In just over eight hours on May 3, 1901, a small fire, started in a LaVilla mattress factory, would sweep through 146 city blocks of Jacksonville, destroying over 2,000 buildings, taking seven lives, and leaving almost 9,000 people homeless in the process.
This tragic event would eventually be known as the Great Fire of 1901, the third largest urban fire in American history behind the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Chicago Fire of 1871.
Around noon on Friday, May 3, 1901 a spark from a kitchen fire during the lunch hour at a mattress factory set mattresses filled with Spanish moss on fire at the factory located in an area now known as LaVilla. The fire was soon discovered and it was thought they could put it out with only a few buckets of water. Consequently an alarm was not turned on until it had gone beyond their control.
Bay Street during the 1870s.
The fire would start in LaVilla on the corner of Davis and Ashley Streets and eventually burn everything in it's path between that point and the St. Johns River. The only thing that stood in its path and the rest of Jacksonville was Hogan's Creek and the St. Johns River.
Fire gets out of control
When the fire department arrived, the fire had spread from the outside platform upon which it started, to the pine buildings, which rapidly became a seething mass. Then the breeze sprang up, and the resinous brands and millions of sparks were dropped on the roofs of nearby homes, every few minutes starting a new distributing center and rapidly creating a chaos of fire and smoke. Rapidly it made its way eastward, devouring everything combustible in its path.
The fire swept through 146 city blocks, destroyed over 2,000 buildings and left almost 10,000 people homeless all in the course of eight hours. It is said the glow from the flames could be seen in Savannah, Georgia; smoke plumes in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Florida Governor William S. Jennings declared a state of martial law in Jacksonville and dispatched several state militia units to help. Reconstruction started immediately, and the city was returned to civil authority on May 17. Despite the widespread damage, only seven deaths were reported.