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 great Labour Day fire destroyed 35 buildings on either side of High St, 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 racecourse south of town and the fire caught them off-guard.

The burnt-out remains of some of the 15 premises destroyed in Dannevirke's great fire of October 22, 1917
The burnt-out remains of some of the 15 premises destroyed in Dannevirke's great fire of October 22, 1917

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.

Advertisement
Southern end of Dannevirke's High St.
Southern end of Dannevirke's High St.

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).

Battling the flames on Dannevirke's High St on October 22, 1917.
Battling the flames on Dannevirke's High St on October 22, 1917.

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 he rescued from the hotel's balconies.

The historic firefighting equipment used in the great fire of Dannevirke in 1917 on display at the museum at the Dannevirke Fire Station.
The historic firefighting equipment used in the great fire of Dannevirke in 1917 on display at the museum at the Dannevirke Fire Station.

Soon the flames had taken hold from Neagle's on the south through to Collett and Son's 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 hotspots.

Dannevirke was a scene of desolation, with only brick walls and gaunt chimney stacks indicating where flourishing businesses had been.

But resilient as always, temporary premises were quickly established and orders for replacement goods enabled the Christmas trade to continue.

Permanent replacement buildings were erected, the majority being more solid and expensive than those destroyed and most still remain, although not as the same businesses they were in 1917.

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 since 1895, through to the present day.