Just over 50 years after Sherman destroyed Atlanta, a different fire blazed through the city. The Great Fire of Atlanta ravished the city nearly 100 years ago to this day. How did the fire happen, and how was the city able to recover? Let’s take a look.

Wooden shingles were quickly consumed by the rapidly spreading fire. Image: Atlanta Journal Constitution

Wooden shingles were quickly consumed by the rapidly spreading fire. Image: Atlanta Journal Constitution

According to Georgia Public Broadcasting (GPB), the alarms heralding the arrival of the fire sounded off on Monday, May 21, 1917, close to 1 p.m. It was hot, the air was dry, and unfortunately most of Atlanta’s roofs had wooden shingles – not a great formula for fire prevention at the turn of the century. The day had already seen three other fires, but the one that broke out at Skinner Warehouse, in today’s Old Fourth Ward, wreaked havoc. Author Franklin M. Garrett, in his book Atlanta and Environs: A Chronicle of Its People and Events, 1800s-1930’s, said, “As it was, the fire got a good grip on Skinner Warehouse before the engines arrived. Then it started north like a warhorse.”

Imagine peering out of your Buckhead high-rise window and seeing nothing but smoke and rubble to the south. That’s how it was for the people of Atlanta on May 22. The fire spread uncontrollably, leaping from house to house and consuming the wooden roofs. It raged for 10 hours before firemen could put an end to it. The way they were able to contain the fire is almost as shocking as the fire itself: dynamite.

Horse-drawn fire response teams were what was available to fight the Great Fire of Atlanta in 1917. By the following year, the department was motorized. Image: Atlanta Magazine

The fire spread across 300 acres, beginning at Edgewood Avenue and extending to Ponce de Leon Avenue. Homes were enveloped in flames, and chaos ensued. The firemen simply couldn’t keep up with the demand using traditional methods, so the next best thing to do was to blow up homes and buildings with dynamite to create a corridor between the fire and buildings. Franklin asserts that only one person died during the Great Atlanta Fire. “Strangely enough, and fortunately too, only one life was lost as a result of the fire. Mrs. Bessie Hodges died from a heart attack induced by shock following the burning of her home on Boulevard.” However, 10,000 people were left homeless.

From the ashes of the fire arose progressive changes. There had been murmurs of making the fire department fully motorized, and after the fire those murmurs were realized – by 1918 Atlanta had a motorized fire department. The city also banned the use of wooden shingles in construction.

This image shows the chaos of the Great Atlanta Fire of 1917. Image: Atlanta Magazine

This image shows the chaos of the Great Atlanta Fire of 1917. Image: Atlanta Magazine

Old Fourth Ward (and the city as a whole) has since rebounded. The third annual Fire in the Fourth Festival returns today — Saturday, May 20 — paying homage to the fire that once devastated its neighborhood. The festival includes an interactive installation about the 100-year history of Boulevard, 30 performances by musicians and artists and, of course, fire games.

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