Downtown Canaan Burned to the Ground 94 Years Ago

Submitted a year ago
Created by
Andrew Cushing

It took just three hours for Canaan’s business district to burn to the ground on June 2, 1923.

The aftermath. Courtesy Canaan Historical Society.

The fire started in a hay loft, the result of several young boys playing with matches, and quickly spread to the rooftops of nearby businesses and churches with the help of a stiff wind and two weeks of no rain. In total, the “fearful conflagration” claimed fifteen acres of downtown, including the railroad depot and freight shed, two churches, the Canaan Reporter printing office, municipal buildings, stores, the Mascoma Manufacturing Company (where fifty employees made overalls) and residences. The intense heat warped the railroad tracks and reduced telephone poles and trees to two feet in height, preventing Canaan from communicating with the outside world.

Prior to the fire, downtown Canaan was a railroad village that included dense development of stores, livery stables, factories, and residences. Courtesy Canaan Historical Society.

Two citizens died in the fire: store proprietor Harrison Gilman and his son, Sidney. The loss of the forty properties – estimated between $500,000 and $1 million – was hardly covered by insurance payments, which came in at $150,000. “Canaan has been crushed but not conquered,” read the Canaan Reporter in its first publication since the fire claimed its office one week later. “No town in the state has ever been more sorely tried or rendered more desolate…”

Residents pulled their furniture onto the streets during the fire. Courtesy Canaan Historical Society.

Within days of the fire, residents of Canaan committed to rebuilding their downtown. “The town is preparing to resurrect itself from the awful calamity, live down the disaster and emerge stronger and better than ever,” in the words of the Reporter’s special edition. Despite the optimism shared in print, though, the sight of the smoldering village proved upsetting for many. Dozens of families found themselves homeless while the Red Cross scrambled to provide cots, clothing, and food for those affected. “After the fire all that was salvaged in the food line was some canned goods without any labels,” remembered one resident. He added, “The hungry were given a number of cans and they took their luck on what the contents were."

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Sight-seers arrived by the thousands to witness these scenes of desperation amidst the “cremated village.” Front pages of newspapers throughout New England carried images of lone chimneys, exposed possessions on the street, despondent villagers, and the box cars that served as temporary businesses. The thousands of accompanying automobiles forced Canaan’s constable to hire an additional fifteen police officers to monitor traffic and limit souvenir-scrounging.

The Canaan Inn survived the fire, though it burned down in the 1970s. Courtesy Canaan Historical Society.

The Monday following the Saturday fire, citizens and local businessmen met at the surviving Canaan Inn to plan for the future. Those in attendance decided that the new village needed more orderly streets and buildings, but most importantly, villagers decided to form an organization that would guide new development and inspire optimism and excitement for the new downtown district. This clarion call for proper planning came from the newspaper’s editor:

"Canaan village is confronted by the biggest task of its existence in the restoration and rehabilitation of its ruined industries and homes…The time is with us now for a long look ahead, for clear vision and a sound scheme for replacement and growth. Each individual property or business owner is confronted with his or her separate problem and the collective solution of their difficulties is going to be the Canaan of the future. It rests with us to plan wisely and with not too little ambition, to build soundly and not only exercise our abilities to redeem the present loss but to grasp the opportunity for a finer town, and a more sightly community – the Canaan of five years hence."

The Canaan Rehabilitation Corporation (CRC) formed soon after and was charged with platting the new village and courting investors to build their businesses in the commercial core. Financial help came from nearby towns - including Enfield, Lebanon, Laconia, and Concord - and faraway Chambers of Commerce, banks, the Red Cross, church groups, and Dartmouth College. Property owners signed their deeds over to the new enterprise in return for stock in the Corporation; this approach allowed for streets to be widened and straightened, and for the creation of new park space downtown.

Blue print detailing the new road layouts for downtown Canaan. (Barney Ave. was never constructed.) Courtesy Canaan Historical Society.

At its commercial core, Canaan’s new downtown was designed to be a Colonial Revival showpiece. From its inception as a railroad village, downtown Canaan was a mixed-use space: churches, stores, residences, hotels, factories, and offices stood side by side. Developed mostly after 1850, the village contrasted with nearby Canaan Street – a broad and gracious esplanade of fine houses built between the late 1700s and early 1800s. Canaan Street’s real estate along the shores of Canaan Street Lake attracted summering urbanists, whose only interaction with East Canaan was the railroad depot and perhaps the livery. While East Canaan certainly included some fine buildings, its organic and jumbled development lacked the genteel, “colonial” design of Canaan Street. With their blank slate downtown, the CRC employed design elements inspired by the Colonial Revival and City Beautiful in their attempt to make downtown Canaan both a modern commercial corridor and a traditional village reminiscent of nearby Canaan Street.

