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Modern Jacksonville Rises From the Ashes

Posted on June 25, 2014

Many people who visit our beautiful city Jacksonville don’t know that Jacksonville was the site of one of the most devastating fires in the history of the United States. The Great Fire of 1901 ranks just below the San Francisco Earth Quake and the Chicago Fire of 1871 in terms of urban destruction caused by a conflagration.

It still has not been surpassed as the most destructive metropolitan fire in the history of Florida and the South. It has been reported that the smoke from the flames could be seen as far away as South Carolina.

It started on May 3, 1901 when errant sparks from a cook stove at lunch hour ignited piles of Spanish Moss that were drying at a mattress factory on the west side of town. The mattress factory conflagration soon spread from block to block and was not brought under control for approximately eight hours.

But in those eight hours, the fire wiped out 2,368 buildings and left nearly 10,000 people homeless. It was somewhat of a minor miracle that only seven people died in the fire. All in all, 146 city blocks were destroyed. It was reported that every bank in the city, save one, and every church burned to the ground.

Firefighters even dynamited buildings in the flames’ path to try to stop the fire, to no avail. The Tampa Tribune reported that during the blaze the fire chief become “temporarily insane” due to exhaustion.

The property losses alone were estimated to be $7,000,000 (that’s in 1901 dollars).

In the aftermath of the blaze, Florida Governor William S. Jennings declared martial law. Civil authority was not returned to Jacksonville until May 17.

The fire paved the way for a rebirth of Jacksonville. New York architect Henry Klutho rebuilt much of the downtown core and by 1910 Jacksonville’s modern skylines were “the envy of the south.”

If you come to Jacksonville you can visit the memorial to the Great Fire of 1901. It is located along the St. John’s River on Coastline Drive in downtown Jacksonville. Or, you can learn all about the Great fire at the Jacksonville Fire Museum, which is housed in a former fire station that was built with bricks collected from buildings burned in the fire.