The Great Fire of 1901 at MOSH

November 24, 2012 1 comment Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

The Great Fire of 1901 caused severe destruction to downtown Jacksonville. In the Currents of Time exhibit, MOSH revisits that time and shares how it happened, and how the city ended up bouncing back.

May 3, 1901 was supposed to be like any other Friday.  Workmen were finishing up their last day of labor for the week in downtown Jacksonville, completely unaware that by the end of the day the area would be changed forever.

The Great Fire of 1901 began as a spark from a chimney that ignited Spanish moss next to the Cleveland Fiber Factory on the corner of West Beaver and Davis Street in La Villa.  Strong wind sent burning ashes to palmetto leaves and more moss creating flames, and it then progressed to the downtown area. The fire continued throughout the day until it was eventually put down by firemen from Jacksonville and surrounding areas.  When it was all over, downtown was completely demolished.

Though the tale of destruction is a thing of the past, the Currents of Time exhibit at the Museum of Science and History takes people back to the buildings that crumbled, the lives that were lost, and the improvements that were made afterward.

Windsor Hotel ruins May 4, 1901

Upon entering this section of the exhibit, sounds of burning flame and mass chaos echo through the hallway to recreate the disorderly atmosphere the fire created.  Debris is scattered in a case to exemplify the remains of the area and photos of deteriorated buildings and facts of the occurrence cover the walls.

According to the exhibit, total damage to the area included 455 burned acres on 148 blocks; two miles long and almost a mile wide, 1,700 destroyed homes and 2,368 destroyed buildings including 23 churches and 10 hotels, and an estimated $15,000,000 in damages.  Seven lives were lost that day.

But, the exhibit doesn’t just cover the tragedy.  It delves into how the fire ultimately forced downtown to reinvent itself.  Business and political leaders swiped the ashes away and began to rebuild the city.  The exhibit states that the day after the disaster, Board of Trade (renamed the Chamber of Commerce in 1914) appointed a panel of prominent male citizens to coordinate relief efforts.  In addition, The Women’s Club of Jacksonville oversaw emergency shelter and other needs for the community.  Churches divided efforts between rebuilding and providing relief for victims of the fire.

 The coverage of the Great Fire of 1901 in the Currents of Time exhibit at MOSH recognizes Jacksonville when it was in a state of chaos and shows that the city has the ability to rebuild itself after it hits bottom.  After all, there is no triumph without tragedy, and as it revamped itself, downtown Jacksonville truly became triumphant.

article by Melanie Pagan