The city of Atlanta was established in 1837, rising from the ashes of the Civil War to eventually become a national center of commerce. Following the destruction of Atlanta, ordered by Union Army commander General Sherman, the city was gradually rebuilt. Only a half century after Atlanta was ordered burned to the ground, the city went up in flames again during what became known as the Great Atlanta Fire of 1917. The fire destroyed nearly two thousand buildings, and left more than ten thousand people homeless.
While it is unclear exactly how the Great Atlanta Fire of 1917 started, it is believed to have been the result of four smaller fires that began on May 21, 1917. The first flames were spotted in a cotton warehouse downtown, followed by a fire in the west end of the city. Approximately a half hour later, firefighters were called to battle a blaze that destroyed several homes on Woodward Avenue. Following the third fire, firefighters were again dispatched to battle a fourth blaze. A building being used as a storage facility by the Grady Hospital was on fire. Previously, the building, located on Decatur Street, had been used as a quarantine center. The firefighters arrived to battle the flames at the storage building and found old stacks of cotton mattresses that had caught on fire. While attempting to get the fire under control, the firetruck malfunctioned, and with all the other units busy fighting other fires in the city, the one at the Grady Hospital storage facility started to spread.
Many of the buildings in the area at the time were constructed of wood, and that along with windstorms, caused the fire to spread for about fifty blocks before reaching the edge of Piedmont Park. To help contain the fire, cities across Georgia and even nearby states, sent fire crews to help, and soldiers from Fort McPherson helped man bucket brigades.
With the fire continuing to spread, the fire chief, Bill Cody, came up with a plan to keep the fire from spreading further. He decided that by using dynamite to destroy homes in the path of the fire, they would be able to create a break that the flames would be unable to cross. As the fire chief continued to oversee efforts to extinguish the fire, Asa Candler, who is known for establishing the Coca-Cola company, went to acquire crates of dynamite. The homes in the path of the fire were rigged with explosives, creating a gulch that the fire was not able to cross thus containing the flames.
Even after the fire was contained, the city was shrouded in ash and smoke for several weeks. Affected houses collapsed inwards and into cellars ultimately creating fire pits that continued to smolder. Thousands of people in Atlanta lost their homes due to the fire and were forced to camp out in vacant lots or in Piedmont Park. Others camped out in theater and hotel lobbies while some people stayed in the civic auditorium, hotels, or churches. First aid stations were set up around the city to aid residents.
The Great Atlanta Fire of 1917 permanently altered the city. No longer did single family homes dominate the Downtown area, instead apartment buildings were constructed in their place to house the thousands of homeless people in the city. The current development patterns in certain areas of the city including North Avenue and Boulevard are a direct result of the destruction caused by the fire. Atlanta was eventually able to recover from the fire and today is a thriving city with a large metropolitan area.
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- Digital Collections – The Great Atlanta Fire
- Industrial Atlanta – General Sherman’s Campaign
- Fire of 1917 Nearly Burns Atlanta Down
- A Biography of Asa Candler
- The Fire Chief of Atlanta
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