1953 Wilmington Shipping Co. Fire

Air view of fire at the Wilmington Shipping Co. on the Cape Fear River, 3/9/1953

I know what you’re thinking — ANOTHER Wilmington disaster? But this one was brought to my attention by someone outside the library, Battalion Chief Chris Nelson of the Wilmington Fire Department. And, it occurred almost exactly 56 years ago, on March 9, 1953.
Chris, his department’s recently-appointed historian, emailed us a few weeks ago looking for Morton images (included above and below) he had seen published in the newspaper. He wanted them for an article he was writing for an upcoming issue of the N.C. Fire & Rescue Journal.
Chris reports that “in the past the Wilmington Fire Department didn’t put much emphasis on its history, and we are now looking to other resources for gathering photos, writings, etc. I am in the process of forming a nonprofit historical association to make obtaining items a little easier.”
We hope Chris can make a trip to Wilson Library sometime soon to look at our other Morton images of Wilmington fires — and help us identify them!

Air view of fire at the Wilmington Shipping Co., 3/9/1953

The 1953 fire occurred at the Wilmington Shipping Company, a riverfront warehouse and docking facility, and was part of a series of large warehouse and storage buildings located along the Cape Fear River. Chris noted that these Morton images were taken pretty early in the fire’s progress. Below is a summary of the event that he generously sent me.

Did you know…
One of the largest and costliest fires in the history of Wilmington occurred on March 9, 1953. The fire, which broke out in the western end of the Wilmington Terminal Nitrate Warehouse, quickly escalated with a series of explosions that rained molten sodium nitrate over the area. The fire quickly spread from the nitrate warehouse to adjoining buildings, which contained tobacco and sugar. Fire lines were abandoned and crews regrouped. If it had not been for the valiant efforts of the Atlantic III, the fire would have spread southward along the waterfront. As many as 21 firefighters and civilians were injured in the fire, with one civil succumbing to his injuries a few days later. Approximately $30 million worth of property was destroyed. Incidentally, one of the remaining warehouses was destroyed in 1996 at the Almont Shipping fire.

10 thoughts on “1953 Wilmington Shipping Co. Fire”

  1. I remember thAt fire well. It was touch and go whether the whole waterfront would go up in flames. The fireboat (would that be the Atlantic III referred to?) which was considered passe was a particular help, because that little boat was the only place from which water hoses could be directed at the face of the fire. Restaurants opened to prepare and supply food for the exhausted fire fighters and the owner of one mens’ store supplied them with dry socks.

  2. Thanks for posting this Elizabeth. And yes, the Atlantic III was the fireboat. As I was going through old newspaper accounts of the fire, it was interesting to see that a consultant had previously recommended that the city get rid of the fireboat. Good thing they didn’t listen to him, because she saved the day.

  3. 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.”

  4. I was only 6 at the time but I recall my dad took me down to view (he was ACL employee). Seems like I recall a number of out of town fire departments responded. Also recall talk about the fireboat “saving the day”. Where can I see more photos? I live in Jacksonville FL.

  5. I thought at that time the terminal that burned was the Wilmington Terminal Warehouse Co. and that Wilmington Shipping Co. was formed after the fire and continues to the present as vessel agents at the NC Ports.

  6. I remember the fire well. My brother and I were students at New Hanover High School. We lived only 4 blocks from the waterfront. Our mother was home alone as Daddy had gone to the post office, so when she heard all the sirens and saw the smoke, she was terrified. And Daddy didn’t come home. So, she called New Hanover and asked that her children be allowed to come home. She had no idea what was going on. David and I ran the nearly 2 miles home. Then David went down to the waterfront and helped fight the fire. Dad was down there watching the action. Poor Mama. It was quite a day.

  7. Very interesting story on 1953 fire,as a child I also remember a large warehouse fire in the early 70s involving a Corbett Warehouse, I recall firefirghters not able to reach the fire because of the muddy road leading to the site, thanks again , Greg,.

  8. My father was a firefighter and mechanic for WFD during this fire. He suggested the answer to getting Atlantic III between the wharf warehouses. There were attempts to position the fireboat between the warehouses but it was too hot. My dad told me how he took hoses and drilled holes in them so a water fog would be thrown up to keep the boat and firefighters safe as the fireboat maneuvered between the warehouses. It worked thank God. The water from the fireboat was primarily fogged over the fire. The nitrates had to be cooled before it could be extinguished. My dad, Pappy Jordan, had to repaint several jumpers damaged by exploding nitrates. Memories for life.

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