The bell in the tower of the Winston Town Hall rang far too many times on November 14, 1892. But the eastern side of the courthouse square, seen here, would not be affected. Click pix for full size views.

“Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink.”
Samuel Taylor Coleridge

You might say that that was the problem in the city of Winston, NC in the early morning hours of Monday, November 14, 1892. Except that the water wasn’t wanted for drinking, but for feeding the city’s aging steam pumper. There was plenty of water around, but most of it was in the wrong place. Here is what happened:

Late on Sunday afternoon, November 13, 1892, a small fire was discovered in the basement of the Brown & Brown Drugstore at 312 North Liberty Street, on the west side of the courthouse square. The fire department, located a block away at the brand new Town Hall, responded. They had to cut a hole through the floor of the drugstore to get at the fire, but quickly put it out. They soon left, certain that the problem had been solved.


The Winston steam pumper had been purchased ten years before after another disastrous fire. And the crew seen here in this circa 1885 photo were all volunteers. In the background is Rosenbacher’s Department Store on Third Street, on the south side of the courthouse square. Rosenbacher’s other store, a dry goods establishment, was burned in the first 1892 fire.

Shortly after midnight, the bell in the Town Hall tower began ringing. The fire department was back at the drugstore within minutes, only to find a rekindled and much bigger fire. Soon the Salem fire department was on the scene, along with a considerable crowd of citizens attracted by the commotion. With two pumpers connected to the mains, the water pressure was less than optimal. But the biggest problem was that the fire had spread to the roof. Without a ladder truck, the firemen were forced to drag the heavy hoses up narrow, winding stairs in the three story buildings.


Salem’s Button pumper, purchased in 1885, was also manned by volunteers.

Soon the drugstore was engulfed. Around 1:00 AM a telegram was sent to the Greensboro fire department requesting their assistance. Within an hour, they had loaded their equipment on a special train and arrived on the scene. But by then, the fire had spread to the Vaughn & Pepper store at the rear of the building, facing on Fourth Street, and to the Kadden’s Clothing store next door on Liberty.


All of the buildings shown except the Norfleet tobacco sales warehouse, the dwelling next to it and the old Wilson Hotel across Third Street, were burned.

The Greensboro department was set to splashing water on nearby buildings while the local firemen focused on the fire itself. But it continued to spread, to Rosenbacher’s Clothing Store, R.B. Crawford’s Hardware Store and finally, via the eaves and roof, the brand new First National Bank building. Within an hour, most of an entire city block, extending from Third to Fourth Streets and Liberty to Trade, was gone. At one point, the fire threatened to jump Third Street and attack the old Wilson Hotel, which was currently owned by R.J. Reynolds, who lived there and ran the rest of the hotel for profit. The Greensboro men were able to keep that from happening. The estimated damage was $250,000, about $65 million in 2015 dollars.


Three fires in eighteen hours…the worst disaster in Winston history…

A few hours later, the Winston and Salem firemen were headed home and the Greensboro department was loading their equipment on a flat car, when, at about 5:00 AM Monday morning, the Town Hall bell began ringing again. This time the fire was on the east side of the square, in the block bounded by Church, Chestnut, Third and Fourth Streets.

The Greensboro men were able to protect the mammoth P.H. Hanes Tobacco works across Third Street, but the locals were helpless and the entire block burned down, destroying T.J. Brown’s original tobacco warehouse, A.M. Sammons’ Yadkin Valley bar, the Virginia Brewing Company’s bottling plant, and the large brick leaf house of B.J. Shepperd & Company. A livery barn under the saloon also burned, killing eleven horses. Local insurance men later estimated the damage at around $35,000, roughly a million dollars in today’s money.

By noon, the exhausted firefighters had all gone home for a well deserved rest. But around 6 PM, the Town Hall bell rang out for the third time within 18 hours. This time the fire was in the old Winston Mill, which had become H.S. Foy’s feed store, directly to the southeast of fire number 2. The block was littered with wood shanties and piles of hay, so the local companies ignored the whole block and worked at simply containing the fire.

As one might expect, these events caused a great deal of consternation. The local Chamber of Commerce and the Winston board of aldermen met on Monday night to discuss the problem. Both reached the conclusion that significant improvement in fire protection was a must, especially in the area of ladder units for rooftop fires. The aldermen appointed a committee to tour northern cities to study “high rise” fire protection. That would lead to the eventual acquisition of a second, more modern pumper and two “hook and ladder” wagons for the city of Winston.


