Once upon a time, there was a fire in Taftville and it lasted all day. It was on a Sunday, at the 8 o’clock Mass. The Rev. Henri Laurion smelled smoke, as did most of the parishioners at Sacred Heart that morning. He turned on the altar and announced to the congregation that they should leave the church in an orderly manner, that the church was on fire.
At first, it looked like a minor incident, but Sacred Heart Church had so many appointments that were flammable. There were velvet ropes surrounding the altar and there were decorative wooden columns. It was a magnificent altar, but that morning, it would fuel a fire that would ultimately destroy the church.
Outside, it was foggy that morning, and it was an eerie sight as the people left the church. Several in the congregation were volunteer firemen, and with the fire house just a block up Merchants Avenue, they ran to sound the alarm and get the firefighting equipment. What followed was the greatest demonstration of volunteerism that I have ever seen. Though the fight was futile, there was more fire equipment in Taftville that day than ever before or since. If manpower and hard work could have saved the church, it would have survived.
Today’s story is perhaps not so much about the fire, which happened on April 29, 1956, as it is about a group of people who get up in the middle of the night and provide protection for a sleeping population. It is volunteerism at its very best. I’m talking about the volunteer firefighters who have a special dedication and who have served this community so faithfully and so well for so many years.
It was the Yantic Fire Department, established on June 17, 1847, that was Norwich’s first volunteer company. It was by Act of the Connecticut General Assembly that the Yantic Fire Engine Company No. 1 was created by Capt. Winslow Williams. Yantic, in fact, may have been the first volunteer chartered fire company in Connecticut. Our youngest companies, who are sisters, were chartered on the same day in 1942 — East Great Plain and Occum. Until 1942, Yantic and Taftville volunteers covered the entire town area.
Taftville was on the scene immediately at 8:17 a.m. and sent out a general alarm at 8:42 followed by a call for any and all ladder trucks at 9:15.
What followed was an overwhelming display of dedication by so many volunteer firemen who came from everywhere. The following, in no particular order, joined Taftville at the scene: Yantic, East Great Plain, Occum, Jewett City, Lisbon, Willimantic, Sub Base, Groton Borough, Konomoc (New London), Montville, Mohegan, Joseph Perkins, Central, Baltic, Laurel Hill, Poquetanuck, Preston
City, Pachaug, Voluntown, Bozrah, Andover, Columbia, South Windham, North Windham, Eagleville and Mansfield. In all, more than 200 firefighters responded with approximately 30 pieces of equipment from 26 companies.
Today’s picture shows the hook and ladder on Providence Street and further up on Merchants Avenue, five other pieces of equipment, mostly pumpers. They even set up a line to pump water that day from the canal at Ponemah Mill.
Wauregan on Fire
Recently, the Wauregan Hotel caught fire. As I stood on Shannon Corner that night and early morning, I watched six hook and ladders play lines on that old hotel. There was even a giant hook and ladder pumper from Plainfield. As I watched them save the Wauregan, I thought back to that fire in Taftville. The equipment in Taftvile, 36 years ago, was very basic, but the dedication then, as now, of the volunteer firefighters has come down through the years as one of this town’s and region’s greatest assets. With today’s equipment, they surely would have saved the church.
Today’s picture was taken from one hook and ladder looking at another. Years ago, I was the photographer for the volunteers and the paid uniform departments. Today, with OSHA regulations, and so many other restrictions, I am sure they would never allow a photographer to climb a hook and ladder to take a picture. Luckily, because things were different then, we have a picture.
The other day, I ran into Dr. Henry Archambault, and we were talking about the Taftville fire. The good doctor said he recalled how the firemen had let me climb the hook and ladder and then they had put the ladder over the collapsed roof of the church. I looked quite like a hot dog on a stick. They wouldn’t allow it today.
A bit of Taftville history is visible in this picture. While the photo was taken only 36 years ago, the whole neighborhood looks very different today. Directly across from Sacred Heart Church was the public school (Wequonnoc, I believe, is what it was called even then) except that there were two buildings in 1956. They are gone today, along with that beautiful first Sacred Heart Church.
Putting out the Fire
Pictures are the stuff that memories are made of, and the day of the Sacred Heart fire I remember that fire equipment coming from all over Eastern Connecticut. Because of the outside of the church was brick and stone, and the firefighters at first were reluctant to break the beautiful stained-glass windows, it was impossible to get to the fire. It burned all morning, and sadly, smoldered late into the night. And all of Taftvile mourned.
When the fire was out it was volunteers again who got to work converting space in Ponemah Mill to hold Mass. Before that, Omer Rondeau recalls, and I remember, that there was the Hillcrest Theater just up the hill from Joe Bellantone’s Pharmacy and LeClaire’s Grocery.
The theater had been purchased by Hyman Schwarz, but his daughter, Rose Cooper, owned it. There was no charge and Mass was said on the stage at the theater for several weeks.
The Mill served as temporary church for a few years, and I remember going to Christmas midnight Mass with my family in the Mill that very year.
The fire brought the whole community closer together than ever before. The cross, from the top of the old church, was raised on high the day of the fire by legendary Taftville policeman, Ray Boenig. It became the symbol of the effort to rebuild Sacred Heart. It is appropriate to point out that the Taftville Volunteer Fire company was then, is now, and has been for 75 years, the heart and the spirit of Taftville.
This year, on June 5 and 6, the Taftville volunteers will celebrate their 75th anniversary with a big parade.
Old timers among the volunteers will certainly remember that day years ago. For those not old enough to remember, we offer today’s picture when the firehouse stood just a few doors down from the SHYMA Club and across from the Hillcrest Theater.
Once upon a time, everybody in Taftville gathered on the Ballfield, and along Providence Street, Merchants Avenue and Hunters Avenue. They watched all day, as their neighbors from East Great Plains, Yantic, Occum, Baltic and from all over Eastern Connecticut made a Herculean effort. They tried to save the church where their children had been baptized, and married, and where the final Mass had been said for so many. It was a sad day in Taftville that April 29, 1956.