This Month in New Bern History – May 2022

Another New Bern First

by Claudia Houston, Historian, New Bern Historical Society

On May 14, 1845, the Atlantic Fire Company No. 1 was organized in New Bern, becoming the oldest chartered fire company in North Carolina and one of the oldest in the United States. Exploits of the Atlantic Company and their later rival, the New Bern Steam Fire Engine Company No. 1 ("Button Company") are legend in the annals of the New Bern Fire Department. But what led to the charter of the Atlantic Company?

As in most 18th century small towns in North Carolina, New Bern’s firefighters were local citizens who responded to fire alarms with their own buckets, ladders, and axes. These efforts soon proved inadequate as there was a series of catastrophic fires in the late 1700’s resulting in hundreds of lost homes. In 1795 the New Bern Academy Building was destroyed by fire and in 1798 Tryon Palace burned to the ground.

Photo depicting destruction of New Bern courthouse by fire in Jan 1861, believed to be oldest photo of New Bern. Source New Bern Historical Society files.

In 1815 New Bern hired its first firefighter who was paid fifty dollars per year to maintain the fire house and apparatus. He was replaced in 1820 by two men. There were no major fires and locals became complacent about fire protection. In May 1821, some local residents formed a fire company and soon New Bern purchased a new fire engine and a new firehouse. Despite these expenditures, the citizens of New Bern lost interest in fire safety and within a year, when a fire was reported in the kitchen of a local home, there was no fire company at all. It wasn’t until 1828 that the town leaders appointed six men as fire wardens who were granted authority to direct firefighting efforts in the town.

On April 17, 1843, a fire was discovered at the Wade Mill at Union Point. Fire fighters responded immediately, but the blaze spread rapidly due to gale-force wind. Within one hour from the beginning of the blaze there were fires in twenty distinct parts of town. Panic ensued and the devastating fire leveled everything on both sides of East Front and Pollock Streets up to Craven Street. Hundreds were left homeless without clothing, food, or furniture. Damage was estimated to be over $100,000 including seventy homes, eight stores, thirteen warehouses, a steam sawmill, and over one hundred sixty buildings.

"Brick Block Building," home of Atlantic Fire Company, from 1885-1928. New Bern Historical Society collection.

Despite this tragic loss, the citizens of New Bern again became apathetic about fire protection. Unfortunately, another massive fire ensued in October of 1843. Between these two fires a third of the town had been burned. The town fire company, both in numbers and discipline, was unprepared to do its job effectively. Citizens and local leaders finally saw the need for fire protection and in subsequent months the Atlantic Fire company was chartered.

On January 15, 1861, a serious blaze at an iron works near Broad and Middle Streets quickly spread, destroying the courthouse in the process. This devastation resulted in a complete reorganization of the fire companies. Two companies of thirty-five members each were organized, and plans were made to procure better equipment. New Bern finally had a fully reorganized and efficient fire department - the Atlantic Hook and Ladder Fire Company No. 1. Sadly, with the advent of the Civil War, most of its members enlisted in the Confederate army and the company quickly became inactive.

After the war, the men returned home to discover that another fire company had taken its place. In their absence, in 1865 Union soldiers formed the New Bern Steam Engine Company No. 1, nicknamed "Button Company." So began a heated rivalry lasting until the 1900’s, generating even more famous firefighting firsts and records that stand to this day. 

The “Atlantic Company,” the first chartered fire department in North Carolina subsequently had a long and distinguished firefighting history. But that is a story for another day!

Atlantic Fire Company Engine, circa early 1900s. Courtesy Ernest Richardson III postcard collection.

Atlantic Fire Company circa 1930’s. Courtesy Ernest Richardson III postcard collection.


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