“Greatest Fire in Wilmington’s History Rages on the Waterfront”

MULTI-MILLION DOLLAR HOLOCAUST — The costliest fire in Wilmington's history—the Great Fire of Sunday, Feb. 21, 1886, devastated an estimated $1 million in property—was variously estimated last night to have consumed, in flames and smoke, from $10 to $30 millions worth of property.  [sic]  The fire started at 8:55 A.M.  By 10 A.M., when this picture was made from a plane, smoke billowed thousands of feet into the air and could be seen from at least 25 miles away.  The ship in the foreground is the Norwegian freighter Max Manus, which was towed from the docks when the fire started. . . . Photo by Morton.

MULTI-MILLION DOLLAR HOLOCAUST — The costliest fire in Wilmington’s history—the Great Fire of Sunday, Feb. 21, 1886, devastated an estimated $1 million in property—was variously estimated last night to have consumed, in flames and smoke, from $10 to $30 millions worth of property.  The fire started at 8:55 A.M. By 10 A.M., when this picture was made from a plane, smoke billowed thousands of feet into the air and could be seen from at least 25 miles away. The ship in the foreground is the Norwegian freighter Max Manus, which was towed from the docks when the fire started. . . . Photo by Morton. (As captioned in the Wilmington Morning Star, 10 March 1953, page 1.)

Back in 2009 Elizabeth Hull wrote a post on the anniversary of the Wilmington Terminal Company fire, which occurred sixty years ago on March 9th, 1953.  The images she selected for that post are 4×5 color transparencies.  Hugh Morton also made several black-and-white negatives of the catastrophe, two of which made the front page of the Wilmington newspapers.  There are seven black-and-white negatives in the collection, plus the puzzler at the end of this post, are not currently in the online collection.

The headline for this post is the headline that accompanied a photographic essay of the event by the staff photographer(s) in the same issue of the Wilmington Morning Star.  The photograph above was on the front page of the March 10th issue.  It’s presented above as cropped for the newspaper, and below without cropping.  (The stain in the upper right portion of the frame does not seem to be in the published version.)

View of Wilmington Terminal Warehouse fire, with ship Max Manus in foreground.

According to the caption in the Wilmington Morning Star, Morton made these fire scenes approximately one hour after the fire began.  The image below made the front page, top center, of the same day of the fire in that afternoon’s Wilmington News.  The paper’s headline spanned the full page: “ADVANCE OF DOCK FIRE HALTED.”

Aerial view of the Wilmington Terminal Company fire.

FREIGHTER SAVED — A tug pulls the Norwegian freighter Max Manus from a flaming dock at the Wilmington Terminal Co. Smoke was visible for 20 miles. Photo by H. Morton. (As captioned in the Wilmington News, 9 March 1953.)

The microfilm for the two newspapers doesn’t capture the quality of the photographs very well, so these are my visual interpretations of the images; the crops are as close as I could estimate to those used by the newspapers.  Here’s the above photograph without cropping.


A sampling of other images made by Morton follow.  I have not had an opportunity to check other newspapers to see if any of the images shown here may also have been published.  Some of the negatives have pre-exposed numbers on one edge, giving you a clue to the order in which Morton photographed the event.  Other negatives, however, are not numbered, so it may be that he had more than one camera with a different lens and/or film combinations. (Remember he shot color transparencies, too.)

Wilmington Terminal Compay fire, with downtown Wilmington in the foreground.

This photograph gives a good perspective on the fire and its proximity to downtown Wilmington.

I wondered as I worked with these photographs what made Morton take to the air.  Did his military photography experience speak to his sense of the best perspective for the story?  Did Morton recognize that the local newspapers’ staff photographers would flock to “ground zero” and so knew that his aerial views would be unique?  Maybe both?

P081_NTBS4_015200_06The last photograph (below) is a bit of a puzzler.  It is a 3×4-inch negative—all the others are 4×5—and there is no sign of fire.  The negative envelope is labeled “Fire, Waterfront” but I suspect the negative is much earlier—perhaps prior to WWII, as Morton tended to use the 4×5 format after the war, and the 3×4 format before.  That’s not to say, however, that he didn’t use the smaller format after the war.  Maybe someone with expertise on the Wilmington waterfront can explore this image and provide an accurate or estimated date.  The bridge on the far right may also assist in dating the negative.

Wilmington waterfront, date unknown.

Wilmington waterfront, date unknown.


