Lydia Cannon Museum debuts exhibit on 1909 Milton fire

Display shows ‘The most disastrous conflagration that ever visited Milton’
December 16, 2021

Milton Historical Society debuted its newest exhibit Dec. 10, highlighting an event that has largely been forgotten more than 100 years later: a devastating 1909 fire that took out most of Milton’s central business district.

The society unveiled the exhibit with a gala event at the Lydia B. Cannon Museum on Union Street. The exhibit, called Milton’s Hottest Summer: The Great Fire of 1909, uses contemporary accounts and photographs of Milton before and after the fire, mixed with artists’ interpretations of the event painted by Milton Arts Guild members.

Randy Brown, president of the MHS board of trustees, said some of the inspiration for the exhibit came from the COVID-19 pandemic, a shared traumatic event. He said it was interesting to look through another traumatic event in Milton’s history, the fire that destroyed half the town.

Phil Martin, chief historian on the project, said the fire was a singular transformative event for Milton. It started in the early morning hours of Aug. 13, 1909, when fire broke out at The Big Store, which was located at the corner of Federal and Front streets, site of the present-day M&T Bank. 

The fire, which lasted for four hours, consumed three to four square blocks of the commercial business area; Martin likened it to a cruise missile hitting downtown Milton. The damage stretched from the banks of the Broadkill River all the way to the present-day Paisley Moon salon building on Federal Street. 

Martin said the Paisley Moon building survived the fire, in part because it was made from brick, as opposed to most of the buildings in town, which were constructed of wood. In addition, while fires had happened before in downtown Milton, and the Milton Fire Department was organized in 1901, firefighters were not equipped to fight a blaze of that size. Surprisingly, no one is reported to have died.

Martin said the primary eyewitness account of the fire was from Milford Chronicle reporter and Milton resident David A. Connor, who described the fire as “The most disastrous conflagration that ever visited Milton.” The only contemporaneous photographs of the fire’s results were taken by Dr. William E. Douglas, a physician. Thus, art guild members were enlisted to help fill the gaps in the historical accounts, showing the fire’s origins, raising of the fire alarm, and the firefighting efforts.

“We’ve had poster boards that show the aftermath of the fire, but we’ve never had the whole story: prologue, main chapter and epilogue, told full length. We decided to do just that. Tell the whole story, root causes and what was the aftermath,” Martin said. 

As to what started the fire, well, that remains a mystery to this day. There is no shortage of theories, which are documented in the exhibit. Among them are a planned arson, rats chewing on matches and a jealous lover seeking revenge on her cheating significant other. 

The great fire exhibit replaced the Bryan Stevenson: Walking Into Greatness exhibit, which ran for more than a year. 

Of the new exhibit, Martin said, “I believe this is a compelling story of our town.”


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