Time has a way of blurring details, so the beginning of this story is about as fuzzy as you would expect it to be in recounting the events of an ordinary March day in East Nashville nearly 100 years ago. But according to Jim Hoobler, Curator of Art of the Tennessee State Museum, the most plausible explanation starts with a young boy playing with a ball of yarn. The yarn caught fire on a stove and, unsure of how to extinguish the flame, the boy tossed it into a vacant lot. The grass was dry and the winds were high, and the little flame on that ball of yarn grew and grew until it — quite literally — took off like wildfire.
In 1916, many of the residents of East Nashville were decidedly wealthy. A large swath of the land that was burned had been originally owned by Dr. John Shelby, a prominent physician after whom Shelby Avenue and Shelby Park are now named. He had built two sprawling mansions for his two daughters and, later, the land was subdivided with numerous luxury homes built. But on the afternoon of March 22, no amount of money could beat back the angry flames of what would become the most devastating fire in Nashville history.
Once the ball of yarn sparked the fire near the home of a man named Joe Jennings, the flames quickly spread to the Seagraves Planing mill nearby. It began around 11:47 am, and thanks to wind gusts of 44 to 51 miles per hour, the fire quickly swept through the area of Edgefield, incinerating every building in its tracks. Remarkably, there was only one fatality — a man named Johnson H. Woods who died when he was electrocuted by a live power line. Because of this — or, perhaps, in anticipation of related incidents — the local electric company began cutting power to the neighborhood, hampering efforts to extinguish the blaze.
“There was telephone communication at the time,” says Hoobler, “but the fire was burning so fast it burned down telephone polls. Then, with wires down and fires burning, the electric company decided it would be best to turn off power. That slowed things down because people couldn’t use the phone.” Ultimately, though, it wasn’t the lack of communication that made it so difficult to contain the fire. “Literally, the fire was moving so fast that there was a picture a fire engine that was burned,” Hoobler added.
It was an all-hands-on-deck effort to squelch the blazing fire. While community members attempted to attack flames with buckets of water, Nashville Fire Chief Rozetta sent telegraphic messages to every city within several hundred miles, asking them for both engines and men to help fight the fire. Meanwhile, Tennessee Governor Tom C. Rye activated the Tennessee National Guard in Nashville to resist potential looters and assist with rescue work.
The fire was finally brought under control around 4:30 pm, more than 80 yards east of where it had begun and nearly five hours after it had begun. All told, more than 600 homes were destroyed over 35 blocks. The Warner Public School — named after prominent businessman and civic leader Percy Warner — as well as the Woodland Street Presbyterian Church and buildings belonging to the Little Sisters of the Poor Home for the Aged and Engine Company No. 5 were burned to the ground. The end result was total losses in the neighborhood of $1.5 million, along with more than 3,000 newly homeless Nashvillians.
Not all was lost, though. The Tulip Street Methodist Church and St. Ann’s Episcopal Church were spared, reportedly because members walked away from their own burning homes to fight the flames waging against their houses of worship with impromptu “bucket brigades.” And, in fact, this spirit of community was echoed through the days and weeks following the fire. In the wake of mass devastation, Nashville residents came together in ways that could have scarcely been predicted just decades after the end of the Civil War and nearly 50 years before the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
In light of the destruction in East Nashville, Dr. George E. Haynes, then-director of Fisk University’s Department of Social Sciences, mobilized students to provide relief. In her book, Afro-American Women of the South and the Advancement of the Race, 1895-1925 (University of Tennessee Press, 1991), Cynthia Neverdon-Morton wrote:
Fisk’s senior class was dismissed from college responsibilities to join in the relief effort with black students from the State Normal School, Meharry Medical College and Roger Williams University. Observers noted that many of the black students and teachers obviously had been trained for “scientific social work” … As a result of the cooperation during the crisis, the Public Welfare League, composed of black and white citizens, was formed.
Fisk students identified and recorded the specific needs of impacted residents, while helping to raise funds and secure new housing and personal items. “Given the Jim Crow policies at the time, [the fact that black students were actively assisting black and white victims] was remarkable,” Hoobler said. “And the help was well received.”
Read more about how this fire was the impetus for the rise of the Belle Meade neighborhood, and about the tornado of 1933, here.
Click here to read about other historic events that helped shape Nashville.
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