21 thoughts on ““Greatest Fire in Wilmington’s History Rages on the Waterfront”

  1. I remember Elizabeth’s post from March 10, 2009 very well. Here is a comment I made on March 17th:

    Jack Hilliard on March 17, 2009 at 8:37 pm said:
    The 1953 Wilmington Shipping Company fire made front page banner headlines in “The Greensboro Record’s” late edition on the afternoon of March 9, 1953 and the following morning “The Greensboro Daily News” ran a similar story and headline. The March 10, 1953 “Daily News” story was supported by three magnificent photographs from the air….and the three photographs carried the little line of 8-point type enclosed in parentheses with which careful readers of North Carolina’s newspapers have been familiar for more than 70 years now: “Photos by Hugh Morton.”

  2. Thanks Jack! I saw that comment but I was afraid I might run in a too many different directions (Observer, News and Observer, and other state papers, plus I read it was national news, so I wondered if the New York Times or other nationally oriented news publication might have picked an image off the wire. . . .) and not get the post published. :-)

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  4. I remember that fire. I was 10 years old. My Dad and Granddad worked at the docks in years past so we drove across the bridge to see the fire. Traffic literally stopped everywhere to see the flames. I can remember the red hot looking flames. I had never seen a fire so big. After that the waterfront never seemed the same to me.

  5. My maternal Grandfather – Charles H. (Charlie) Register was the Captain of the WFD Fireboat at that time and my Mom remembers that fire as if it were yesterday. He was a great fireman and loved being on the waterfront during those years. I remember visiting the Fire House where they kept the boat at the foot of Grace Street where the Hilton is now located.

  6. I was in junior high at Chestnut Street and remember seeing the smoke. If I am not mistaken our classmates father, Peter Brown Ruffin’s father was part owner or owner of the warehouses which were burned. But I not sure of this. When we could, we all tried to find out what was going on and get a sneak peak at the smoke. No TV for the live broadcast like today.

    Dru, I remember hearing about your grand father, the fireboat, where it was docked, well everything else about my old home town. The main fire department headquarters was at 4th and Dock. I wished downtown today was as alive as it was then. I think the name of the fire boat was the Atlantic.

  7. From the Sanborn Fire Maps, the Atlantic Coast Line roundhouse (as seen in the middle-left of the undated photo) was demolished about 1952. The bridge on the right was opened December 10, 1929. I don’t see the toll houses that paid off the bond to build it (doesn’t mean they’re not there, though), which would put the photo after 1935. That’s a 17 year gap that you can close. Maybe someone with more knowledge can assist while I keep digging.

  8. Thanks Aaron for checking the Sanborn insurance maps . . . great idea! The UNC Library has digitized many Sanborn maps as part of the North Carolina Maps website at http://www.lib.unc.edu/dc/ncmaps/. For those not familiar with Sanborn maps, they are a treasure trove of information. Hope you find more good information with your digging!

    Thanks, too, to those sharing their memories of the fire.


  10. Well this was…..way before I was even thought of lol. I think im the baby in the room. I don’t even think I learned this in history class. Thanks for posting.

  11. I remember that morning that the Wilmington Fire Department’s trucks were screaming down N.Front Street towards the fire. I was seven , my mother took me as close as we could go , the smoke, the explosions, the sounds of sirens everywhere! What a magnificent job the Firemen,Police, Red Cross and all that were involved in fighting this terrible fire! James Walker Hospitals role in treating the injured… Chief Croom was the Fire Chief, he was injured along with a number of Firemen and volunteers that help man the hoses, everyone pulled together to stop this monster, Job well done everyone involved!!!

  12. I’m sorry I was late seeing this post. I wrote an article about this fire that was published in January 2012 in the Carolina Fire Rescue EMS Journal. I used two of the color photos to accompany the article. Elizabeth & I corresponded back in forth about the fire when she first posted the photos in 2009. A higher quality scan of the picture might help in identifying some of the landmarks in dating the photo. I’m thinking it might be post-WWII just looking at the ships.

  13. Mr Nelson,
    I generally recall you queries about these photographs with Elizabeth. We have high quality scans on hand, but unfortunately the blog software limits the width for photographs to 585 pixels. Any of the images in the online collection, however, can be zoomed to examine detail. We have a growing batch of scans to add to the online collection, including these, so once we get them uploaded you’ll be able to zoom in to see the details.

    As an aside, the featured photograph in this blog post is part the Hugh Morton retrospective exhibit, which will be opening for is next venue at Western Carolina University’s Mountain Heritage Center on March 27th.

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