9 Tragic Fires You Have Not Heard of in American History

9 Tragic Fires You Have Not Heard of in American History

Larry Holzwarth - November 8, 2017

According to the ancient Greeks, it was the Titan Prometheus who gave humanity the gift of fire after stealing it from Mount Olympus, an act for which he was made to suffer eternal torments. Fire is the cornerstone upon which human civilization is built, a tool from which all other tools have emerged, but it remains one of the most potentially destructive forces on earth.

Disastrous fires have plagued the human race throughout recorded history, leveling forests, fields, and cities. Some have been created by human error, some by human malice, and some by nature. Mankind has learned to use fire to prepare his food, warm his home, and rain it down upon his enemies.

History is liberally dotted with disastrous fires, some legendary. Modern scholars dispute the popular notion that Nero fiddled while Rome burned in 64 AD, for example, an event frequently depicted in film and literature. Mrs. O’Leary’s cow accidentally starting the Great Chicago fire is disputed today, although most agree that the fire started in the vicinity of the O’Leary family property on DeKoven Street.

Lesser known than the Great Chicago Fire are the three separate occasions when New York was ravaged by urban conflagrations in 1776, 1835, and 1845. The year 1845 saw nearly a third of Pittsburgh destroyed by fire, an event that actually spurred further growth. Jacksonville Florida had its turn too, in 1901, a tragedy largely forgotten despite its being the third worst urban fire in American history.

Here are nine urban fires which destroyed large areas of American communities, some of which are nearly forgotten by time.

9 Tragic Fires You Have Not Heard of in American History
A warehouse explodes during the 1845 New York Fire. Library of Congress

New York, 1776, 1835, and 1845

In 1776 the City of New York – called York City by most – was huddled near the southern tip of Manhattan Island. In September the city was occupied by the British Army after it decisively defeated George Washington’s Continental Army at the Battle of Long Island. Valued for its harbor, New York was to be the center of British operations for the remainder of the American Revolution.

The city contained a large contingent of Loyalists, and it is believed that the fire, which began in a tavern near the waterfront, was started to destroy Loyalist businesses and homes. Between 10% and 24% of the buildings in the city were destroyed by the fire which burned for two days before a change in winds forced the fire in a direction in which it ran out of fuel. The famed Trinity Church was among the buildings destroyed; it was later rebuilt.

By 1835 New York was the leading city in America and experiencing an economic boom. New York established firefighting capabilities, including water reservoirs and cisterns, but the size of the fire department and the sprawling nature of the city’s growth rendered it insufficient. When fire broke out in a warehouse near Wall Street and Hanover on December 16, most of the water available to fight it was frozen.

Driven by gale force winds, the fire spread towards the East River, its glow visible as far away as Philadelphia. Before it was brought under control by firemen and US Marines – who blew up buildings in its path with gunpowder – 17 city blocks and up to 700 buildings were leveled. The destruction led to many of the destroyed wooden buildings being rebuilt with brick and stone.

Ten years later the city was again struck by a major fire, this time starting in a warehouse which stored whale oil, then used as the primary source of lighting in businesses and homes. Burning for nearly twelve hours in what is now the Financial District of Manhattan, 345 buildings were destroyed before firefighters from New York, aided by volunteers from Newark and Brooklyn, brought it under control. Some of the water used to fight the fire came from the Croton Aqueduct, built largely for the purpose after the 1835 fire. At least 26 civilians and four firefighters were killed and in some cases, their bodies were never found.

9 Tragic Fires You Have Not Heard of in American History
Downtown Baltimore in the aftermath of the fire. Baltimore County Public Library

Great Baltimore Fire of 1904

In 1904 Baltimore was ravaged by one of the worst urban fires in American history. Baltimore was a port city, with expansive rail yards and a large, densely populated urban core. Residential buildings, warehouses, and retail establishments stood side by side on narrow streets. One such building was the John Hurst and Company dry goods store. Its basement, used for storage, drew light largely from skylights at street level.

When a burning cigar or one of the newly popular cigarettes was casually disposed of by a passerby on the street on the morning of February 7, 1904, it fell through one of these skylights and started a fire in the Hurst basement. Shortly before 11 AM the building, packed with flammable materials, exploded and ignited neighboring buildings. Baltimore’s fire department realized it couldn’t handle the fire alone and the call went out for help.

