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How did Springvale Look Before the Great Fire and Urban Renewal?

Sanford after the 1905 fire

Springvale after the 1905 fire

Photo: Sanford-Springvale Historical Society

By Lawrence Furbish, President, Sanford-Springvale Historical Society

The Sanford-Springvale Historical Society will offer a one-hour walk next Saturday, May 4, highlighting two times when the village of Springvale was changed dramatically – once by fire and once by urban renewal.

The event is one of 50 walks planned around the state for Jane’s Walk ME, sponsored by Maine Preservation. This is the first such walk to be held in Sanford. It will begin and end at the Sanford-Springvale Historical Museum at 505 Main St. in Springvale.

The walks honor Jane Jacobs (1916-2006), an author and grassroots activist who lived in Greenwich Village, New York City. She strongly believed that urban renewal and slum clearance did not respect the lives and needs of city dwellers. She opposed and defeated a plan by developer Robert Moses to construct a Lower Manhattan Expressway that would have run directly through SoHo, Little Italy, and Chinatown. She wrote a book, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,”and, as a woman criticizing many in the male-dominated field of urban planning, was scorned and dismissed by some. Later her ideas became much more widely accepted.

The great Springvale fire of April 14, 1905, began in the boiler room of the W.R. Usher & Son Boot and Shoe factory. It quickly spread and overwhelmed local firefighters. It was only contained after Portland firefighters arrived on a special train. The fire destroyed two factories, 20 commercial establishments, and 15 residences, all made of wood. The Springvale Hotel was saved when firefighters blew up a harness shop next door. Given the devastation, miraculously there were no fatalities, but the destruction of the village’s business district was huge.

Urban renewal came to Springvale in the 1970s, and although the impact was perhaps not as great as that of the fire, it was nevertheless significant. Many buildings were removed and what we see today took their place. Harland Eastman, the Historical Society’s late founder and longtime president, had an intense dislike of urban renewal, particularly in Springvale, which makes the walk particularly appropriate just weeks after his passing.

The walk will begin at 9:30 am and take approximately one hour. It will follow the Springvale Historic Walk, a route laid out by the Sanford Trails Committee, with plaques identifying historically significant buildings now gone. It will be a walking conversation, not a lecture, so come with questions. This is a rain or shine event, so if the weather isn’t great, come wearing rain gear or carrying an umbrella.

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