Supplied photos courtesy of Bill Creasy
Was a stray cigarette lit during a game of poker or an unattended hot iron to blame for the leveling of 103 cottages, boarding homes and hotels on Wrightsville Beach 80 years ago?
Bill Creasy, a Wrightsville Beach resident and one of the few remaining who can remember seeing the inferno firsthand, said no one will ever know for certain.
It was a chilly Sunday on Jan. 28,1934, when the unknown spark caught the interior of the Kitty Cottage on fire and the gusting west to southwest wind steered the flames up the beach, leaving few structures untouched.
From the air, Wilmington Morning Star correspondent Lamont Smith was able to characterize the blaze.
“From the air, the scene of destruction was magnificent in its awesome qualities,” Smith wrote. “The island, tiny from an altitude of several thousand feet, was a strip of fire from which billowed clouds of smoke, and which gave the impression of a string of firecrackers going off in its rotation.”
At the time, Creasy’s family owned a cottage on Charlotte Street but said the family had moved off the island for the winter.
“My dad had a sister who was a permanent resident of the beach and she called my dad and said there was a bad fire at the beach,” Creasy said. “We got in the car and came down here but of course we couldn’t get any closer than Harbor Island because back in 1934 there was no bridge, just the trolley line and a footbridge.”
Along with a large crowd of onlookers, some of whom also had homes on the island, Creasy said he and his parents watched the fire spread from just across Banks Channel from where his current house is.
“We parked and walked down to about opposite of here and stood there for several hours and watched it burn,” he said. “The fire was so intense that there were just big chunks of burning embers going through the air and dropping on different houses.”
The sprawling Oceanic Hotel, located not too far from the Kitty Cottage, was ample fuel for the fire, and once it was ablaze, “That was all she wrote,” Creasy said.
Although she was not yet born, Wrightsville Beach native Linda Robinson said she remembers one story her father, who lived on the south end at the time, told her about the attempt to save the Oceanic.
“He told me when the fire started a bunch of people ran toward the hotel and formed a bucket brigade to try to put the fire out, because they didn’t have any firefighting equipment at that point,” Robinson said. “When they realized they weren’t going to be able to save the hotel, people started running in and pulling out furniture and other stuff from the lobby and dining room, and they pulled out this upright piano and put it on the sidewalk.”
Robinson said she was highly skeptical of what her father told her next, involving Vertabelle Loughlin, the piano player for her Sunday school classes.
“This woman who I knew, Vertabelle Loughlin, sat down at the piano and played ‘It’s a Hot Time In the Old Town Tonight,’” she said. “Every once in a while when I would see Vertabelle, I would plan to ask her if that was true, but I never did.”
The Wilmington Morning Star reported the fire began around 12:30 p.m. and that it took two and one-half hours to burn all except a few of the homes north of the Kitty Cottage. The total damage was estimated to be between $500,000 and $1 million.
The newspaper stated the fire was prevented from spreading south by the prevailing southwest winds and the work of a few men from the Wilmington Fire Department.
“Praise for the work of Captain J. L. Croom, first assistant chief of the Wilmington Fire Department, in halting the southern march of the flames at the Carolina cottage annex was given by [Wrightsville Beach Mayor] J.A. Taylor and many other beach officials. Assisted by a party of 14 firemen, he went immediately to the cottage upon his arrival and started work,” said Al G. Dickson, Wilmington Morning Star staff correspondent.
Mayor J. A. Taylor immediately requested funds from the state’s Civil Works Administration (CWA) requesting $33,000 and 125 men for the clean-up effort. By mid-February, the Tide Water Power Company rebuilt the trolley tracks from Station One to the north, replaced power poles, streetlights and trolley wires and Southern Bell Telephone and Telegraph Company repaired the telephone lines. The town still hoped for CWA funds to rebuild thousands of feet of boardwalk and small firehouses, but another month would pass before the CWA would send 10 men to begin reconstruction.
Creasy said the highway bridge was built linking Harbor Island to the Wrightsville Beach strand the following year and after that, the town built up a volunteer fire department.
Eighty years later, Creasy can still feel the heat from the fire he watched as a 6-year-old boy.
“It wasn’t a warm day, because I remember we were standing across the sound there but could feel the heat from the fire,” he said.