Past Times

Midnight fire claimed Durham business district a century ago

At Blacknall’s drug store at Main and Corcoran, the fire smoked the next day.
At Blacknall’s drug store at Main and Corcoran, the fire smoked the next day. DAVID M. RUBENSTEIN RARE BOOK & MANUSCRIPT LIBRARY, DUKE UNIVERSITY

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.

12:15 a.m. At twelve fifteen, the whole of Duke building is gutted, and all the buildings in the block are on fire. There seems little hope of saving any of the buildings unless those on the extreme ends of the block, on the corners of Mangum and Main and Corcoran and Main streets. A heavy wind is blowing the flames across the block in the northwesterly direction, and great sparks and parts of the burning roof are being dropped in all that section of town.

12:30 a.m. (By long-distance telephone) At 12:30 another water main had burst, and the big high-pressure pump at Fire Station No. 2 had been stopped, and the fire was temporarily left to eat its way into the block. The blaze is moving eastward, and several other large buildings adjoining the Duke skyscraper have been destroyed.

12:45 a.m. The firemen have the conflagration partially under control, after the complete destruction of the Duke building, owned by Brodie L. Duke.  The total loss to the buildings and stock of goods will run near the million dollar mark.

All five stories of the Duke building have been completely gutted. Only the walls are standing. 

1:15 a.m. The fire is spreading west and the whole of the Geer block of buildings is now on fire.  The Baptist church does not seem to be in danger, as it is slate covered and the wind is in the other direction. The postoffice building is being filled with stock from burning buildings. This will be in serious danger. The Academy of Music is also burning.

1:40 a.m. (By long-distance telephone) The drug store of Haywood & Boone on the corner of Main and Mangum and Blacknall’s drug store on the corner of Main and Corcoran are both in flames and the whole block seems doomed. The postoffice is red hot and, it seems, will go with the rest.

2 o’clock a.m. Fire that has swept the richest business block with a million dollar loss, has crossed from East Main to Mangum and Corcoran streets, and is now alarmingly near the First Baptist Church.

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.