The Fire of 1886
(The picture above is Main St. looking east from Market St.)
After the fire of 1860 destroyed Salisbury’s downtown, the people showed their resilience by building the area back better than before. Businesses sprang up and things were progressing better than expected. They built back using the same antiquated methods and materials they had used before. The timber structures and close proximity of same were not conducive to fire prevention. That fact was evident on the fateful Sunday of October 17, 1886.
Another near disaster occurred in 1879 at the Jackson Lumber Company. Anything more than a small fire was averted with the assistance of the Wilmington Fire Department. The Salisbury Fire Department was so impressed with Wilmington’s Silsby steamer that they spent $4,000 over 10 years to purchase one of their own. They named if the “L. P. Almond” in honor of Wilmington’s fire chief.
On Sunday evening, October 17, 1886, St. Peter’s church bell was ringing the congregation to Sunday evening prayers. When the bell started ringing, most people just thought it was the regular Sunday service bell. The peel became more insistent as time and the fire progressed. The fire had started at Toadvine’s Livery Stable on the corner of Dock (now Market) Street and Camden Avenue. The fire was small at first and probably could have been put out with a bucket brigade, the livery stable being in close proximity to the river. Excitement to view the operation of the new piece of fire equipment caused a fateful delay. When the L. P. Almond arrived, it was discovered that a lack of maintenance had caused the valves to seize up and render the pumper inoperable. By this time the fire had raged out of control. Aided by a stiff northeasterly wind, it quickly engulfed the entire downtown area. The stores of hay, paint and gunpowder in local hardware stores and stables only caused the fire to spread more rapidly.
When they built back after the Fire of 1860, they built the buildings out of the same flammable timber and kept the width of Main Street narrow. The flames took advantage of the easily combustible lumber and jumped over Main Street with ease. Only with the assistance of the Wilmington. Pocomoke and Crisfield Fire Departments did they contain the fire to the commercial district. Ironically, the Crisfield Fire Department is credited with saving the Court House. Built in 1878, it was the symbol of our new county of Wicomico. It was carved out of land from Somerset and Worcester counties. Crisfield firemen, from Somerset County, didn’t let politics get in the way when it came to saving property and lives. Every time we look at the Court House, we can thank Crisfield.
When the fire was finally extinguished after a long 17 hours, 22 acres of downtown Salisbury was nothing but a smoldering ruin. In the ruins was the bell of St. Peter’s that had first sounded the alarm. The fire had burned through the rope holding it and it came crashing down in ruins. It was salvaged and recast. Not having a church, St. Peter’s loaned the bell to the county and it rang out the time for the next 100 years from the tower in the Court House. The bell was recently returned to its original place at St. Peter’s. This is only one of two relics from the Fire of 1886. The other is the Silsby fire engine, the same one that failed and caused Salisbury to lose most of its downtown. It can be viewed at the Fire Museum located in the new fire house on Cypress Street in Salisbury.
New zoning laws were adopted by the town commissioners on October 19, only two days after the fire, which widened Main Street by five feet and required any new building to be constructed of brick. Since that time the fires at the Peninsula Hotel, Benjamin’s and the Ulman Theater were contained to only one building.