Historical Reminiscing with Robert B. Hitchings
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Edgewater House Fire
October 19, 1960

There is a magic in that little word, home; it is a mystic circle surrounds comforts and virtues never known beyond its hallowed limits. - - -
Robert Southey 1774-1843

The first house fire that I can recall was when Dr. King’s stately old house caught fire in Edgewater. The memory of this fire is still etched in my brain even though it was so long ago. Thursday morning, October 20, 1960, my parents were up early and my father was discussing the morning blaze of Dr. Kirwan King’s house on Edgewater Drive. According to the Virginian-Pilot newspaper, this was a three alarm fire, but my family and I did not hear the fire-engines nor the sirens. My Dad thought this was rather odd. In fact, we all did.

However, at Carolton Oakes Private School, now Norfolk Collegiate, this was the big news. My 5th grade teacher, Mrs. Margaret Ober (1911-1995) whose husband was Dr. Vincent Ober, orthopedic doctor, lived on Powhatan Court and knew the Kings quite well. 

That Saturday afternoon I dropped over on my bicycle to see Stuart & Bobby Gahagan who lived up the street from where I lived. Stuart wanted to see the Dr. King’s house and so did I. Bobby did not want to go. So Stuart hopped onto the handlebars of my bicycle and off we went to see Doctor King’s burned out house on Edgewater Drive.

When we arrived there were many spectator’s looking too. Cars drove by slowly with people just looking. And poor Mrs. Cherry Martin King was outside trying to make assessment of the damage.  Stuart called out, “Mrs. King, I am Stuart Gahagan. My Dad is Dr. Robert Gahagen. We are so sorry about this house fire.” Mrs. King replied with a smiling face and said, “Thank you dear, I appreciate that.”

One neighbor said, “The flames were coming out the windows and doors. The house was like an inferno and one could feel the heat. It was a roaring blaze and the whole house was engulfed in flames.”

Before the fire, I remembered this old Victorian house surrounded by large shade trees and scrubs. My friends and I would ride our bicycles on Edgewater Drive and that house stood out with its wrapped-around porch. The front of these old houses always faced the Elizabeth River, so I never got to see the front. This house was probably built around 1907. It was a beautiful, vintage, Victorian, white, wooden house with dark black shutters and a lovely wrap-around porch. The house had once belonged to Charles Carlisle Jones who passed away in 1957. The house then passed onto the King family. As I gazed at this old burned out house it saddened me. It was such a beautiful old house in its day.

The rumor was that someone had broken into the house and set the fire. I remembered the windows were broken out by the firemen. They needed to let the smoke out. Old one-sided Victrola records were thrown all over the house. Nothing could be salvaged. The Ledger-Star newspaper had pictures of the house and mentioned a rather large statue of the 19th century Blessed Virgin Mary that was completely destroyed. The roof over the front of the house had completely caved in.

Fifty fireman worked tirelessly to subdue the flames which spread rapidly throughout the old house. Four engine companies, two ladder companies, two salvage companies and several chiefs all responded to this house fire. Three firemen were injured during the two-hour fight to bring the flames under control. One fireman named Mears was treated at Norfolk General Hospital, now Sentara, after a large cornice fell and struck him on the head and cutting his face and hand. Two firemen were treated at the scene with oxygen. Several firemen said the fire first started from a pile of rubbish.

A few days later, Dr. King wrote a nice letter to the editor of the Virginian-Pilot newspaper, November 2, 1960: “A Note of Thanks,” expressing his gratitude to all the firemen who worked endlessly trying to put out the house fire. As he said, “These men repeatedly risked their lives to bring the fire under control and attempted to save as many personal items as they could. I would like to extend to the men in the fire and Police Departments my heartfelt thanks.” M. Kirwan King, M.D.

Today there is a modern house on this site, which was later built. The house numbers have all changed on Edgewater Drive, due to new houses being built where once were long driveways leading to these old homes facing the Elizabeth River.

Dr. King’s house was a stately old house that I remembered so well. Like so many of these old turn-of-the-century old houses, so many have vanished over time either by fire or just making way for the ultra-modern, unconventional houses of today.

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Robert B. Hitchings is a seventh generation Norfolk resident, graduating with an Associate's Degree in Biology from Old Dominion University and BA in history from Virginia Wesleyan University. During his studies he was awarded a scholarship at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, England, and he was an exchange student at Brooks-Westminster College, Oxford, England. From 1999-2014 he worked as head of the Sargeant Memorial History Room at Norfolk Public Library, and since then has headed the Wallace History Room at Chesapeake Public Library. He is also the President of the Norfolk County Historical Society, and for six years was a columnist for The Virginian-Pilot. Robert may be reached at nchs.wallaceroom@gmail.com