The fire that destroyed Dannevirke
By Christine Mackay
COLOSSAL and devastating conflagration were the words used to describe the great fire which destroyed much of the Dannevirke business area on October 22, 1917.
The Labour Day fire destroyed 35 buildings on either side of High Street, from Hall St North to Barraud St south.
As some residents spent their Labour Weekend on the bowling greens and the tennis courts, many were at the annual motorcycle race at the course south of the town and the fire caught them off guard.
It had been reported in the Dannevirke Evening News on the Saturday that the fire bell, which had been undergoing structural alteration, was going to have a trial ring at 6.30pm.
When it rang at 2.15pm, many jumped to the conclusion the trial was taking place earlier and they took very little notice until a large plume of black smoke began to rise over the town.
However, even then firefighters were blissfully unaware of the magnitude of the impending disaster.
But as news spread that Andrews Hotel was on fire, all avenues leading to High St rapidly filled with people racing to the inferno.
The fire was believed to have started at the back of Andrews Hotel (now the site of KFC).
A maid gave the alarm and Mr S Andrews, the licensee and part-owner, made an attempt to subdue the blaze with an extinguisher, but it continued to make remarkable headway.
The flames took control and in less than three minutes the whole of the upper storey of the hotel was described as “a seething mass of devouring flames”.
Housemaids had to be rescued from the hotel’s balconies.
Soon the flames had taken hold from Neagle’s on the south through to Collett and Sons’ iron foundry on the north, including the Masonic hotel and the Dannevirke/Herbertville Coaching Company’s stables and down to Prior’s the chemist.
The firefighters had 11 leads playing on the fire from various points but the heat was so terrific and the smoke so dense that shop after shop went up in smoke and for a long time the fate of Dannevirke hung in the balance.
The heat was so intense it melted the tarseal on High St and it wasn’t until the wind dropped that firefighters, backed up by brigades from Woodville and Waipukurau, were able to deal to the hot spots
Dannevirke was a scene of desolation, with only brick walls and gaunt chimney stacks indicating where flourishing businesses had been.
But resilient as always, the townspeople quickly established temporary premises and orders for replacement goods enabled the Christmas trade to continue.
Permanent replacement buildings were eventually erected, the majority being more solid and expensive than those destroyed and most still remain, though with newer businesses.
Disaster in focus
The Dannevirke Gallery of History will hold an open weekend, Saturday, October 21, to Monday, October 23, to commemorate 100 years since the great fire of Dannevirke.
The museum in Gordon St will be open each day, 10am to 3pm, with no charge.
The old fire Bell will be rung at 10am on the Saturday as the display is opened.
The display will also celebrate and recognise the contribution of the Dannevirke Volunteer Fire Brigade has given to our community from 1895 through to the present day.
Photo captions –
DESOLATE (left): The burnt-out remains of some of the 15 premises destroyed in Dannevirke’s great fire of October 22, 1917.
GONE: the southern end of Dannevirke’s High Street has been flattened.
LAST ORDERS: Andrew’s Hotel is left in ruins by the Labour Day fire. PHOTOS/SUPPLIED
AN IMPOSSIBLE TASK: Firefighters battle the flames on Dannevirke’s High Street on October 22, 1917.
LOOKING BACK: The historic firefighting equipment used in the great fire is on display at the museum at the Dannevirke Fire Station.