Hello! Every seven days, for the rest of the year, This Week in Portland History is bringing to light a person or event from the city’s past.
Portland woodcarver Edward Souther Griffin was a gifted 19th-century sculptor. Unfortunately, not much of his work survives today. One of his pieces has endured, though, and if you live in town, I bet you’ve seen it a hundred times.
I’m talking about the statue of the firefighter on Congress Street next to the central fire station. It was dedicated 119 years ago this week, on Sept. 5, 1898.
Griffin was born in Portland in 1834. His father, John Griffin, was a carver, too. He made a living carving elaborate rosewood and mahogany legs for box grand pianos.
The younger Griffin took up the family trade and made his name in pine, carving figureheads for the bows of sailing ships. He worked all over New England, catering to the bustling shipbuilding trade.
But life at sea was hard on his masterpieces. Wind, water, sun and time erased most of his wooden statues. There’s almost nothing left of his life’s work. What remains is almost entirely in private hands, not museums.
We do have the granite fireman, though.
Griffin was not only a carver, he was also a longtime Portland firefighter. When the city needed a sculptor for the new statue, he got the call. It was his first commission in stone. Griffin was 64 at the time.
When first dedicated, the statue stood on the Western Prom at the end of West Street. It was there only until 1902 when it moved to the Fireman’s Relief Association lot in Evergreen Cemetery. It stayed there for 85 years. In 1987, it moved again, to its current home outside the central fire station.
As a side note, Griffin had a son of his own, Walter Griffin, who was an artist, too. Born in 1861, he was a painter and considered to be one of the grandfathers of American impressionism.
Edward Griffin died on Oct. 5, 1928, at the age of 94. He’s buried in Evergreen Cemetery, near his son and not too far from his father.
Most of his work might be gone, but the firefighter abides.
Disclaimer: I’m not a historian. I owe everything I know to the dedicated research of those who have come before me. These character sketches and historical tidbits are assembled from multiple (often antique) sources and sprinkled with my own conjecture. I’m happy to be set straight or to learn more.