A disastrous fire that broke out in downtown Durham on the night of March 23, 1914, destroyed a large portion of the downtown business district when a break in the water main left firemen powerless against the blaze. The news coverage the next day reads almost like a Twitter feed with snippets of information from various sources as they reported in.
All five stories of the Duke building have been completely gutted. Only the walls are standing.
The tall Duke building, more than a hundred feet high, scattered flames all over Durham, while the firemen were forced to look on the destruction with their apparatus in a state of almost total paralysis. The failure of the water has rendered outside firemen’s aid unnecessary. There is no place to join the hose.
The Duke building caught about 10:30 and the flames went upward above the reach of the feeble streams that were poured upon it. Two breaks in the mains left little for the fighters to do. The N&O 3/24/1914
The next morning, the outlook of city leaders was more determination than devastation. Gen. Julian S. Carr declared a “modern twelve or sixteen-story office and business building will be speedily erected” even if he had to build it himself.
Amid ruins still hot and smoking, Durham has begun her resurrection, and the fire of this morning is now looked upon as a short pause, only, in the business of a busy town.
The dawn of a beautiful spring day put sunshine in faces that were black and grimy from an all-night struggle, and was an inspiration to those who might have been overcome by apathy instead of being moved to energy. Of losers there are many, but none are lost.
Throughout the terrible contest between fire and firemen for the supremacy, more than half the population stood in scant clothing and watched some of the richest properties go down in irremediable ruin. Once when water failed utterly and the firemen were driven back by the unbearable heat, bucketters organized to carry water to buildings far from the fire zone, but it was not necessary. With patchwork that gave the men the little water that they could squirt impotently upon the blazes, there was no room for the volunteers. The N&O 3/25/1914
The fire renewed debate on the inadequacies of Durham’s water system and led to the development of a city-run system.