, the fire. . . went out. Later, it was said that a young lady, a maid employed at the Emerson Hotel, overturned a lamp while she was heating her curling irons. The room took fire immediately, according to the reports; the young woman escaped with her life.
Old Orchard Beach rebuilt. A wooden rollercoaster was added to the Seaside Park in 1914. In 1929 Charles Lindbergh brought “The Spirit of St. Louis” down in Old Orchard Beach. All during the 1920’s and ’30’s the Big Bands came up to play at the Pier Casino — Rudy Valle, Guy Lombardo, Duke Ellington.
In 1909 a wind storm destroyed The White City at the end of the Pier. It was rebuilt, now only 900 feet into the surf.
In the 1960’s the Pier Casino was converted to an aquarium; in the 70’s it was condemned as unsafe. After the demolition, the Pier was shortened to 700 feet.
In 1978, winter storm ripped out the mid-section of the Pier. It now extends 500 feet into the ocean and is built entirely of wood.
In a way, the backward progress of the Pier reflects the progress of the town since its glamor days. Today, Old Orchard Beach is a tough, gritty seaside resort town that caters, in season, to an odd mix of Canadian, American, high-class and low clientele.
I love the place.