The weekly Union Republican reported the fires on Thursday, November 17

To add to the chaos, within a few days, there were three more serious fires in the downtown area. A boarding house at the corner of Second and Pine (now Marshall Street) burned…then J.M. Richard’s slaughterhouse east of downtown burned, destroying several thousand pounds of dressed meats, tallow, salt and hides. And finally, on Thanksgiving Day, the magnificent new Zinzendorf Hotel in what is now the West End, burned to the ground. That fire began as a small one in the laundry, but when the Winston fire department arrived on the scene, connected to the hydrant and opened their hoses, there was not enough water pressure to get the job done.

So the real problem was the water supply, which had been controlled by the Winston Water Company. The fires had triggered a newspaper war, with the Salem People’s Press, a lingering Whig paper already on its deathbed, blaming fate, while the Western Sentinel, a hard core conservative, anti-government paper attacked the government, of course, and the Union Republican tried to take a reasonable approach. The Western Sentinel’s attacks on the city engineer were so vicious that he resigned, and the aldermen, seeking political safety, temporarily abolished his job. But the Chamber of Commerce eventually placed the blame where it truly belonged. The private water company had long neglected the needs of the community as a whole, so steps began to be taken for the city to assume control over the water supply.

The Western Sentinel, deprived of their government target, began a campaign charging arson, and, apparently even suggesting who the arsonist might be. Of course, city officials had already been investigating that avenue, but found that the first fire had been caused by someone accidentally dropping a cigar on the floor of the Brown & Brown drugstores “water closet”, and that all of the other fires had been accidental as well.

Another committee combed through the wreckage to determine which buildings must be completely demolished and which might be saved. The only building in the latter category was the new First National Bank building, the ground floor of which had not been seriously damaged. Its second and third floors, which had housed lawyer’s offices, some small apartments, and the Twin City Club, had to come down. And the aldermen took an important step when they passed a local ordinance forbidding the construction of wood framed buildings in the downtown fire district.

And so the reconstruction began. Because of the extensive interior demolition required and an intervening economic depression in 1893, the grand First National Bank was not finished until 1895. But the Hanes Building next door was rebuilt within months. And the new Phoenix Hotel, at the corner of Liberty and Fourth, quickly rose from the ashes, opening in 1893.


The Phoenix rose in 1893 across Fourth Street from the O’Hanlon drugstore building, which would itself burn in 1913. The Hanes Building next to it was completed at about the same time. The magnificent 1st National Bank building in the foreground took a bit longer. This picture was made between 1905 and 1908. By then, the 1st National Bank had become the People’s National Bank. The Efird Brothers, at left, operated a retail grocery business at this site and a wholesale warehouse elsewhere. I can see their last building from my windows in the Arts District. When they closed in the 1950s, they were the Twin City’s oldest grocery establishment. They were not connected with the Efird’s Department Store, which was a chain out of Charlotte. Their last building still stands at the corner of Sixth and Trade Streets.

When all was done, the bank building would house the city’s most prestigious law firm, Watson and Buxton, on the second floor, and a new Twin City Club and YMCA on the third, along with some very nice apartments for single men, one of whom would be R.J. Reynolds, his last home before moving to Millionaire’s Row on Fifth Street.

The Phoenix Hotel had its main entrance and lobby on the ground floor, along with Vogler’s Jewelry store, and with hotel rooms  on the second and third floor, extending southward to the second and third floors of the Hanes Building. There was a separate entrance in the Hanes building for women hotel guests to spare them from having to encounter the crudeness of single men.


By 1913, most people had forgotten how the Phoenix got its name. To the right of the hotel on Fourth Street, with its magnificent vaulted windows, is R.B. Crawford’s hardware store, also rebuilt in the 1890s. It managed to survive until the late 20th century until, due to neglect by its owners, it had to be demolished for safety reasons.

Even though a better hotel, the second Zinzendorf, would be built shortly after the turn of the century on Main Street near Third, the Phoenix would continue to operate into the 1920s, until it was demolished to make way for a shiny modern department store. The ownership of the land beneath these buildings was quite complicated, as we will see in the coming history of the Pepper Building.

The bell that summoned the firemen in November, 1892 now resides in the tower of Calvary Moravian Church. It still rings out the hours and half hours, while the larger bell originally purchased by Calvary is used to call the congregation to Sunday worship. The clocks on the tower are also from the old 1892 Town Hall.