Before the 20th century, fires were a major hazard to urban areas and generally the cause of massive amounts of damage to cities and towns. Though located in a rural area, the small town of Clinton was just as fearful of a fire, as well. From the time it was first settled in 1784 through the late 1800s, the buildings in Clinton were almost always constructed of wood and built closely together. To heat these structures, people depended on open fireplaces and coal stoves. But fire was always a constant threat, and one neighbor’s fire could quickly turn into a community’s disaster. There was no real system for fighting fires, so if a blaze did break out, it was difficult to control and could quickly get out of hand. Over the years, there have been several major fires that have occurred in the downtown business district of Clinton.
The first fire happened on the night of Tuesday, March 27, 1877. It was said to have been so intense that the glow of burning buildings could be seen all the way to the Duplin County line, nearly ten miles away. Aided by the March winds, the fire spread rapidly, attacking and consuming the other frame buildings nearby. To fight it, water had to be drawn from open wells by the bucketful, which quickly proved to be slow and ineffective. The flames moved with such speed that there was simply no chance of stopping it. The entire business section of town and some houses, located mainly on the square, were soon reduced to ashes.
Several horses quartered in a local livery stable were led safely from the burning buildings, but in the excitement some broke away and dashed back to the stables, only to be consumed by the flames. At sunrise early the next morning, the stench of charred horseflesh and smoke hung heavy in the air. All of Main St., and then some, was simply gone. In all, the fire had destroyed approximately 49 buildings and nearly removed the little town from existence. There was not a single brick building in town at the time. Fortunately, the small wooden courthouse, standing alone in the middle of the chaos, was spared. The cause of the fire was never determined but some believed that it was arson, done simply to collect insurance money on one building.
Another major blaze occurred on October 5, 1892 when just before dawn the peace and quiet of the town was suddenly interrupted by the alarm of a clanging courthouse bell. For three long hours the local residents fought hard, but fate was against them.
According to one newspaper, “The fire originated in a store occupied by the Farmers’ Alliance, located in that area near the corner of Fayetteville and Sycamore Streets. From there the fire crossed Sycamore Street to the corner clothing store operated by M. Hanstein, and it swept the whole block, known as Wall Street, destroying everything in its path. Several houses on the south side of Main Street were damaged, as well. The county jail was also burned, but no prisoners escaped. The prisoners were the first to discover the fire, the Alliance store being near the jail.
“The office of the newspaper, ‘The Caucasian’, run by Marion Butler, was burned, the press and all materials being ruined.” Marion Butler was a leader of the emerging Populist Party in North Carolina, and his newspaper, “The Caucasian”, served as his political voice. It was located in the same building as the Farmers’ Alliance. It is believed that the fire was politically motivated and deliberately set, though no one was ever charged.
Total losses were estimated to be between $75,000 and $100,000. None of the parties had insurance except for Mr. M. Hanstein.
In 1894 another fire hit the town, this time the buildings on Vance St. across from the courthouse. An undated article from the Sampson Democrat newspaper told the following story: “Last Friday morning about 8 o’clock, fire was discovered burning around the stove flue on the roof of Grady Smith’s drinking saloon on Grog Row (Vance St.). The alarm was given, and men, women and children, both black and white, from every quarter of the town hastened to the scene. But the fire was under good headway before the forces could be organized for effective work. As many as could applied water to the buildings by the means of buckets of water and force pumps, while hundreds of others worked like bees, carrying goods from stores onto the streets. The large brick stores on the corner, and one alongside of the building where the fire originated, were saved. All other buildings on the block were made of wood and closely connected. The flames spread slowly but steadily down the block before being extinguished. Though some buildings were lost, most damages were along the roof lines. Fire also spread to some additional buildings on McKoy Street. The fence around the courthouse square was burned, and the building itself would have burned without attention.” (Our best guess is that the building where this fire started was in about the same location as Kaleel’s City Grill, which ironically was destroyed by fire in 2005.)
Fire struck once again in the summer of 1902 and was the worst disaster from the standpoint of financial loss. The fire spread rapidly over the entire southern section of the town, taking with it practically all of Main Street and attacking the buildings from there down to the train depot on Elizabeth St. Witnesses claimed that thick, black clouds of smoke with red-hot cinders rolled upwards as the town quickly burned. Drafts created by the heat stirred into the air, allowing the fire to spread rapidly to stores and buildings on the south side of Elizabeth Street. Over 43 buildings were burned or destroyed. The cause of the blaze was never determined.
One of the buildings lost was Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church, located on the southwest corner of Wall and Elizabeth Streets. Built sometime around 1899, it was still relatively new. Church records reflect that the fire began during a Sunday morning service: “One very hot Sunday in July 1902, Clinton’s worst destructive fire claimed the church building. During the morning service, the fire alarm was heard, and since the town had no firefighting equipment, everyone left the church to assist. Much of the town, including Saint Paul’s Church, was burned. Parishioners succeeded in removing the church organ, but the heat was so intense that the organ burned in the courtyard. Our rector, Mr. Skinner, lost all his vestments, and also his watch which was left in the pulpit. This sudden destruction of our little Church was a devastating blow to our little congregation.” Most of the buildings in Clinton that were lost to this fire were not insured.
Soon thereafter, town officials decided to act. Clinton’s first fire department consisted of two covered reservoir tanks with flat tops that rose only one or two feet above the ground. Each had a capacity of 12,000 gallons. One was located on the south side of the courthouse and one on the west side. Each had a contraption that looked and operated like a man-powered railroad hand car. Two men on either side would face each other and pump up and down, not unlike a see-saw. There was also an old-timey pitcher pump drilled into the ground for water. When people pumped water for themselves or their livestock, they would have to do a little more pumping in order to keep the reservoir full.
The first powered-pump fire engine was purchased in 1907 for $2,000. It was a horse-drawn wagon and had four wheels, with the front wheels being much smaller and lower than the rear wheels. A quick-steam boiler was mounted on the rear axle and a small steam engine was geared to the water pump in front of the boiler. The rear included a platform for the firemen, including the one who would fire the boiler. The boiler was always kept filled with fat lightwood and a can of coal oil or kerosene was kept nearby. There was a small seat raised high in the front that allowed three men to sit, including one who would drive the horses. The fire station was a building located on the west side of McKoy Street, just up from the intersection where a parking lot sits today. The fire engine was backed in, heading out, and two horses were kept in stables nearby. The fire alarm was a bell mounted on a wooden pole about 25-30 feet high, and two ropes were attached to the bell clapper and draped to each side. In the event of a fire, two men would pull on the ropes quickly enough to ring the bell alarm. The stable doors were opened and trained horses were rushed to their respective places. Harnesses that dangled above were dropped down onto the horses and quickly fastened. The driver and the other firemen would climb aboard and off they went to fight the fire.
An article that appeared in the Sampson Independent in 1934 quoted Mr. William M. Bethune, in a speech to his Rotary Club. According to Mr. Bethune, the store then owned by W.D. Kelly was the only store building standing that was also standing in the year 1883. That brick building, on the corner of Vance and McKoy Streets, is still in use today in 2013.
Over the years, fires have taken their toll on the little town of Clinton, but major fires are less frequent now. Improved building codes, better materials, instant communications, and quick response by well-trained emergency personnel have all seem mitigate the damages that fires cause today.
* The Sampson Heritage Book, Oscar Bizzell, 1984
* A Historical Sketch of St. Paul’s Episcopal Parish, 1970
* The Sampson Democrat, May 5, 1921
* A Personal History of Clinton, James Ingram Reynolds, 1991