The Great Jacksonville Fire of 1901

October 20, 2009 54 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.

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:

The Jacksonville Fire Memorial was erected to remind our community of the disaster our city faced and survived. The memorial was dedicated in 2003 to mark the 100th anniversary of what many have called the most destructive burning of a southern city in history.

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