Around 4 a.m. on January 15, nearly two years into the fight for American independence from Britain, a fire broke out in a kitchen near the intersection of Queen and Union (now State) streets. Its origin will likely always remain a matter of debate. Amid growing tensions between American Patriots and those loyal to the Crown, one popular rumor claimed it was started on purpose by local British Loyalists (Tories), but no proof of that exists. It also is highly likely it simply began accidentally.
A strong northerly wind blew embers from one residential rooftop to another westward up Queen Street. From Queen, the fire turned south and continued along the east side of Church Street all the way down to Stoll's Alley, a distance of at least six blocks.
Meanwhile, following a southerly path down Union Street, the fire continued below Broad Street to Elliott Street, where the city's principal market was located. Here it engulfed Elliott Street and Bedon's Alley. At the southern terminus of Bedon's, it continued west along Tradd Street, eventually meeting its other half (and thus a natural fire break) at Church Street.
Witnesses described the event as a "sea of flame," describing "the crackling of flames ... the shrieks of the ...sufferers" and the "horror ... in every contenance." Partially dressed residents raced out of their homes and into the streets desperately seeking refuge from the inferno.
The fire was controlled around noon, about eight hours after it was first reported. Charlestonians gazed with disbelief at "the smoking ruins, and the constant falling of walls and chimneys." (Fraser, p. 157)
Six people died and nearly 250 residences, including their dependencies, had been destroyed. All of the buildings on Union Street had been leveled, either from the fire itself or by the firefighters trying to control it, as had most of the properties along Chalmers Street and the south side of Queen Street. Between the eastern terminus of Queen Street to the southern tip of East Bay Street, only 15 houses survived; only five properties along the east side of Church Street between Broad and Stoll's Alley remained. Only two houses still stood on Elliott Street. Both sides of Broad Street saw heavy damage.
The fire also destroyed the Charles Town Library and museum on Philadelphia Alley, along with its “valuable collection of books, instruments and apparatus for astronomical and philosophical observations and experiments.”
It is estimated that losses exceeded $3 million.
As the flames moved down the streets, residents began grabbing their belongs and rushing them to places they hoped would be safe. Unfortunately, amid the chaos unscrupulous characters, pretending to help, would often abscond with the goods they "saved." For weeks after the confligration, those who had lost expensive possessions advertised in the local paper for the return of goods - chests, clothing, rum, wine, books, jewelry, shoes, furniture, paintings.
Miraculously, the Cooper-Bee House, c. 1760, was one of five properties to survive on the east side of Church Street, but in the mayhem, much of its furniture disappeared. For weeks after the fire, the South-Carolina and American General Gazette ran Bee's advertisement: "Lost in removing from my house during the late fire, among many other articles of value, the following: six mahogany chairs with horsehair bottoms, four paintings, a good many books, three large case bottles of Jamaica rum, about fifteen dozen of Madeira wine… Any person who will deliver the articles, or can give information where they may be found, shall receive a reward suitable to the value recovered, and many thanks from Thomas Bee."
Learn more about one of the biggest disasters to ever strike Charleston, the Great Fire of 1796.