Firefighters from Virginia, Philadelphia, Washington, New York, and other communities raced to Baltimore by train, bringing with them equipment from their departments. Their arrival on the rapidly spreading scene revealed a weakness of the firefighting profession. There was no standardization of equipment. Hose couplings varied by community, hose sizes differed, and many hydrants could not be used.

More than 1,200 firemen arrived to fight the fire only to find there was little they could do. Not until late afternoon of the following day was the fire brought under control, largely by its reaching the harbor and finding little else to burn. More than 1,500 buildings were destroyed by the fire covering an area of 140 acres. 35,000 people were left out of work by the fire, their places of employment destroyed.

The fire led to the adoption of national standards for fire equipment. The National Bureau of Standards specified the following year that all fire hydrants be equipped with 2.5-inch hose connections, with matching couplings for all fire hoses. Matching standards were established for pumper engines at the same time. Today they are still in use, referred to as the Baltimore Standard.

9 Tragic Fires You Have Not Heard of in American History
Atlanta burns in 1917. Atlanta History Center

Atlanta Fire of 1917

The burning of the city of Atlanta is a major plot feature of Gone With the Wind, recognition of the destruction wreaked on the city by Sherman’s army to prevent its recapture by the Confederates. The 1864 fire was devastating, but its damage is rivaled by that done the rebuilt city just over fifty years later when a mattress fire in a warehouse above Decatur Street proved too much.

Driven by the wind, the fire quickly spread north to largely residential Sweet Auburn. Wooden shanties and lean-tos in the vicinity of the Georgia Railroad tracks fed the flames, and it soon proved beyond the control of firemen. Many, if not most, of Atlanta’s homes and buildings, were of wood shingle construction, and these proved to easily ignite and tossed off embers while burning.

The hot embers easily found other shingles to ignite as the wind, magnified by the fire’s drawing in oxygen, blew them about. The fire burned and spread for nearly twelve hours. Desperate firefighters used dynamite to destroy homes in the fire’s path, dousing the ruins with water in an attempt to control its spread. The fire continued to burn for nearly twelve hours before it was stopped over one mile north of the warehouse where it began.

Three hundred acres encompassing over seventy city blocks were destroyed by the fire. Almost two thousand buildings were completely destroyed. Firefighters from as far away as Chattanooga and Augusta continued to battle small fires and smoldering ruins for several days.

Sherman had done more damage in 1864, but the city had been rapidly rebuilt. Damage from the 1917 fire was still visible in some areas for decades. Much of the destroyed area was rebuilt as public housing and parks; most of the spacious, post-Civil War homes destroyed by the fire were never rebuilt.

9 Tragic Fires You Have Not Heard of in American History
Salem residents watch the progress of the fire. New England Historical Society

Salem, Massachusetts, 1914

By 1914 the glory days of Salem as a shipping and whaling port were well behind the old city. Industries such as cloth mills and tanneries had largely supplanted the sea as the leading sources of employment. The city had a large immigrant population contributing to its occupation by 48,000 people. Most of these immigrants lived in communities of their own, and the city was divided into neighborhoods with the distinct flavors of the Poles, Italians, Irish and French-Canadians that peopled them.

The neighborhood of La Pointe was largely French-Canadian, with many of the residents employed by the Korn Leather Company tannery. It was in the Korn tannery, on a hot July day in the midst of an extended drought, a fire started in a storage shed. Tanneries use numerous chemicals in the processing of hides and nearly all are highly flammable. The chemicals caused the Korn facility to quickly become engulfed in flames and explosions, and the dry conditions from the drought helped the fire to spread to other buildings.

Overwhelmed firemen quickly called for help and more than 20 Massachusetts’ towns responded. Boston transported fire equipment to the scene by rail. The National Guard responded so quickly that they were distributing food to displaced families before the flames were extinguished.

The fire burned for thirteen hours and some of the ruins were still smoldering three weeks later. The damage done to the city included the loss of nearly 1,400 buildings in an area 1.5 miles long by a half-mile wide. Eighteen thousand were left homeless, ten thousand unemployed.

The city’s manufacturing industry never recovered. Salem became a town focused on tourism and its historical past for the common livelihood. One building which escaped largely unscathed by the flames was soon featured in national advertising by Johns-Manville Corporation. The advertisement touted its survival as being a result of its roof’s construction from a relatively new building material – asbestos.

