I’m one of many who didn’t know much about the Great Fire and the massive destruction that left a third of the City of New Bern’s population homeless. Thanks to Mrs. Mary Peterkin for providing me with documents that outline the events and history of this devastating day that would be instrumental in changing and restructuring the City of New Bern.
On December 1, 1922, a fire began at Rowland Lumber Company, the largest lumber company in North Carolina. They were located where Maola Milk resides today. Although the Rowland Lumber Company was outside “City of New Bern” limits, the City’s Fire Department responded, leaving no reserve firefighters behind in case of emergency.
To add to the day’s tragic events, most of the firefighters were on their way to Raleigh for the Eastern North Carolina State Championship Football Game between New Bern High School and Sanford.
An hour later, a fire started in the chimney of a small house on Kilmarnock Street near the Five Point Intersection in Uptown New Bern. By the time the City’s firefighters responded, it was too late! The 70 mile per hour winds were moving east towards the Neuse River.
Cedar Grove Cemetery saved the rest of the City from becoming engulfed in flames. Once the fire hit George Street, the winds spread the fire North and West. Fire victims found refuge in Cedar Grove and Greenwood Cemeteries because they were secluded from the fires.
Over 3,000 people were left homeless and 40 City blocks were destroyed, black families were the majority of residents affected by this tragic day.
Fort Bragg sent 1,000 tents and the American Red Cross stood up operations on December 12th and “Tent City” was named as the place where homeless families lived in the hot and cold elements for two long years.
It’s been said that certain City Leaders viewed the fire as an opportunity to take over the land owned or leased to African Americans. Maybe this is why they called it the “Great Fire” versus the worst disaster in New Bern’s History.
Today, the Uptown Business and Professional Association (UB&PA) has created a Trail of Flames Tour. The tour stalled during recent construction on Broad Street, but they are working out the logistics and establishing community partnerships to enhance the Trail of Flames Tour.
Please contact the Uptown Business and Professional Association to schedule a tour at 252-288-5716.
The information was published with the assistance of the UB&PA, specifically, documentation provided by Mrs. Mary Peterkin, “as you know Uptown is a 501 (c) (3) organization and continues to search for more information on this fire and black firefighters who were present during the early 1900’s. Contributions to help in this endeavor can be sent to Uptown Business & Professional Association – P. O. Box 14182, New Bern, NC 28561.”