In the early hours of Sunday morning, 1st October, 1899, a fire broke out that was to be the most extensive and destructive fire that had ever visited the township of Kiama and would change the face of Terralong Street forever.
The fire started in Wood Brothers general store and within minutes the place was ablaze. With the help of a strong southerly breeze, the fire soon spread to adjoining buildings and according to William H Bayley, author of Bluehaven: History of Kiama Municipality, "half the block of shops fronting Terralong Street from Collins Street towards Shoalhaven Street caught fire at 2 a.m. and was destroyed soon after dawn."
Following is an excerpt from the Sydney Morning Herald dated Monday, 2 October, 1899:
"By the time the local police and many others were on the spot, and under the direction of Senior-sergeant Brayne, Alderman Hindmarsh and others, many willing hands made great efforts to prevent the flames catching the Royal Hotel. In spite of their efforts the hotel soon ignited. This building being in part lath and plaster outside blocked the advance of the fire for a time: but ultimately the fire got hold of the place, and being a two-storey wooden structure it soon became a burning maze belching out tongues of fire against the adjoining building."
Unfortunately there was no fire fighting equipment in Kiama at the time – hoses and tank water being the best on offer – so extinguishing the blaze became a huge problem. There are conflicting reports about how the fire was eventually brought to a halt. According to William Bayley: “The spread was only prevented by the demolition by volunteers of F. Wahl's shop with the aid of axes, picks and planks for levers.' The Sydney Morning Herald reported: “The flames advanced steadily from building to building for a distance of about seven chains until they reached the vacant plot of land adjoining the premises of Mr. Alleyne Farr, chemist, whose place narrowly escaped destruction.'
According to Australian Town and Country Journal: "There was no loss of life or stock. All the horses were rescued with nothing more serious than an occasional stampede." Several visitors from Mr. Muir's boarding house, on the hill, rendered every assistance; and the township turned out almost to a man, and numbers of ladies also rushed to the scene of the conflagration and assisted their fellow women. Good service was rendered by Mr. Geo. Knight, watchmaker, by timely disconnecting the rod attaching the post office clock to the dial, and utilising the bell as a fire alarm, the tones as he rang being heard from one end of the township to the other.
The scene at dawn looked extremely weird, everything being demolished except a score of iron tanks and 18 brick chimneys which stand like silent sentinels to mark the desolation.'
Fortunately there was no loss of life but 12 families were left homeless. Sixteen shops and the Royal Hotel were destroyed. Business people reopened businesses in sheds and all types of rooms and premises in other locations whilst their stores were rebuilt in brick.
Estimation of the total cost of the damage was put at between £5000 and £6000.
And then ten weeks later, it happened again ........