Durham Fire of 1914

During the month of June,  Durham Book Club participants are reading The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson. In the book, Candice and Brandon have a lot in common: their love of books, their desire to solve puzzles, and their inquisitive, critical-thinking minds. This is a perfect combination for a decades-long mystery to finally be solved. Together, the friends decipher the clues throughout James Parker’s letter in order to solve the puzzle and find his fortune. 

Your challenge this month, Durham Book Club members, is to decipher clues within two articles about the greatest fire in Durham’s history in order to unlock the code to find your fortune. 

Did you know that over 100 years ago, downtown Durham suffered a massive fire that burned down a huge portion of its buildings? In the articles below, you will learn a lot about the fire, but pay attention! Just as Candice and Brandon had to use their critical thinking skills, so will you - look closely for questions within the article of the past to find the answers in the present.

You may work in groups with friends or on your own. When you have discovered four pieces of missing information, email your answers to studentleaders@durhambookclub.org. You can always reach out if you have questions!

*Prizes will be awarded to all Durham Book Club participants who find the missing information! With a special thanks to The Zen Succulent, the first two people who submit correct answers will win something special. This activity will be live until July 31 so act quickly!

Biggest Fire in Durham History        

Tuesday, March 24, 1914

Breaking News 

As the first newspaper to report on this massive fire, events are still ongoing and details are unfolding. What follows is the latest news, as of 5am March 24, 1914. 

Last night at around 10:30pm, a fire broke out in the second story of the Brodie L. Duke building. Owned by Brodie Duke, Washington Duke’s oldest son, was originally built in 1878 and is the second tallest building in all of Durham, at five stories tall. The cause of the fire is still unknown.

Reverend S. S. Brost was walking home and was one of the first to discover the fire. After the few minutes it took him to run to the fire station, the water connections had been made with the hydrants. But there seems to have been an issue with the water, which meant the fire was left burning for quite a while. It is thought that the water main had broken, but there are still many questions left on how this happened. For one thing,  for it to have burned as long as it did, did the water pipe break in more than one place? There should have been some backup, yet it seemed that the water wasn’t working for hours. We do know that the firemen stuck to their positions and fought the flames and heat bravely, and no one was seriously injured.

It is too early to know how many, but there are a multitude of businesses that have been affected by the damage of these buildings. We have spoken with workers from several companies, including the Durham Book and Stationary company, Rawls department store, and Woolworth department store. It is hard to tell yet who else has been affected, but these damages will certainly harm these hard working people.

Of course, the Duke building is gutted. All that remains of the handsome building are the walls and a mass of gnarled and twisted steel piled in the smoking tons of debris. The Geer block of buildings suffered a similar fate and the T. M.  Stephens company on Parrish is a total and complete loss. How many buildings were completely lost in this catastrophic fire? Three days ago, Main Street looked brand new, and now it is completely covered in ash and soot; it seems many buildings are gone or severely damaged. It is yet to be determined just how many buildings have been destroyed, but it most definitely burned across the whole block between Mangum and Corcoran.

There is so much damage, this fire must have burned for hours. It is yet to be reported the exact timeline, but this information should be released soon. To those who were in the area, any knowledge about when the fire started and ending would be greatly appreciated.

Main Street before the fire of 1914

A Century of Reflection: Remembering the 1914 Fire

Unveiling the Missing Pieces of Durham’s Historic Blaze

Sunday, March 23, 2014

In commemoration of the 100th anniversary of Durham’s catastrophic fire, we revisit the tragic events that unfolded on this fateful day.

One century later, the details of that calamitous night have become clearer. The fire, which broke out at 10:30pm. in the second story of the Brodie L. Duke building,  was a turning point in Durham’s history. The iconic building, standing at an impressive five stories tall, was a symbol of prosperity and prominence. 

Reverend S.S. Brost, who stumbled upon the fire while walking home, acted swiftly, racing to the fire station to summon help. However, the situation became more dire as an unexpected issue emerged - the water supply. The fire hydrants were connected promptly, but to their dismay, the firefighters encountered a water pressure problem that prolonged the burning for an extended period.

Investigations into the water issue uncovered a startling revelation: the water main had indeed broken, resulting in a disrupted water flow to combat the flames. Firefighters were left helpless to fight the fire. The true extent of the damage unfolded as it became evident that the water pipe had broken not once but twice, exacerbating the fire’s wrath. The lack of a reliable backup system left firefighters and citizens grappling together with a relentless blaze that raged on for over six hours. 

With each passing hour, the fire exacted its toll. A heavy wind blew the flames across the street in the northwesterly direction, and great sparks and parts of burning roofs were dropped all around the entire section of town. Around 12:30am, another water main burst and the big high-pressure pump at Fire Station No. 2 on W Main St. had been stopped. The blaze moved eastward and several other large buildings connected to the Duke skyscraper were destroyed. Finally by 4:15a.m. the fire was under control, with it being completely put out around 5a.m.

Though the firemen valiantly fought the inferno, their heroic efforts could not prevent significant losses. Many businesses were burned down completely, including the post office, the Academy of Music, the drug store of Haywood & Boone on the corner of Main and Manfum and Blacknall’s drug store on the corner of Main and Corcoran were in flames. It is unknown exactly how many businesses were affected by the fire, but estimates suggest at least 15 businesses suffered major damage. The cost to repair the buildings exceeded one million dollars, and countless hardworking individuals were affected by the aftermath of the disaster.

There is no doubt that the scope of destruction was vast. Main Street, once a bustling thoroughfare, transformed into a desolate landscape of ashes and soot. At least 20 buildings were completely razed or severely damaged, as the fire swept across the entire blog between Mangum and Corcoran Streets.

The fire was indeed devastating to the city of Durham, but a big - and positive - change came from it. The original pump station pumped water from the Eno River down into the city; it is located in North Durham near what is now Cole Mill Road, specifically Pump Station Rd. Two years after the fire, the city voted to pass a bond to establish a city-owned water system to replace the private systems that had served the city since 1887. This new reservoir, Lake Michie, has allowed a lot more water for the growing city. 

We want to extend a HUGE thank you to The Museum of Durham History and journalist and local historian Jim Wise. Without your knowledge and your thoughtful consideration, we would not have known where to start this project! Thank you so much for your time, your help, and your dedication to sharing Durham's fascinating history.

In addition to an interview with Jim Wise, the sources we used include Images of America: Durham County by Jim Wise, Durham County: A History of Durham County, North Carolina, second edition by Jean Bradley Anderson, Durham Fire Department's Twitter, Open Durham, a project of Preservation Durham, City of Durham Government, and Digital NC: NC Newspapers.