Fire’s Toll On Delmarva’s Towns

by Dana Kester-McCabe

Just about every town on Delmarva has had at least one major fire in its history.

Until the mid twentieth century except for a few brick structures, most buildings on Delmarva were wooden, and wood fired stoves provided energy for heating and cooking. An errant spark could spell disaster. And, in our small communities the homes were built close together leaving them vulnerable to the mishaps of their neighbors. It is not surprising that just about every town on Delmarva has had at least one major fire in its history.

Denton has had three major fires. In 1863 Union soldiers stationed there to guard against Southern sympathizers got a little out of hand celebrating July 4th. They were shooting off fireworks too close to a rum shop which was the first floor of a building storing flour. It was late at night so the town was unprepared to fight the fire. The shop, along with several other businesses and a hotel, all burned to the ground.

Denton's first volunteer firefighters were called the "Quick Step Fire Company". They were formed in 1894. Denton's "Great Fire" of 1899 began in the Collins Store located on Third and Market Street and spread burning buildings on both sides of the street. And on December 30, 1935 another fire hit Third Street during a snow storm.

Large sections of Snow Hill have burned down twice. The first time was 1843. The second time was fifty years later. Both times the courthouse was demolished and court records were destroyed. Finally it was rebuilt with the brick structure which still stands today. Salisbury also had two major fires one in 1860, and one in 1886, which destroyed a large portion of the town including many of its original colonial era homes.

Easton perhaps has the oldest fire company dating back to 1791. On March 13, 1813, they were tested when a fire started in the kitchen of one Mrs. Sewell. The blaze quickly spread to the inn next door and continued south down Washington Street. The volunteers fearing that the fire would overtake the whole town took the dramatic step of setting a fire break demolishing several houses. In all 43 buildings were destroyed before it was over.

Lewes probably was next to form their first official fire brigade in 1796. This was merely a collection of leather buckets and a bell to alert the citizenry if a fire should break out. Fortunately they had much better equipment when fire ripped through the Lewes business district on New Year's Eve in 1970 during snow and freezing rain. Their fire department faced similar conditions again on Christmas Day, in 1983. Volunteers from fifteen other nearby communities showed up to help fight the fire in fifty mile an hour winds and sub zero temperatures.

That unselfish bravery is common among all fire fighting companies. Delmarva's towns know that they only have to call if they need assistance from one of their neighbors. Pocomoke City went to help Chincoteague in their time of need when twelve homes and businesses were engulfed by fire on September 5, 1920. Pocomoke had seen its own fire tragedy in 1888 when 79 buildings were destroyed and then again in 1892 when 69 structures were destroyed. Sadly despite the help of several towns much of Pocomoke burned to the grown over the course of four days in April 1922.

Ocean City's fire company along with many others across the region sent volunteers to New York to help on that fateful September day in 2001. A monument stands on the Ocean City boardwalk as a testament to the men and women who risk their lives fighting fires. Ocean City has also seen their share of fires, such as the time in December of 1925 when the fishing pier and three blocks of the downtown were destroyed in a blaze which began at the Eastern Shore Gas & Electric Company. Volunteers had to cut holes in the ice on the bay to pump water to fight the fire.

The larger towns and cities on Delmarva now have professional fire and rescue squads with hi-tech equipment at their disposal. But they still count on their volunteers. Both the pros and the volunteers go through rigorous training. They not only deal with house fires but car accidents and weather related rescues. Yet in many small towns and rural communities they still have an all volunteer fire company.

Their fire hall dinners are often the center of social life. And they are much needed particularly this time of year. As the temperatures continue to drop our fire and rescue squads will be called out for fires resulting from malfunctioning heaters, fallen candles, or faulty holiday lighting.

Let's give our firefighters the best gift they could get: a completely boring holiday season with no calls. You can help by not leaving candles, fireplaces, or space heaters unattended; and by discarding any appliance or decoration that has frayed wiring. You can also keep your fresh cut Christmas tree well watered and dispose of it before it becomes a dried out hazard. In the mean time here's a big thank you to all the fire and rescue squads for all they do for us all year long.


History of Caroline County, Maryland, From Its Beginning, 1920, pp. 224-250

History of the Denton Volunteer Fire Department

Nabb Research Center Presents 'Firefest' Exhibit">

Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company History, 1905-1950