Excerpt from The Robesonian, Lumberton, NC — 1922
THE WORST FIRE IN HISTORY OF NEW BERN. RESIDENCES AND BUSINESSES DESTROYED AND 1,800 PERSONS RENDERED HOMELESS — LOSS OVER TWO MILLION DOLLARS — FIRE SWEPT 8 BLOCKS FROM ONE TO FIVE BLOCKS WIDE.
New Bern, Dec. 1, 1922. — An army of grimy chimneys, standing as grim sentinels amidst an area of smoldering ruins which extends for half a mile from the western boundary of the city to Neuse river, tonight, marked the course of New Bern’s two million dollar fire, the worst in the city’s history.
When interviewed at 10:30 o’clock tonight Mayor Clark stated that so far as he could judge, five hundred residences and business houses had been totally destroyed, approximately 1,800 persons were homeless and the total fire loss for the day, including Roper Lumber Company’s mills, was in excess of $2,000,000.
The fire was completely under control at midnight tonight.
Over an area of a mile or more in length and from two to five blocks in width nothing remains but row after row of ghostly chimneys, standing as vigils in the midst of charred timbers, which almost completely cover the ground.
Not a single piece of the framework remains in an upright position. Everything in the path of the terrific fire was swept before it. It is a grim and pathetic spectacle.
Scores of families late tonight were wandering among the ruins looking for the site of their former homes, trying to see whether the fire god had overlooked anything.
Woman and children were crying and men gazed at the ruins with hopeless and sullen expressions upon their faces. In several places, the charred timbers still burned and the homeless people gathered about these seeking warmth from the cold which was beginning to make itself felt. In spite of the fact that both whites and blacks had been informed that sleeping quarters would be provided for them, many apparently paid no heed; they seemed too stunned to think of anything but their homes and household goods which had been taken away from them by the roaring, crackling fire which spread terror throughout the city for more than nine hours today.
In one of the empty fertilizer, warehouses are huddled from two to three hundred negro men, women, and children. Several of the women sit with infants hugged tightly to their breasts. Here and there a child sleeps, but for the most part, everyone is wide awake and talking in low tones of the great toll exacted by the conflagrations. Many of them have nothing left except a few articles they managed to save before the fire was upon them.
Other fire victims are being housed tonight in some of the churches, and halls of the community. The white, for the most part, have been taken into the homes of their more fortunate neighbors and friends.
With the coming of dawn tomorrow, New Bern will begin to take stock of the damage done. Estimates of the total loss vary but in the opinion of some city officials, it will be in excess of $2,000,000.
New Bern was thunder-struck this morning at 8:30 o’clock when the hoarse notes of the city’s fire whistle told the residents of the burning of the Roper Lumber company’s mill. This concern, leased by the Rowland Lumber company, suffered a quarter of a million dollar fire and threw more than 300 local men out of work. While the flames were still raging at the mill an alarm was turned in from the western sections of the city, where the fire had started in the negro district, and which soon caused everyone to forget the conflagration at the Rowland mill. While their services were required at the lumber yards firemen were unable to respond to the new alarm, and it was not until half an hour later that they rushed to the spot.
By that time five houses were in ruins. The roaring flames sped on their way by high winds of almost gale force, crashed through house after house, gaining impetus in their advance, which sent them leaping through the roofs of dozens of structures simultaneously. Frantic negroes assisted by hundreds of volunteers hastily removed their household furniture to places of safety.
As the fire gained headway, however, people were forced to leave their homes without being able to remove anything.
Crackling fiercely in their intensity and roaring their message of destruction of the city, the flames rose high in the sky, sending forth a cloud of dense smoke which hung over the town throughout the entire day. With almost incredible speed the fire forced its way into residential sections. By noon the streets were filled with automobiles loaded with household goods and carrying them to places of safety. Here and there on the sidewalks, their few rescued possessions heaped about them sat desolate families, homeless and penniless and looking to the more fortunate for aid.
Railroad traffic through the city has been completely suspended, the rails having been warped for a considerable distance by the intense heat. Telegraphic wires also have been severed and the telephone affords the only means of communicating with other towns. The full scope of the disaster has not yet made itself manifest and it will not be until tomorrow that New Bern will be in a position to realize the terrible catastrophe which has befallen it today.
The fire started on Kilmarnock Street near the western boundary line of the city and about two blocks from Broad Street, covering a distance of eight blocks and sweeping a path of from one to five blocks wide. The cemetery on George Street prevented the fire from following a straight course. A shift of the wind sent it down George Street to Pasteur Street and then to Crescent Street. This was the principal area covered by the fire, but sparks jumped over the Union Station and started a blaze on the riverfront directly north of Queen Street and burned the dock and warehouses on Queen Street north for about three blocks. The entire area of the fire is north of the main business section and did not touch the residential section of the wealthier citizens.
The principal business structures burned were the Dill and Farmers’ tobacco warehouses and a brick structure formerly occupied by a local ice plant. The two churches burned both belonged to negro congregations, one being a frame structure and the other St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, the finest negro religious edifice in the city and section.