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The first part of the headline here, “Snow Hill in Ashes,” is the one that appeared atop a gripping story that filled much of page six of the Baltimore Sun on Aug. 9, 1893. About 1800 people made their homes in Snow Hill, Md. at that time. Founded in 1686, the Worcester County town ranks as one of the oldest on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. I am going to let the newspapers of that time tell the story of that terrible day–Aug. 8, 1893.

Snow Hill Democratic Messenger, Aug. 12
The fire originated in the store of G. Marion Dryden, how no one knows, but it was purely accidental, and Mr. Dryden is one of the heaviest losers by it. The alarm was sounded a few minutes before 10 o’clock, and in a very short while the streets were filled with people.

Baltimore Sun, Aug. 9
The report that the store … was on fire struck terror into the hearts of the businessmen of Snow Hill, the store being located in the middle of a solid block of [wood] buildings. … The town has no fire apparatus and its only dependence was on the “bucket brigade.”

Snow Hill Democratic Messenger, Aug. 12
For years [businessmen] have been saying when we read of the destruction of some [other] town, “Our town next.” But we did not do anything in the line of progress to avoid the fate which has overtaken us.

‘SNOW HILL WAS DOOMED’

Baltimore Sun, Aug. 9
When discovered the flames were gaining rapid headway in the second story of the building and within fifteen minutes … it burned through the roof and rear end of the building. Then the mammoth drug store of P.D. Cottingham & Co., on the one side, and B.T. Smith’s clothing store, on the other, caught fire. Very soon all three buildings were burning furiously.

Snow Hill Democratic Messenger, Aug. 12
[At this point], the people realized that the business portion of Snow Hill was doomed–and hard work would have to be done to save the resident portion of the town.

Baltimore Sun, Aug. 9
Men, women, and children wrung their hands in despair, and men who are noted in less stirring times for their coolness and bravery, ran about in an aimless manner and were so panic-stricken that they did not know what they were doing. Whistles were blowing, church bells pealing out the fire alarm, and pandemonium reigned.

Snow Hill Democratic Messenger, Aug. 12
When the fire first started an effort was made to get a telegram to Salisbury [and] also to Wilmington, asking for fire engines to be sent down, but it was not until midnight when the messages were received by [those] companies. [Firefighting brigades arrived from] Wilmington and Salisbury at the scene at about 5:30am, after the … fire had been checked. They immediately commenced throwing water on the vaults in the courthouse and the First National Bank.

Bucket Brigade Image for Story on Snow Hill MarylandBaltimore Sun, Aug. 9
[Before help arrived,] storehouse after storehouse was licked up by flames. Merchants were endeavoring to save such of their goods as they could get out of their stores and carrying them to places of safety. … The courthouse yard was thought to be a safe place … and thither nearly everyone ran with arms full of dry goods, furniture, clothing, and every conceivable kind of merchandise. But this afterward proved a costly effort, for everything placed in the courthouse yard was [soon] to go up in smoke.

‘THE HEROIC EFFORTS OF THE BUCKET BRIGADE’

Baltimore Sun, Aug. 9
Building after building on both sides of Pearl Street were soon ablaze. … The old National Hotel, … a large wooden building rearing high up in the air and surrounded by porches furnished excellent fuel and was soon all ablaze, the flames from it shooting over to the cupola of the courthouse, which ignited and soon the interior of the old temple of justice was on fire.

Snow Hill Democratic Messenger, Aug. 12
There were only two prisoners in the jail. They were released and worked manfully in the bucket brigade to [try and] save the prison and other property.

Baltimore Sun, Aug. 9
[In another part of town,] the fire was making rapid headway northward … toward the Pocomoke River and the saw and planing mills … located on the bank of the river, [but] the first was checked in this direction by the heroic efforts of the “bucket brigade” directed by Col. John Walter Smith.

Baltimore Sun, Aug. 9
Mr. O.M. Purnell no doubt saved many residences in the southeastern section of the town by using a force pump in his yard, to which was attached one hundred feet of hose. He kept his building well wet with water and the fire was checked at his residence. The Makemie Memorial Presbyterian Church caught on fire several times … but each time the fire was put out.

‘COMMENDABLE PLUCK AND ENERGY’

Baltimore Sun, Aug. 9
The fire swept away four blocks of houses and stores, covering about six acres of ground. Happily, no lives were lost and no person was seriously hurt. … Only three stores were left in the town … but with commendable pluck and energy several of the merchants who suffered the heaviest losses have already telegraphed to Baltimore for goods, which will be placed in private houses for sale until shanties can be erected.

Fire Illustration for Snow Hill Maryland StorySnow Hill Democratic Messenger, Aug. 12
Seventy-six [buildings] were burned in all, including three hotels, two banks, the Methodist Protestant church, and the courthouse and jail. The merchants and businessmen of Snow Hill are certainly badly crippled, but they have made their minds [up] already to … build up the destroyed portion of town in a more modern [and less fire-prone] manner.

Snow Hill Democratic Messenger, Aug. 12
[In the days after the fire], hundreds of people from all sections of the peninsula [came] here [to view] the ruins, … sympathizing with the sufferers from one of the worst fires ever [to occur] on the Eastern Shore.

Snow Hill Democratic Messenger, Aug. 12
Snow Hill today presents a view sad to behold. Standing by the ruins of the courthouse the gazer can see … a scene of devastation spread before them. Beyond the two chimneys and tumbling walls of the ruined buildings before him, [he sees all the way to] the shining waters of the placid Pocomoke. To his right, to his left and behind him he sees the fallen piles of brick which alone remains of once familiar landmarks.

Snow Hill Democratic Messenger, Aug. 12
The bailiff [is working] to see that all dangerous walls and chimneys [are] at once thrown down. Expert locksmiths are here opening the combinations of safes that went through the fire. Streams of water have kept playing on the ruins all day, but smoke still arises from the smoldering beams.

‘LET US DETERMINE TO BUILD A NEW SNOW HILL’

Baltimore Herald, Aug. 10
Today Snow Hill is looking around, after its stupor of a day, and is even now rising out of its ashes. All the merchants have made arrangements for temporary quarters, and a great number of them have already gotten fixed up for business.

Snow Hill Democratic Messenger, Aug. 12
It is bad, but now that it has happened let us determine to build a new Snow Hill.

In the years that followed, that is, of course, exactly what happened. A good number of the buildings that stand in Snow Hill today date to those last years of the 1890s and first years of the 1900s. The town’s first public water system was installed in 1896. A volunteer fire company was fully operational by 1897, with a modern fire station coming along a few years later. The next time you visit Snow Hill, take a moment to consider the way its beautiful downtown was born in that determination “to build a new Snow Hill” that arose among the locals even as the devastating fire of 1893 was still smoldering,

–posted, compiled, and written by Jim Duffy on Aug. 8, 2020 for Secrets of the Eastern Shore/Whimbrel Creations LLC. All rights reserved.

NOTES: The aerial photo here comes from the website of the town of Snow Hill. The two old illustrations here are generic in nature–they are not scenes used here to depict in any specific way the events of Snow Hill in August 1893.

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