The Smith and Taplin Block and Post Office were some of the first buildings constructed after the fire. Courtesy Canaan Historical Society.

The CRC board – comprised of both prominent downtown merchants and Canaan Street gentlemen like Judge James Wallace – acknowledged their opportunity to beautify downtown Canaan. The board hired Canaan Street summer resident and Boston utilities engineer, Charles H. Tenney to lead the rehabilitation effort. Tenney was not a planner, but rather a banker-turned electric company president in Massachusetts with the appropriate social networks. Tenney’s obituary described the man as generous, though private, and a member of the American Legion, Free Masons, and Boston’s Algonquin Club.

Tenney’s ties to Canaan’s summer economy made him the right man for the job, a necessary figurehead for an industry that benefited Canaan greatly: summer tourism. Shortly after the June fire, a journalist predicted that “This once popular summer resort for many summer people will be minus of this influx of visitors this summer…for the somber ruins will be, it is thought, anything but attractive to visitors.”

(In 1950, Tenney donated his Canaan Street summer home to Cardigan Mountain School. The home, built c.1925 for Tenney’s family and employees at Boston and Longmeadow Public Utilities, was a popular summer entertainment spot.)

Knights of Pythias Hall (now library). Courtesy Canaan Historical Society.

Tenney’s blueprint for Canaan’s downtown featured two nexuses: a commercial corridor (“Depot Street”) that stretched between the railroad and the beginning of Canaan Street, and a newly-created common (“Mt. Cardigan Park”). By 1924, the commercial corridor along Depot Street was nearly fully developed with a new depot and freight house, hardware store, the Canaan Reporter office, the post office, two grocery stores, and the Knights of Pythias Hall – which also served as a 1,300–seat theater (enough to fit the entire town at the time). Ed Barney, the Canaan Reporter’s editor and a special correspondent for the Boston Globe extolled in November 1923, “A new Canaan is rising from the ashes of the old town. It will be a modern progressive business town, a monument to the courage and faith of the townspeople.” Of the forty-two buildings that burned, half were expected to be replaced by winter of 1923.

The first buildings to define downtown Canaan - large, blockish, and white - were purposefully aspirational. It was hoped that these early investments would set the tone for future boosters to follow suit. Combined with the new common, called Mt. Cardigan Park, these buildings were intended to represent a modern New England village.

Barney Bros. Block (today's Canaan Food Mart). Courtesy Canaan Historical Society.

Though the park space was well-received, many in Canaan harbored resentment toward the Rehabilitation Corporation’s business model. Indeed, the Canaan Rehabilitation Corporation earned a reputation for helping businessmen (especially those on their board) before displaced residents. The CRC failed to turn a profit, and never repaid their investors. Stockholders lost their property and all their savings to what amounted to a boondoggle. Four years after the fire, the Canaan Rehabilitation Corporation sold their remaining asset, the land that would later be donated by Arthur Williams and become Williams Field Park, and disbanded after spending only $12,000.

Very few properties in the downtown area survived the fire, but some were saved by fortune and tactics. The most ornate building to emerge unscathed was the Rand House, built in 1895 by Oscar Rand. The Queen Anne house, which featured a different species of wood in each room, was so beloved that the Rands paid their neighbors, the Bogarduses, to dynamite their smaller and older home as a fire break. After the fire, the Rands placed an advertisement in the paper: “We wish to express our appreciation to the Firemen and all who, in any way, performed such gallant work in saving our home from fire last Saturday.”

The Rand House was saved by dynamiting nearby houses. Courtesy Canaan Historical Society.

Decades after the devastating Fire of 1923, Canaan struggled to build upon the momentum exhibited in the immediate aftermath. The Great Depression certainly did not help. By 1950, empty lots around Mt. Cardigan Park had filled with small restaurants and gas stations, but many remained vacant. The grand vision for downtown Canaan was never fully realized.
In their moment of tragedy, however, Canaanites created a modern downtown that today is unique among New Hampshire's communities for its architecture and planning principles. It's a downtown that seldom receives appreciation or recognition for its significance, and decades of unsympathetic changes to the buildings make such fondness difficult. Maybe, though, with a newfound understanding of the village's history, we can start to look differently at Canaan, and in so doing, envision its potential.


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