9 Tragic Fires You Have Not Heard of in American History
A Harper’s Weekly map illustrates that areas affected by the 1874 fire. Library of Congress

Chicago Fire of 1874

Chicago was still rebuilding in many areas from the Great Chicago Fire when it was struck again by the much less well-known fire of 1874. In the aftermath of the Great Fire, regulations stipulated that wooden structures in areas affected by the fire were allowed to remain in place. New wooden structures were allowed temporarily, with scheduled replacement within one year. In many cases, these regulations were ignored, particularly south of the Loop.

The area south of the Loop was considered to be undesirable, and landlords used their influence with local government to skirt the rules. South of the Loop was densely populated with immigrants, largely Jews from Poland and Russia. There were several African American communities as well.

Some accounts blame the start of the fire on arson in a rag shop, others in a saloon, and still others in a barn under circumstances similar to the Great Fire three years earlier. However it began, it soon spread from its point of origin around Twelfth and Clark Streets and was being driven to the east by the winds and the firemen fighting it, hoping to press the fire against Lake Michigan.

Beginning around 5.00 PM the fire burned until around midnight, finally burning itself out after destroying the Michigan Avenue Hotel. The central business district was saved by a firewall built following the Great Fire along Van Buren Street. The fire destroyed 47 acres of the city, including several churches and synagogues, the Great Adelphi Theater, the Saint James Hotel, and Congress Hall. Over 800 buildings were damaged or destroyed, including 619 made primarily of wood.

In the immediate aftermath of the fire a large portion of the blame was placed on the residents of the area, most of them renters, and particularly on the Jewish population. The Chicago Times described the fire as a form of retribution for the area’s perceived squalidness, with its known red-light districts and other forms of vice. The article suggested that the fire should have consumed “…three or four blocks south and east and west…” for the “…common fate for the city’s good.”

9 Tragic Fires You Have Not Heard of in American History
Bedford Street, Fall River following the disastrous fire of 1928. The Lizzie Borden House was spared from the flames. Wikimedia

Fall River, Massachusetts, 1928

In 1928 the city of Fall River was facing a severe downturn in the textiles industry, traditionally its leading employer. One of its mills, the Pocasset Mill, was in the process of dismantling. On February 2, workers in the plant involved in that process built a fire in an empty oil drum, trying to keep warm. When they left for the day the fire had not been properly extinguished and by 7.00 PM the fire had engulfed the entire old stone and wood plant.

Windows soon blew out from the heat, and the fire quickly spread to other buildings. The wind was cold, blustery, and in the process of veering and its frequent gusts sent flaming embers to ignite buildings in all directions. Neighboring towns were soon sending help, as were the National Guard and sailors from the nearby naval base. All of them had to face the growing fire in record low temperatures and blustering winds.

The fire was controlled in the early morning hours of the following day, meaning that the efforts of the firefighters had stopped its spread. It was not for another nearly 36 hours that the fire was declared to be out. Almost unbelievably there were no fatalities and relatively few injuries given the size of the fire and the hostile conditions caused by the weather. Five blocks in the area of the Pocasset Mill were completely destroyed, including the mill itself.

The area destroyed by the fire was largely commercial, with relatively few residential areas, although three hotels were completely destroyed as well as some boarding houses. Most of the buildings destroyed were built of stone or masonry, the collapse of interior walls and fixtures from the flames led to the building’s collapse.

Nearly all of the destroyed area was rebuilt within a few years, providing much-needed jobs during the early years of the Great Depression. The total damage, which was disputed for many years among the impacted businessmen and landowners, exceeded $280 million in 2017 dollars.

9 Tragic Fires You Have Not Heard of in American History
Remains of downtown Seattle after the fire of 1889. University of Washington

Seattle, Washington 1889

The most devastating fire to ever strike Seattle began towards the end of an unusually dry Washington spring in June of 1889. A woodworker’s assistant was heating glue which left briefly unattended boiled over. The spilled glue caught fire and in the fire-friendly environment in which the blaze found itself, with wood shavings covering the floors and plenty of accelerants such as turpentine and paints nearby, the fire spread too quickly for the hapless worker to contain it.

