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Disasters in Forsyth County

As is the case with nearly any community of size and significance, Winston-Salem and Forsyth County have faced their share of natural and man-made disasters. While not all of these events have caused loss of life, virtually all of them affected subsequent events and practices.

Over the years, fires have been influential in changing the architectural landscape of Salem and Winston while driving new skills in firefighting.

The first measurable fire occurred in January, 1784, when the Salem Tavern, built of wood in 1771, burned to the ground.

Not only did the Salem Moravians rebuild the Tavern in brick, but the community eventually made leather water buckets available in most buildings and homes, and soon owned some of the first “fire engines” in the South, making Salem a pioneer in town firefighting.

Despite advances in equipment and training since 1784, a serious fire continues to be a threat to the city.

On Thanksgiving Day, 1892, for instance, the town’s hopes for establishing Winston as a resort destination literally went up in flames. The state-of-the-art Zinzendorf Hotel had been built at Fourth and Glade in West End and opened in spring 1890. But when a small fire broke out in the laundry room and the fire companies could not draw enough water at the site, the building spectacularly burned down.

As a result, future hotels – including one also called the Zinzendorf, in 1906 – stayed in the central business district and made no pursuit of resort-style business.

Other fires over the years that were often photographed by the media and others included the Piedmont Airlines hangar fire in 1941, the Taylor’s Warehouse fire of 1958, the White Grocery/Brown Warehouse fire of 1969, and the burning of former R.J. Reynolds factory buildings on Chestnut Street in 1998.

The fire at O’Hanlon’s Drugstore in 1913 definitely affected the “look” of downtown. Its replacement in 1915, the O’Hanlon Building, was nine stories tall and one of Winston-Salem’s first “skyscrapers.”

The county has also had its problems with water. Shortly after the Idols Dam Power Plant was completed in 1898, the Yadkin River flooded, requiring, in addition to other clean-up, additional construction costs for the dam. A newspaper article referred to this “freshet” as worse than one in 1877, and reported that the river was a mile wide at Donnaha, in the northwest corner of the county.

The Yadkin flooded again in 1940, moving buildings and even a train with its rushing waters.

Parts of the city were shut off on March 15, 1912, when Salem Creek flooded, especially affecting the low point of Main Street south of today’s Old Salem. Stores were filled with water, a bridge was washed out, and a 700-foot-wide “pond” formed on Main Street, keeping streetcars from being able to serve “Southside” for several days.

The most dangerous water-related disaster took nine lives on Wednesday, November 2, 1904. The Union Republican newspaper termed it “A Horrible Accident” and “The Saddest Chapter in our History” when the “large brick and cement city reservoir, situated on the northern end of Trade Street, and containing many thousand gallons of water [at least 180,000 gallons per later reports]” gave way at five in the morning. In addition to the nine dead and those injured, eight houses were totally destroyed and others damaged.

One of the most recent Winston-Salem disasters created damage with wind. What was believed to be a tornado swept through town and points east towards Kernersville on May 5, 1989. Damage, particularly to trees such as those on Salem Square, and airplanes and structures at Smith Reynolds Airport, happened in a narrow but dramatic swath. Among other spaces, the appearance of Salem Square changed dramatically in a short time as many old-growth trees came down.

Most of the positive developments in the county’s history have come from planned, organized undertakings. But no history is complete without considering how even the negative occurrences such as those outlined here have their own way of reshaping the community.


Winston-Salem: A History, by Frank V. Tursi, John F. Blair, Publishers, 1994.

Winston-Salem: A Pictorial History, by Fambrough L. Brownlee, Donning Company/Publishers, 1977.

Forsyth: The History of a County on the March, Revised Edition, by Adelaide Fries, Stuart Thurman Wright and J. Edwin Hendricks, 1976.

The Union Republican, issues of November 3 and 10, 1904; March 21, 1912.

The Winston-Salem Journal, issues of September 23, 1898; November 4, 1904.

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