Following the Path of the Great Fire of 1901

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by Kara Pound // map courtesy of the Jacksonville Historical Society

It’s been well over A century since The Great Fire of 1901 leveled downtown Jacksonville in an eight-hour conflagration. The third worst urban fire in U.S. history (behind Chicago in 1871 and San Francisco in 1906), it’s difficult to truly comprehend the magnitude of the inferno because the city has since been rebuilt.

“Only two objects that were in the direct path of the fire still remain,” says Emily Lisska, Executive Director of the Jacksonville Historical Society (JHS). “The Confederate statue in Hemming Park and the statue of the Virgin Mary at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church.”

According to The Great Fire of 1901, a book written by Bill Foley and Wayne W. Wood, more than 90 percent of Downtown burned, leveling 2,368 buildings and causing $15 million in property loss resulting in more than 10,000 people becoming suddenly homeless.

“It’s almost impossible to do an accurate timeline of the fire because it was in so many different places at one time,” says Wood. “The fire created its own weather with winds swirling tornadoes of flames down the street. It was a nightmarish dreamscape.”

With little left to serve as a reminder of one of the most significant events in the city’s history, it is difficult to connect the dots of such a disaster. Yet, the following chronological account aims to do just that. On Friday, May 3, 1901, Jacksonville became a city forever changed.

Here is a condensed timeline of the firestorm, excerpted from the book The Great Fire of 1901, reprinted with permission from the Jacksonville Historical Society.

Friday, May 3
1. Noon – Workers at the Cleaveland Fibre Factory on the corner of Beaver and Davis Streets knock off for lunch.
12:20 PM – Sparks from the chimney of a nearby shanty start a fire in a pile of moss laid out to dry at the factory. Workmen leap up from their noontime rest and try to extinguish the blaze, which soon gets out of control as an easterly breeze picks up.

2. 12:35 PM – The fire alarm, box number 57, on the corner of State and Davis streets, is thrown by 16-year-old George Hodan.
12:45 PM – The first firemen, led by Chief Thomas W. Haney, arrive at the burning fiber factory.
12:50 PM – The blazing roof of the main three-story building at the factory collapses, just as the wind grows stronger to 18 miles an hour. Millions of burning fiber particles are blown high into the air and then descend on the wooden roofs of neighboring buildings.

3. 1:00 PM – The fire is out of control; “a canopy of fire” sweeps over the firefighters as a firestorm spreads down Beaver, Ashley and Church streets. Telegrams are sent to fire departments in neighboring cities for help. Chief Haney collapses from heat prostration.

4. 2:20 PM – The fire company from Fernandina is the first to arrive at the train station. Later, the fire departments from Palatka, Lake City, Savannah and St. Augustine also arrive.

5. 2:45 PM – The grand homes of T.V. Porter, U.S. Sen. James Taliaferro and W.S. Ware at Julia and Church streets are engulfed in flames.

6-7. 3:15 PM – The First Baptist and First Presbyterian Churches are destroyed by the fire.

8. 3:20 PM – The great Windsor Hotel burns rapidly, just after its guests frantically evacuate.

9. 3:30 PM – The city’s largest hotel, the St. James, is a mass of flames. The fire rapidly progresses eastward.

10-11. 4:30 PM – The St. Johns Episcopal Church and the Church of Immaculate Conception erupt in flames. The wind changes, and the fire veers southward.

12-13. 4:45 PM – The fortress-like Armory at Adams and Market Streets crumbles like an eggshell, as munitions inside it explode from the fire. One block away, the Duval County Courthouse at Market and Forsyth streets is gutted.

14-17. 5:00 PM – The Duval Street Viaduct is on fire, cutting off a main escape route into East Jacksonville. In rapid succession, the City Hall, The Metropolis newspaper building and the Elk’s Club are ablaze. The Hubbard Building, in which a large quantity of dynamite, powder and ammunition is stored, explodes, sending firemen running for cover. The fire is now also moving westward and crosses Bay Street for the first time.

18-20. The new Furchgott’s building, the six-story Gardner Building and the Mohawk Building are ablaze. Several desperate people are trapped on the dock at the end of Market Street (known as “The Market Street Horror”). As the dock burns, Arthur Cummer rescues most of them in his boat.

21. 7:00 PM – Firemen make a valiant stand at Laura Street, between Adams Street and the river, and are able to save a 12-block section of Downtown Jacksonville.
7:30 PM – The wind subsides.
8:30 PM – The flames are under control, but the fire continues smoldering throughout the night.

Saturday, May 4
2:00 AM – Gov. W.S. Jennings places the city under martial law.
5:25 AM – The last fireman goes home.

22. 10:15 AM – An emergency meeting of municipal bodies is held in the office of The Florida Times-Union and Citizen.

23. 10:30 AM – The Board of Trade meets at the U.S. Courthouse to plan the relief effort.

Monday, May 6
24. The rebuilding begins bright and early on Monday morning. The first building permit is issued to Rudolph Grunthal for a temporary structure at the northwest corner of Main and State streets.