When the fire department arrived at the scene the heavy smoke caused by these same materials hampered their efforts to locate the center of the fire, which was out of control within minutes. A liquor store next door and a saloon on the far side of that business provided the fire with nearly unlimited fuel in its early phase.

With a full city block soon ablaze the inadequacies of Seattle’s firefighting system were quickly revealed. The dry spring had reduced the available supply of water and the system of piping it to the city streets was flawed by the use of wooden pipes, which soon burned through, creating leaks. Reductions in water pressure were the inevitable result.

Water from the harbor was considered as an alternative but inadequate hose length prevented the firefighters from using that source. As in other major fires, explosives were used to create firebreaks by detonating some buildings but the gaps created were insufficient and the fire easily breached them. When the fire was finally extinguished around 3.00 AM, over 120 acres of the downtown Seattle area and its immediate environs were destroyed, including many of the city’s wharves and docks. Over 25 city blocks were gone. With them were the city’s commercial district, its railroad stations, and over $530 million in 2017 dollars of property.

Seattle rebuilt itself quickly in the aftermath of the fire and put in place several building codes designed to prevent a similar disaster. The city also publicized one benefit from the fire. According to its estimates over one million rats had been killed by the blaze, and Seattle touted its rebuilding downtown area as being nearly vermin free.

9 Tragic Fires You Have Not Heard of in American History
Fires rage out of control after the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake. The Atlantic

San Francisco Fire of 1906

San Francisco suffered its arguably most famous earthquake – estimated to have reached up to 8.3 on the Richter scale – on April 18, 1906. The earthquake and its several aftershocks severely damaged the city, but it was the fires which followed in its wake which made it one of the greatest natural disasters to ever strike the continental United States. Up to 90% of the total damage suffered by the city came from the fires which began within minutes, in over thirty locations around the area and burned for more than four days.

Some fires began as the result of efforts to fight existing fires with dynamite, others occurred from more mundane causes such as spilled cooking fires. Gas mains, broken by the earthquake, ignited in several parts of the city at once, frequently within buildings already damaged by the tremors. These burst into flame, with more than 25,000 structures being ultimately destroyed by the fires. Water mains, similarly damaged, were incapable of providing pressure sufficient to fight the fires, which in any case could not be extinguished as long as gas continued to flow.

The firefighters were left in many cases without leadership due to the severe injuries sustained by Chief Dennis Sullivan, who died while the fires were still burning. Troops from the nearby Presidio were sent to control looting and to assist in controlling the fires.

The army built housing camps to provide temporary shelter for those displaced by the damage, at one time sheltering over 16,000 people. Almost the entire population of the Mission District was displaced as a result of the fires following the earthquake.

Before the fires were extinguished, mostly by burning themselves out, they caused additional damage to the stricken city in the amount of just under $9 billion in 2017 dollars. Some of this damage has long been suspected of being attributed to fire rather than the earthquake because insurers of the day covered the former, but not the latter.

9 Tragic Fires You Have Not Heard of in American History
The devastation of the Great Jacksonville Fire – started by a spark in Spanish Moss – is clearly seen here. Wikipedia

Jacksonville, Florida Fire of 1901

On the afternoon of May 3, 1901, workers outside the Cleaveland Fibre Factory noticed a pile of Spanish Moss which had been left to dry was smoldering. Efforts to put out the burgeoning fire failed and the wind was soon carrying smoldering embers across town, which had been suffering through a drought.

Wooden shingled roofs began catching fire in the path of the wind and within a short time houses across the city were in flames. The fires burned for the next eight hours. The combination of dry conditions and wooden houses led the conflagration to destroy over 2,300 houses and other buildings.

146 blocks of the city were destroyed. Only one church within the city survived the fire – Saint Andrews, built of brick. All of Duval County’s real estate records up to the time of the fire were destroyed along with the county courthouse.

More than 10,000 people were homeless as a result of the fire, and there were at least seven deaths. Martial law was quickly declared and the city began the process of reconstruction. During the recovery period, allegations of racism directed at the authorities over the efforts to control the fire began. James Weldon Johnson later accused the authorities of ignoring the fire in predominantly black neighborhoods in order to concentrate their efforts saving white neighborhoods. The city emphatically denied the charges.

Somewhat ironically one of the few structures to survive in the burned area was Hemming’s Confederate Monument in Hemming Park.


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