33 rescued in Peninsula Hotel Fire — 86 years ago this week

The Peninsula Hotel stood at the northwest corner of Main and St. Peter’s streets. The four-story brick structure was constructed in 1891 and housed a drug store, a barber shop and general store along with the hotel. It burned on Jan. 29, 1929.

The Peninsula Hotel stood at the northwest corner of Main and St. Peter’s streets. The four-story brick structure was constructed in 1891 and housed a drug store, a barber shop and general store along with the hotel. It burned on Jan. 29, 1929.

As I review the historical records of Salisbury, I constantly find stories where the city was saved from destruction by Salisbury’s firefighters.

The fires of 1860 and 1886 are well documented along with a very close call in 1899’s Jackson’s Mill fire that nearly destroyed the city.

One fire in particular had all the makings of not only destroying the city for a third time; but also being the deadliest in our history.

The Peninsula Hotel stood at the northwest corner of Main and St. Peter’s streets. The four-story brick structure was constructed in 1891 and housed a drug store, a barber shop and general store along with the hotel.

Shortly before 10 p.m. on Jan. 29, 1929 — that’s 86 years ago today — George Porter detected the smell of smoke in the lobby.

When he went to the basement to investigate; he discovered a fire in a pile of empty boxes. Before he could grab an extinguisher, the fire had gained tremendous headway and a general alarm was sounded.

The entire structure was soon a raging inferno that could be seen from miles away.

Chief Fred Grier Jr. quickly called for assistance from Cambridge, Hebron, Fruitland, Princess Anne, Pocomoke, Delmar, Laurel and Seaford fire companies. For several hours, firemen battled the blaze in sub-freezing temperatures with gale force winds.

Thirty-three guests occupied the hotel at the time of the fire and nearly all had to be rescued by firemen.

Firemen went room by room to assure everyone made it out alive. Trapped occupants had to be carried out or rescued by ladders with little more than the clothes on their back.

Two male guest were located by firemen on the third floor and had to be lowered by rope to escape the quickly advancing fire.

It was first thought that Jesse Woodcock, an optometrist from Philadelphia, had perished in the fire. An alert fireman heard his calls for assistance and ran inside the main corridor where he was found on the stairway, unable to find his way through the smoke.

When the fire was brought under control several hours later, a virtual ice palace stood covering the shell of what was formerly the Peninsula Hotel. Some 200 firefighters, using 13 pieces of equipment from nine fire companies, had performed a miracle.

The raging blaze in the heart of the business district had been confined to the hotel with little damage to neighboring structures. Thirty-three people had been rescued from the fire and only two firemen had suffered injuries.

Chief Fred Grier Jr. had been knocked unconscious by a play pipe that went out of control and Slemons “Rock” Taylor suffered a cut above his eye from the same play pipe. Chief Grier later returned to the scene and continued to direct the operations.

Damages were estimated at $187,000 — $2.59 million in today’s money — and only two-thirds were insured.

A fire of this magnitude today would challenge any department to control to the building of origin, given the proximity of structures in our Downtown Salisbury District.

Add the life safety risk of 33 trapped occupants and you come to realize what a magnificent job our predecessors did in 1929.

 Bryan Wayne-Records is a chief in the Salisbury Fire Department.

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