By Donna Perry | Being a person that was born and raised here in beautiful Beaufort, you become very aware of the history. You admire the great oaks and the mysterious Spanish moss draping them. The amazing Colonial and Antebellum homes are just a part of our scenery. To take a walk through the historic district is like walking back in time. We are lucky enough to be blessed with such beauty.
But just imagine if all of this was threatened with destruction. What if there was a possibility that it would all be gone within a day?
That did happen here in Beaufort.
It happened in 1907.
There were three little boys, all younger than 10, who snuck into a barn on Bay street to smoke a cigarette. By the time they finished their mischievous deed, they caused the start of what would be pure devastation to downtown Beaufort. It was at 1:30 pm on January 19th, 1907, when the alarm was sounded. It was the Great Fire of Beaufort.
The first store to go was F.W. Scheper’s grocery and general merchandise store at the corner of Bay and Carteret Streets. There was an enormous attempt to put the fire out and save the building but a combination of strong winds and the building’s wooden construction were just too much. The next to go was the Peoples Bank, just next door. The fire then spread to the west of the bank and consumed the buildings of Mrs. Ohlandt, a laundry, two restaurants and the dispensary.
Meanwhile back at the corner of Bay and Carteret, Neils Christenson & Sons Hardware store was ablaze from ground to roof. The crockery store owned by Mr. J.M. Crofut was in the same condition. Attempts to extinguish the blaze by firefighters and citizens were useless. The winds took over and spread the flames northward to the residential area.
The first home to catch fire was the home of Mr. Wallace. The winds decided to change and head east. The home of Mr. Thomas and two other small homes were completely destroyed. The home of Mrs. Cory, a tabby home, began to burn next. Thankfully the home was made of tabby because it prevented to fire from spreading farther west. The flames still worked their way along Bay Street and farther back into the Point neighborhood. Offices, homes and the town market were destroyed.
The home of Thomas Talbird was completely consumed. Over on Craven Street, the fire was taking over the Town Hall, a small engine house and fire house. The Arsenal was saved due to the fact it is made out of brick and there was an enormous effort from firefighters to protect it. The Carteret Methodist Church soon caught fire. It was spared complete devastation because of its tin roof.
The faster the fire spread the more panicked the residents became. They were trying to save anything they could. They were placing household furniture and other personal belongings onto the streets. In some cases the flames consumed the items on the street. The town was in shambles. The fire was jumping from roof top to roof top burning anything in its way. The area was very dry at the time and even the grass was catching fire and spreading more disaster.
Over 40 unique homes and businesses were destroyed on that day. Some of these homes were considered historic even at that time. The cost was $150,000 in damage, and one could only imagine what the cost would be in today’s dollars.
The fire was under control (mostly burnt out) by the next morning. Looting became such a concern that Beaufort officials asked for help from a small U.S. Army company from Fort Fremont. Gov. Martin Ansel also loaned the city the state’s naval militia.
Panic was still in the air as the situation worsened.
Shortly before 1 a.m., William Bennett, a well-known black musician with the Allen Brass Band, decided to go downtown to see what was going on. Mr. Bennett worked the fire the day before. He was standing near the ruins of the Peoples Bank. A militiaman shot and killed Bennett. This sparked a whole new type of panic. The blacks felt as though the use of militia was to keep them at bay and the whites felt it was useless for them to be there. They believed, both black and white, that the city fought the fire together and would rebuild as a whole. The disaster actually brought both a little closer.
Our town is very fortunate to have the historic homes that still stand. They’ve survived war, they’ve made it through hurricanes, an earthquake and a massive fire.
How unfortunate we would be to not have them today.