Continuing my journeys on H.G. Wells' time machine, I arrive in the vicinity of Park and Main streets in Rockland Dec. 11, 1952.

Looking around, I consider whether to get something to eat at Peggy's Cafe or Hubbard's Lunch or even Sim's Lunch. I pause for a moment to look at the novel shape of Paul's Smoke Shop, with its overhanging second story right at the corner of Main and Park. This is believed to be the oldest Main Street building.

Businesses surround me. Where I expect to find the Park Street Grille, I find the stately Hotel Rockland, right next to Studley's Furniture. I also see The Hotel Bayview, Al's Beauty Salon and Joseph Mazzeo's watch repair shop (something that would definitely not escape the attention of a time traveler). The Spear Building stands at the future site of Winslow-Holbrook Memorial Park. I watch people shopping at Flint's Market and at the Boston Shoe Store. On Park Street, I can see the taxi stand and a few shady characters hanging around the Star Pool Room. The Kiwanis have some Christmas trees stashed in a vacant store.

And I know that come tomorrow night, every bit of this, all of these businesses, are going to go up in flames.

The fire will start in the basement of the furniture store at about 6:30 p.m. Friday night, Dec. 12. A passerby will notice and alert police Officer Maurice Benner and within minutes, the fast-moving fire will force the evacuation of the two hotels (fortunately, there will be no loss of life). Wind gusts push the fire hard enough that it jumps across Park Street and reduces the Spear Building to a shell. Hat-sized embers are flying down the street and community leaders fear the whole city is going to go.

Fire Chief Van E. Russell takes command of a scene that will draw mutual aid from fire departments as far North as Bangor and as far inland as Brunswick and Augusta.

In addition to using fire hydrants, pumpers are stationed at the public landing and salt water is thrown on the flames.

That night, many of the Rockland kids were playing basketball in Brunswick and they were excited that Rockland's radio station, WRKD, was covering it, but part-way into the game, the radio crew started packing up their gear. Asked where they were going, they said, "Rockland's on fire." This is the story Gene Kenniston used to tell.

And then there was The Courier-Gazette news team. They were reeling from the recent death of Editor Frank Winslow and had left for the evening around 5:30 p.m., the Saturday edition already put to bed. Photographer-reporter Sid Cullen and Barde rushed to the scene and began taking photos. An extra edition of the Courier provided numerous stories about the massive conflagration and Cullen worked straight through the night with no rest, except to drink black coffee at the Courier's cafeteria.

The Chamber of Commerce had planned a big dinner for that night at 7 p.m. and it had to be canceled because of the fire. Not only that, but the food planned for that event was sent instead to the fire house. In addition, the members of The Eastern Star got to work making coffee and sandwiches, and many other community members jumped into support roles to help the firefighters.

Several of the firefighters were injured and suffered exhaustion in the fight. One was sent to Knox Hospital with smoke inhalation.

The weather was miserable, cold and rainy. By 10 p.m., the firefighters got it under control.

The building that would later house the Brass Compass was still standing, now next to the burned-out Spear Building, which would be torn down, creating room for the future memorial park, and paving the way for future fights over tables in said park.

As the city worked on the cleanup over the coming weeks, state investigators used the Farnsworth Art Museum workshop as their headquarters.

The fire did at least $1 million in damage, which was a lot of money in those days. It put 22 firms out of business.

The fire of '52 was a game-changer for the city. It changed our landscape forever, and to consider what the city could look like today had it not taken place is to contemplate an alternative reality. The fire reached all the way to Myrtle Street.

It also showed the spirit of our community that in a time of crisis everyone pulled in the same direction, everyone did their jobs or supported those who had jobs to do, and we can look back and see it could have been worse.

Special thanks to Glenn Billington for information he provided.

Editor Daniel Dunkle of The Courier-Gazette lives in Rockland. We want to hear from you! Send in your stories, photos and memories via email at: ddunkle@villagesoup.com; or snail mail to: 91 Camden St., Suite 403, Rockland, ME 04841. Hand-written notes are welcome and appreciated.

-30-