Central Square in Keene

Central Square in Keene was the site of a fire extinguisher demonstration gone awry in 1867.

In the spring of 1867, a crowd of local residents gathered on Central Square in Keene to view a demonstration of a new invention. This new machine was a chemical fire extinguisher. Although portable fire extinguishers had been in use for several decades, this new development may have been a soda-acid extinguisher, which was patented the previous year. A committee was appointed by the selectmen to view the demonstration and make a recommendation concerning whether Keene should make use of the extinguishers.

A 12-foot-square shed was built in the middle of the street just south of the Keene common at Central Square. The grand finale of the demonstration was to be the use of the new machines to extinguish a fire in the shed, which had been filled with combustibles. As a preliminary event, however, a pile of oil barrels was set on fire at the northeast corner of the square.

As the demonstrators were spraying the burning barrels, a shout went up that someone had set fire to the shed on the other side of the common. The extinguishing crew abandoned the barrels, which were burning brightly, and ran to the now blazing shed. Just as they arrived at the shed, someone jokingly turned down the valves on the chemical tanks. The fire was so hot that the demonstrators could not get close enough to reach the flames with the diminished spray from the extinguishers. The crew finally gave up and watched helplessly as both the barrels and the shed burned in the street.

The crowd was highly amused by the disastrous demonstration. The committee appointed for the event did not recommend that the town rely on the extinguishers for use by its firefighters. They did state that such machines should prove invaluable in shops, hotels and factories where watchmen or other employees were available to make use of them immediately before a fire became too involved. Although the fire extinguisher has earned an important place in homes and businesses around the world, it is a good bet that none were sold following the hot demonstration on Central Square in April of 1867.

Alan F. Rumrill is executive director of the Historical Society of Cheshire County, which has been collecting, preserving and sharing the history of the region since 1927. It’s on Main Street. To learn more about its public programs and collections, visit hsccnh.org.