Distinguish Jacksonville: The Great Fire of 1901

January 6, 2007 11 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

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.

By the late 1800's, Bay Street was a bustling corridor of commerce before Jacksonville was burnt to a crisp. 



After the fire, Bay Street was a shell of it's former self.



Did racism allow the fire to grow?


James Weldon Johnson, one of Jacksonville's most famous residents, thought the Great Fire of 1901 might not have caused such destruction if it weren't for the authorities' racism. Johnson, who later became famous as a writer, diplomat and civil rights leader, was the principal of the original Stanton School in Jacksonville at the time of the fire. In his autobiography Along This Way, he recalled that he and his brother Rosamond were riding their bicycles to their parents' home when they saw smoke not far from their house.

Johnson wrote:

We met many people fleeing. From them we gathered excitedly related snatches: the fiber factory catches afire - the fire department comes - fanned by a light breeze, the fire is traveling directly east and spreading out to the north, over the district where the bulk of Negroes in the western end of the city live - the firemen spend all their efforts saving a low row of frame houses just across the street on the south side of the factory, belonging to a white man named Steve Melton.

Johnson also alleged that when people complained to the fire chief, he used a racial slur and said it would be a good thing for blacks' homes to burn. Soon it was too late to change plans.




Jacksonville residents tour their city of ruins, shortly after the flames finally went out.



Hemming Park after the fire.  The Confederate monument in Hemming Park was one of the few structures to survive.  Many witnesses claim that the base had a red glow during the fire.




Famed New York architect Henry John Klutho helped rebuild the city. Klutho and other architects, enamored by the "Prairie Style" of architecture then being popularized by architect Frank Lloyd Wright in Chicago and other Midwestern cities, designed exuberant local buildings with a Florida flair. While many of Klutho's buildings were demolished by the 1980s, a number of his creations remain, including the St. James Building from 1911 (a former department store that is now Jacksonville's City Hall) and the Morocco Temple from 1910. The Klutho Apartments, in Springfield, were recently restored and converted into office space by local charity Fresh Ministries. Despite the losses of the last several decades, Jacksonville still has one of the largest collections of Prairie Style buildings (particularly residences) outside the Midwest.




Remembering the Fire today

The Catherine Street Fire Station (No. 3) opened 10 months after the Great Fire destroyed the original 1886 structure. Bricks salvaged from buildings destroyed during the fire were used to construct the north, south and west walls of the firehouse. Today, the station has been restored and lives on as the Jacksonville Fire Museum. Here, visitors can learn more about the Great Fire of 1901, as well as other local fire-related historic events, such as the 1963 Roosevelt Hotel Fire that ended up taking 22 lives during Gator Bowl weekend. Located in Kids Kampus at Metropolitan Park, the Jacksonville Fire Museum is open Monday through Friday, from 9am to 4pm.

Jacksonville Fire Museum: www.jacksonvillefiremuseum.com



The Jacksonville Fire Memorial sculpture was erected along the Northbank riverwalk in 2003.  It is intended to memorialize the great fire and the city's rise from the devastation.


To learn more about the Great Fire:


The Great Fire of Jacksonville: An Artistic Description of a Gloomy Affair


Acres of Ashes