July 2008 Fire at Washburn & Doughty

By Barbara Rumsey

1917 fire at Rice Bros. shipyard, now Washburn & Doughty

The devastating fire in July 2008 at Washburn & Doughty shocked East Boothbay and a much larger area.  The strange sight of a constant stream of fire trucks imprinted with the names of towns far from the region testifies to how rare big trouble is here, and is a reminder that we lead marvelously safe and hum-drum lives here in the village most of the time.

Of the three shipyard fires in the village in the 1900s, two were at mid-century. I saw the Hodgdon Brothers (now Ocean Point Marina) fire of January 1954 which levelled that yard. And before my time Goudy & Stevens (now Hodgdon Yachts) almost totally burned in January 1944. Earlier was the Rice yard fire of 1917.

Rice Brothers shipyard was formed in the 1890s on the site of Boothbay Marine at the end of School Street, just yards from Washburn & Doughty and recently bought by them. Rice’s was the largest and the most truly modern yard in the village in the early 1900s—modern in the sense of having a sizeable plant. Local yards of the 1800s usually built outside and had a couple smallish buildings for shop work, such as spinning oakum (a highly flammable operation), blacksmithing (a flaming operation), or bench work. Rice Brothers had a meteoric rise from the 1890s, building not only government boats, but yachts, one designs, power boats, steel boats (novel for Boothbay), and even engines right on their own property. Their plant expanded enormously and quickly—by 1916 they had three two-story buildings, one 135×40, one 50×40, and the last 60×30 feet, as well as three one-story buildings. Though mostly on the Boothbay Marine site, in 1917 Rice’s started to expand around the point to the current Washburn & Doughty site.

Just 91 years and a day before the July 11, 2008 Washburn & Doughty fire, Rice Brothers was destroyed by fire on July 10, 1917, and its 100 men were idled. The accompanying July 1917 photo shows the hulk of the 110-foot lightship they had underway in their big building. The girl in the foreground is my old village teacher Hope Hodgdon Updegraff; Richard Rice is in the necktie. In the background is the frame of their 200-foot-long new building project on the site that burned a few days ago.

Destroyed inside Rice’s buildings by the 1917 fire were many unfinished vessels: the lightship, a beam trawler, a 100-foot government lighter, and six power launches. Will Rice only had time to save some plans, while Phil Seavey retrieved his and Joe Luke’s tools before the gasoline explosions. The George Rice house was burned to the ground as well as six yachts stored nearby. East Boothbay’s horse-drawn hand-powered pumper saved the Frank Rice house—now owned by Washburn & Doughty, and saved again this time.

Rice Brothers’s loss was put at $130,000 which would translate into millions today. Within three weeks, Rice’s crew was back at work on two 150-foot steel beam trawlers in their skeletal new building. Articles such as these couldn’t be written without the painstaking documentation of yesterday’s events, compiled in this case by Robert Rice.

 

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