A Terrible Fire

ONE OF THE MOST exciting and disastrous events that ever occurred in Brooklyn was the big fire of 1917. The day was a pleasant one, and most of our family was at home pursuing various duties and engaging in bits of homey conversation when we heard that there was a fire on a nearby street.
We thought that the blaze was confined to a solitary house in the section, so we were concerned but not particularly alarmed. The fire department visited our section from time to time because there were numbers of wooden houses. Many of them were covered with very flammable materials such as tar paper and old-fashioned wooden shingles. Flying sparks from flues or defective chimneys caused slight blazes from time to time. In fact, we once had a big scare from such an experience. Firemen usually mastered these situations before too much damage was done, so we continued to do what we were doing unaware that a great tragedy was in the making.
Before too many minutes had elapsed someone else rushed by screaming that an awful fire was spreading up and down Caldwell Street and that it looked as if all of Brooklyn was going up in a blaze. This news terrified us because Caldwell Street was not far away and our aunt lived much closer to it than we did.
We threw down or stopped what we were doing at once and rushed breathlessly up to the corner of Boundary and Caldwell streets. When we looked down Caldwell Street, it appeared to be a blazing inferno, jammed with frightened, excited people and firefighting equipment.
The fire had started in a small shotgun house (which was a common name for a very inferior type of wooden structure) on a side street and had quickly spread to the tinderbox houses on each side of it. The fire then raced down Caldwell Street helped by flying sparks which set the houses on fire on both sides. The fire department seemed unable to get the fire under control because the flames kept jumping from roof to roof. The wind might also have been an aggravating factor.
By this time, great crowds of thrill-seeking, inquisitive people were pushing, yelling and trying to get as close to the scene as possible which hindered the fire department in its efforts to quell the flames. Alarms had been sounded for equipment from stations all over town, and it looked as if all available equipment had rushed to this section to render assistance.
This was the year Camp Greene was in operation, and it seemed as if the city stayed full of soldiers. An alarm had been sent to the camp for assistance, and we were told that camp equipment as well as soldiers had rushed to the scene to do what they could to help.
We were never clear as to why the fire got such a headstart. Some said that the water pressure was insufficient to furnish the needed volume to stop the fire. Others reported that fire hydrants were spaced too far apart which might have been a contributing factor to the spread of the flame.
Charlotte’s firefighting equipment was rather meager at that period although it was perhaps thought adequate by the proper authorities for the city’s size at that time. This was an unusual fire and probably would have taxed the firefighting equipment of most cities of similar size.
The red hills which were on one side of Caldwell Street took on the look of a general store. People were filing them with clothes, beds, bedsprings, pots, pans, chairs, anything they could drag to what they considered a safe place from the devastating fire. The hills were the only spaces around where there were no houses to burn, so families were rushing there for their safety and the safety of their belongings. People were screaming and rushing hither and thither trying to locate their children and other relatives as well as save what few belongings they could rescue from the holocaust.
After a good look, I rushed pell-mell back down the street to inform our mother of the appalling situation. It seemed that the fire was racing towards Boundary Street where we lived and that our section might experience a bath of flames.
My mother was so frightened that she didn’t attempt to come to the fire. I think that she just couldn’t stand the excitement. We saw her standing in silence at the far end of our garden. I THINK she was in prayer. I felt that our home was doomed. The thing that I treasured most in our home was our piano. Uppermost in my mind was the thought that I must somehow save this precious instrument. I knew that it was too heavy for me to push alone, so I rushed into the street to ask someone to help me get it out of the house. Most passersby shook their heads and hurried on, intent on doing some task f their own. But one man stopped and responded to my imploring plea, “Please help me save our piano!”
I have read many times since of people doing superhuman things as a result of emotional excitement, and I did just that with the help of a man. I was then a girl in my early teen years. The man who stopped to help me was only an average-size man. With my small bit of help, he carried and pushed an old-fashioned upright piano down the steps, up a long walk and partly down the sidewalk. Where we were going with it, I have since wondered often to myself. I now know that I was acting under emotional strain. The direction in which we were heading didn’t seem to matter. The very act of getting the piano out of the house seemed to give me the satisfaction of thinking that somehow it would be saved.
Fortunately, the wind and flames seemed to shift. Some small houses were dynamited in a stop-gap effort, and the fire did not sweep down Boundary Street as we had feared. After the fire had been brought under control, Mother had to get three men to bring the piano back into the house.
In this terrible fire, about forty or more houses were destroyed along with most of the inhabitants’ belongings. Some of these houses were shotgun structures, and a few were comfortable homes. This was a time of great sadness for the renters and especially for the homeowners because they knew that they would hardly be able to replace the homes that had been destroyed.
I remember one man with whom my aunt had once lived. He had been a railroad fireman, had made good money, had saved it, and had invested the sum in two houses. His home and his rental house were burned down. Not having sufficient funds to replace them, the property was afterwards sold to real estate men. Where there had been two comfortable individual houses with plenty of yard space, a new type of cheap rental structure was built in the form of ugly, two-story wooden flats. These buildings were built very close to the street, and one could see the idea behind them was to get the largest possible profit from the smallest possible investment.
Such houses as those erected in this former homesite were a good example of the type of investments that helped to transform Brooklyn into an undesirable place for wholesome living.
This fire might be cited as a milestone in the gradual deterioration that came abut in this section. As many of the older citizens died out, their property was turned over to new landlords, many of whom seemed to have had no regard for keeping the section respectable or for the fact that colored people needed to live and rear their children in decent surroundings. Large lots were dissected. New alleys were created and lined with undesirable houses that were packed one on the other with hardly any space between them. These conditions often brought in undesirable tenants who only hastened the physical as well as moral decay of the community.
In other places, creeks and ditches were used as homesites, and homes were placed as near the water as possible in the owners’ efforts to eke out a spot on which to erect four walls for a house. People have lived in these houses for years with the stench of stagnant water and other undesirable odors filling their lungs day and night. With the utter disregard being shown by some property owners to individuals or groups of people, there was no alternative but absolute decay. The name slum district came into being because of the callous indifference of human beings to other human beings.
It is with a deep feeling of sadness that we who lived in Brooklyn and loved it were forced to acknowledge that much of it had been transformed into a slum area. With our deep regret and abiding nostalgia for the good life that had once been an integral part of this community, we see it being erased.
My hope is that in our memories, we who experienced a happy home life in this section will always keep alive the memory of Brooklyn which once was blessed with shade trees, red roses and lilacs that bloomed in early spring. To all who might inquire about the section’s past, we can proudly and truthfully say, “There once was a wholesome, happy spot called Brooklyn.”

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