On the evening of November 7, 1918, at 6:30PM, a fire started in the vicinity of the wing coating building of the Burgess Aeroplane Factory in Marblehead, MA. The Fire quickly spread to all of the buildings at the facility and to a boat yard nearby. The loss was almost absolute.
The wing coating building or “Dope Shed” was where wings were coated in a nitro-cellulose compound called “dope”. The wings were then left to dry in the open room. Ventilation was provided by a motor-driven airplane propeller that sucked “air from the main room and the space under the floor through registers directly out of doors.”
While the cause of the fire is unknown, three probable causes were put forth at the time:
- About a month prior to the incident, a fire was found in a 100-pile of coal in a fire-resistive bin in the boiler room. This coal was then carted outside and piled against the Wing Coating Building. It is possible that this coal may have heated once more spontaneously, and raised the temperature on the inside of the building as well;
- Oily rags may have spontaneously caught fire inside the building… although the foreman insisted that he personally collected all rags the previous night;
- The fire may have been caused by incendiarism or arson. When a premature rumor spread through the area, employees left work at 2PM to celebrate Allied victory and the end of World War I (Germany did not formally surrender to the Allies until November 11, 1918.) The employees straggled back to the facility around 4PM, but were discharged for the day. Someone might have chosen to have a bonfire or the fire might have been set to show displeasure…
Because of the highly flammable nature of the materials and the events of the time, the real cause of the fire is unlikely to ever be known for sure.
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