On December 20, 1947, the largest fire in downtown Elkton’s history erupted in the pre-dawn darkness of the bitterly cold night. About 5:30 that morning the fire whistle sounded, piercing the silence of one of the longest nights of the year. Someone ringing up the telephone operator had reported smoke seeping out of the Janis Shoe Store on Main St., one-half block from the engine house. At that hour, Police Officer William D. Pinder was nearby making his early morning rounds in the patrol car. He reached the scene moments later and started awakening occupants of the apartments above the fire. Then he helped night clerks, Alfred Taylor and Charles Gatchell, at the Ritz and New Central Hotels.
That Saturday morning, the coldest day of the year, the temperature stood at 16° before the first ray of sun poked over the horizon. Awakened to shouts of fire and the smell of smoke, about 100-guests rushed from the endangered hotels into the frigid air, newspapers noted. Arriving firefighters found flames “eating through the first floor” of the shoe store. With Elkton’s full force of pumpers, an Ahrens ‘Fox and Hale, struggling to confine the fire to the store, Chief Caspar Dunbar immediately ordered a second alarm. Engines from Chesapeake City, North East and Newark, Del., rushed toward the county seat.
Elkton barber, Tony Trotta, recalled that morning. In 1947, he worked at the shop where he plied his trade for most of life. In those days, though, it was the Anthony Williams’ Barber Shop and Jewelry Store – his father-in-law’s shop. Hearing the approaching siren, he walked a few doors up the street to see what was going on. “I got there about the time the firemen did. Some fire was coming through the first floor, but, suddenly, about the time they started to put water on it, flames roared through the building,” Trotta detailed.
Billowing smoke could be seen for miles. Before long, with ice forming on ladders, streets, power lines, and fire trucks, the blaze burst through the roof of the building, and high winds fanned it into the next door A&P Food Store. From the grocery store, the fire spread to the Ritz Hotel and Restaurant. It was spreading rapidly through the old brick, wood and plaster buildings of Main Street. The whole downtown was threatened. Chief Dunbar called for a third alarm, bringing aid from Perryville, Port Deposit, Rising Sun, and Oxford, Pa., Fire apparatus and firefighters were now beginning to jam the narrow, ice-glazed street, Elkton’s principal thoroughfare.
Despite the attempt to quell it, the conflagration continued its eastward march. Next in its path was the New Central Hotel, which also contained the New Theater, a restaurant, a liquor store and a photographer’s studio. A call for further assistance, a fourth alarm, went out on telephone lines to Wilmington, Aberdeen, Havre de Grace, Mill Creek and Christiana. Former Singerly Fire Company President, Henry Metz, calling it “one of the worst fires” he’d seen, remembered that day. “In that area, many buildings were tied together and the roofs were all tin. The fire mushroomed under those roofs.” Metz and a crew of men spent most of the morning manning hose lines in the building west of the shoe shop, an auto parts store. Aided by a favorable wind, they checked the conflagration’s westward spread. It wasn’t until Wilmington’s ladder truck arrived that the eastward march was stopped, Metz recalled. “Those buildings were mostly three-story in the front and four-story in the back. We didn’t have the ladders to get above it.”
The Wilmington Bureau of Fire’s Engine Company 7 and Ladder Truck Three, manned by a squad of 14-firefighters, started from the city at 9:14 a.m., the Democrat observed. By the time companies from those places started arriving, the fire had eaten through the wall of the New Central Hotel building and was threatening the J.J. Newberry’s Five and Ten Cent store adjoining. At the height of the fire, Chief Dunbar directed a force of well over 100 firemen and 25 pieces of apparatus. As more of the town engines began tapping the municipal water mains and with the town pumping at full capacity, water pressure dropped. Six pumpers were taken to the Big Elk Creek to pump water to engines battling the inferno.
Flying low over midtown, taking photographs, were “new planes” from the daily papers, the Maryland News Courier observed. Some of those photos show hose crews on the roof of J.J. Newberry’s and in the street. They’re pouring water into the burning New Central Hotel, trying to keep the fire from spreading into the five-and-dime store. When the Wilmington squad arrived, they went into action with a 100 foot ladder truck. One city firefighter, high above the fire on the ladder, shot water onto the blaze, saving J.J. Newberry’s and checking the eastward spread, the Baltimore Sun said.
Shortly after 12 p.m., the fire was declared under control. “A potential disaster in the hotels,” fire officials told the Philadelphia Inquirer, “was averted by the quick action of the Elkton Patrolman and hotel employees who ran quickly from room-to-room to awaken guests.” The fire had raged for almost seven hours and burned a “half-million dollar” hole in the center of Elkton’s business district, destroying some of the largest and most important structures in town and damaging others. The buildings on the south side of Main Street destroyed by the blaze were those clustered around the foot of North Street.