WRIGHTSVILLE BEACH, NC (WWAY) -- Each summer, coastal towns worry about the potential of a devastating hurricane. But for Wrightsville Beach, perhaps the greatest disaster happened in the middle of winter.
It was 75 years ago Wednesday that a fire ripped through the north end of Wrightsville Beach, destroying more than one-hundred buildings.
In the early 1930s Wrightsville Beach was a jewel along the coast.
"A lot of people came from Wilmington here. A lot of people from Raleigh came in the summer and Charlotte, and even as far as Atlanta. This was a summer resort," said Bill Creasy, who witnessed the 1934 fire.
Creasy's family lived in Wilmington and had a summer cottage on Charlotte Street at Wrightsville Beach. But on January 28, 1934, that all changed.
"I was six going on seven, and it was on a Sunday," Creasy said. "We had just gotten back from church."
As the Creasys finished lunch, they got a phone call from Bill's aunt, whose family was among the few year-round residents at Wrightsville Beach. The news she had for Bill's father was shocking.
"She told my dad, 'The beach is on fire. The whole beach is burning,'" Creasy remembered. "So my dad said, 'C'mon, son. Let's see if we can ride down there.'"
Bill Sr. and Bill Jr. jumped in the family's 1933 Ford, but could only make it as far as Harbor Island, where Wrightsville Beach Town Hall sits today. In 1934, there was no bridge to get cars to the beach; just a foot bridge and a trolley line.
The Creasys could only stand and watch as cottages, boarding houses and even the landmark Oceanic Hotel burned.
"The fire was so hot that it was lifting up portions of the roof," Creasy said. "It went up in the air, and the wind blew them down and dropped them on other houses and set this house on fire and set this house on fire. It was just a continuous thing. As we got down there, we saw the fire progress on down to Charlotte Street, where our little cottage was, and we saw it burn."
The firefight was fruitless. Creasy said Wrightsville Beach's Volunteer Fire Department had a cart with a hose that could do little. A firetruck from Wilmington arrived by flat-bed car on the trolley line. When it was unloaded at the beach, it sunk into the sand.
"There were no paved streets. The streets were boardwalks," Creasy said.
The wood planks merely providing more fuel for the wind-fed flames.
"When the fire got going, the wind switched to the southwest. That was all she wrote," Creasy said.
Creasy said firefighters just had to let the fire burn itself out.
The next morning, the embers continued to smolder as the fire made headlines.
"The dread God of fire tramped over the northern extension of Wrightsville Beach, and lighted the cottages one by one like so many tapers," the Wilmington Morning Star reported.
Bill and his dad joined others surveying what was left of their beach homes.
"Just a bunch of bed frames, chimneys and ashes. That's all that was left," he said.
Creasy said it almost killed the tourism trade at Wrightsville Beach, but like in nature, life quickly sprang from the ashes.
"People just said, 'Well, we're going to rebuild,' so by the next year, houses started going up on the beach," Creasy said.
Change continues today, leaving behind few signs of a fire that certainly left its mark.
"When I think about it, it just seems like it was yesterday when it happened. It does," admitted Creasy.
It is believed the fire started in a boarding house called the Kitty Cottage, though no one knows what started it.
Creasy said when homes were replaced, they were built better, including fire-resistant materials.