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Jacksonville History: The Great Fire of 1901

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.

Published November 25, 2010 in History      8 Comments    Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article


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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.

Origin


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.



Aftermath


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.



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8 Comments

Ocklawaha

November 26, 2010, 12:05:49 AM


Damn boys and girls, So what has changed in this photo from the way downtown looks today? Well, it's probably less exciting now.

OCKLAWAHA

Springfielder

November 26, 2010, 07:09:36 AM
Great job on this article, and as always, I love the photos. Thanks for this!

BackinJax05

June 02, 2012, 04:45:32 AM
One of the pictures here is a Duval County Courthouse. As I recall from research, the building burned but the walls remained intact and the building was rebuilt after the fire.

The old courthouse survived the Great Fire of 1901, only to fall to a wrecking ball years later in the name of "progress".

Timkin

June 02, 2012, 09:47:07 PM
"Progress" began going array about that time.  It has been spiraling out of control ever since, when it comes to saving any of our history.

I hope the City is too broke to demolish anything else... But that would be wishful thinking. When it comes to the wrecking ball , the barrel never seems to run dry.

BackinJax05

June 03, 2012, 10:07:48 PM
"Progress" began going array about that time.  It has been spiraling out of control ever since, when it comes to saving any of our history.

I hope the City is too broke to demolish anything else... But that would be wishful thinking. When it comes to the wrecking ball , the barrel never seems to run dry.

Sad, but true.

MajorCordite

June 10, 2012, 07:28:37 PM
In June of 1971, after graduating from Terry Parker High School, I got a job with Raymond International a sub-contractor under the Auchter Company.   Raymond International was a company specializing in driving heavy pile for foundations for large buildings.   We prepared the site for The Independent Life Building tower. An entire city block of old buildings were demolished.   We then drove sheet-wall pilings around the entire perimeter of the city block and excavated down about 40 feet for the building's foundation.  Large diesel sump pumps were also installed to keep the ground water out.

Unbeknownst to all but a few my uncle was the head superintendent, so I pretty much had a free reign of the entire area.  I was sort of a gopher doing odd jobs for the various foremen.  We drove hundreds of I-beams piles and re-bar reinforced cement cylinder piles down to the bedrock.  During the excavation process about 10-20 feet down there was a band of charred material, like a charcoal vein, from the Great Fire of 1901.   There was lots of molten glass clumps and charred timbers and such.  Every day after 5:00pm, when the job site closed, I would take a pick and trowel and dig through this vein.

My opinion is that this site was actually the waters edge during 1901 and probably a lot of residue from the fire was dumped here as fill material.   I found lots of old bottles and molten metal scraps.  I still have the old bottles.  (I will post some pictures next week)   

My most treasured possession that I found was a small porcelain doll.  The doll was encased in mud and charcoal and when I washed it off it was perfectly preserved.   The painted eyes and rosy cheeks were still intact.  The arms and legs were attached to the body with thin copper wire.  The wire disintegrated when the mud washed off.   Only recently have I learned that this exact area was the ferry staging area for fleeing residents to escape the fire.  The ferry took the fleeing residents safely to the south side of the river.  My hunch is that a family with a little girl were waiting on the ferry and in the excitement and confusion the little girl lost her doll.   

We did uncover lots of old pier pilings and most were left in the ground and covered under the enormous concrete slab that was poured for the foundation.   Any interest in the above -- I will post additional information.     

Timkin

June 10, 2012, 07:39:33 PM
Please DO !!!!!  Very interesting !!

stephendare

June 10, 2012, 08:01:47 PM
In June of 1971, after graduating from Terry Parker High School, I got a job with Raymond International a sub-contractor under the Auchter Company.   Raymond International was a company specializing in driving heavy pile for foundations for large buildings.   We prepared the site for The Independent Life Building tower. An entire city block of old buildings were demolished.   We then drove sheet-wall pilings around the entire perimeter of the city block and excavated down about 40 feet for the building's foundation.  Large diesel sump pumps were also installed to keep the ground water out.

Unbeknownst to all but a few my uncle was the head superintendent, so I pretty much had a free reign of the entire area.  I was sort of a gopher doing odd jobs for the various foremen.  We drove hundreds of I-beams piles and re-bar reinforced cement cylinder piles down to the bedrock.  During the excavation process about 10-20 feet down there was a band of charred material, like a charcoal vein, from the Great Fire of 1901.   There was lots of molten glass clumps and charred timbers and such.  Every day after 5:00pm, when the job site closed, I would take a pick and trowel and dig through this vein.

My opinion is that this site was actually the waters edge during 1901 and probably a lot of residue from the fire was dumped here as fill material.   I found lots of old bottles and molten metal scraps.  I still have the old bottles.  (I will post some pictures next week)   

My most treasured possession that I found was a small porcelain doll.  The doll was encased in mud and charcoal and when I washed it off it was perfectly preserved.   The painted eyes and rosy cheeks were still intact.  The arms and legs were attached to the body with thin copper wire.  The wire disintegrated when the mud washed off.   Only recently have I learned that this exact area was the ferry staging area for fleeing residents to escape the fire.  The ferry took the fleeing residents safely to the south side of the river.  My hunch is that a family with a little girl were waiting on the ferry and in the excitement and confusion the little girl lost her doll.   

We did uncover lots of old pier pilings and most were left in the ground and covered under the enormous concrete slab that was poured for the foundation.   Any interest in the above -

 I will post additional information.     

Yes!  Please more!
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