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By December 24, 2020 Read More →

The Christmas Fire of 1970

Fifty years ago, Peterborough firefighters were not in their homes enjoying a cup of coffee and opening presents on Christmas morning. They, along with firefighters from six other towns, were trying to control a fire that was consuming the school building on High Street. The Christmas Fire remains left the school in ruins and the town scrambling to find space for the displaced students before Christmas vacation was over.

The Peterborough High School Building

The High Street property included the three-story, brick-faced building that opened in 1927 for grades 9-12; a space for home economics and shop

Peterborough High School under construction

The Peterborough High School Building while under construction, 1926-27

classes that was added in 1951; and two wings erected at the back of the property to house elementary and junior high students, a new gym, and administrative offices. This final addition was added in 1955 when the old Central School built in 1887 closed.

On the morning of the fire, the school on High Street was serving only grades 1-8 since the previous September students in grades 9-12 had moved to the newly completed Conval High School building in North Peterborough.

The Fire

Three neighbors on High Street called in the fire. Alison Kearney call the telephone operator. Mrs. Ethel Lloyd called the police and spoke with Officer Roger Hill who was on night duty. At 4:05 a.m., undertaker Arthur Wheeler pulled the alarm.

As firefighters arrived on the scene, Fire Chief Mert Dyer instructed them to focus on saving the elementary wing. The temperature that Christmas morning was around zero degrees so even with the blazing building, ice cycles were forming on firemen’s gear and High Street was turning into a sheet of ice.

The fire consumed three-fourths of the total school property and destroyed the oldest part, the original home of Peterborough High School.

Christmas Fire, 1970

A view of the high school building after the fire

The fire was the greatest financial loss the community had suffered since the flood, fire, and hurricane of 1938. But just like what happened in 1938, the people of the community rallied to return to normal as soon as possible.

Even before the embers had completely cooled, hundreds of volunteers showed up to do everything from scrubbing still usable furniture to clearing debris. Professional workmen labored 12-hour days to replace wiring and plumbing and to do carpentry work. As school superintendent Ray Edwards said, “The number of persons involved will never be known who gave up their holiday to try to save as much as possible.”

Back to School

The biggest issue to address was how to get grades 1-8 students back in school as soon as possible. On the morning of January 4, 1971, 285 junior high students and their teachers joined students and teachers at ConVal’s new high school building. If you were part of this group, most likely you’ll remember when the bell sounded to change classes, stepping into the human traffic moving in the hallway was no easy task.

Christmas break lasted longer than planned for the students in grades 1-6. But by January 11, the gym and elementary wing were sufficiently cleaned to allow them to return to the school though an unpleasant acrid odor would permeate their classrooms for several months.  At both school sites, students and teachers alike rose to the adversity and seemed to be propelled by it. As so often happens, the disaster brought out the best in people.

Remembering the old Peterborough High School

In thinking back to this disaster one of the hardest things to accept is that for those people who graduated from PHS they will never be able to visit those unique classrooms and halls again. But there are people’s memories. Remember the painted elves that bordered the blackboard in Miss Hancock’s math room or the original school gym that was being used as a study hall and cafeteria? If you graduated from PHS, you’ll also remember the stage in the old gym that became the sacred spot for seniors to use for their lunch. Remember the biology and chemistry labs that were located in opposite corners of the lower level? What memories do you have of the PHS building or of the Christmas Fire 50 years ago?

Were you a student or teacher at the school in 1970? Did you help fight the fire or assist in the cleanup? Share your recollections with us! If you have a story to share, please email us at info@nullMonadnockCenter.org and we will put your first-hand account in our archive collection on the Christmas Fire of 1970.

Read the local news coverage of the Christmas Fire here.

Students in the Cafeteria Peterborough High School Classroom with students
Peterborough High School student and teacher Peterborough High School Students in the library