May 21, 1917 was one Monday the residents of Atlanta, Georgia would no doubt have appreciated the opportunity to remove from the calendar. Fifty years after General Tecumseh Sherman’s “march to the sea”, and forty-six years after Catherine O’Leary’s cow was blamed for the Great Chicago Fire, Atlanta literally “went up in smoke”.
A brisk breeze was blowing in from the south as the day dawned sunny and clear. The first flames were discovered around 11:30 at the Candler Warehouse, across the tracks from West End in downtown Atlanta. A short time later, around 11:43, a second blaze was reported in the West End; then a blaze on Woodward Avenue where several homes were destroyed summoned firefighters at 12:15.
At 12:46, firefighters were called to extinguish a fire on Decatur Street where flames were dancing across the roof of a former “pest house” (quarantine center); now being used by Grady Hospital as a storage facility. Upon arrival at the “pest house”, firefighters discovered a number of cotton mattresses ablaze.
What would normally have been a relatively easy fire to extinguish in a short amount of time; in this case, the truck malfunctioned, making it impossible for the firefighters to battle the inferno. Add to that the fact Atlanta’s firefighting equipment was stretched thin with the other three fires, along with windstorms spreading the flames across the roofs of the wooden cottages around the area; thus before long, the fire stretched from Decatur Street to the edge of Piedmont Park – engulfing an area of approximately 50 city blocks.
As word of the Atlanta firestorm spread, first responders from neighboring cities and states quickly made their way towards the city in an effort to help. Crews from Chattanooga and Nashville, Tennessee boarded special trains while soldiers stationed at Fort McPherson marched to Atlanta to form bucket brigades.
According to Fire Chief William “Bill” Cody’s reasoning, the only way to stop the inferno would be to dynamite some stately homes in an effort to create a firebreak the flames would be unable to cross. As plans were made to carry out this task, former Coca-Cola director, Asa Candler, headed for the DuPont Powder Company’s headquarters in an effort to obtain the dynamite. When he returned, explosives experts worked quickly along Ponce de Leon Avenue to place crates of TNT in the foyers of numerous mansions, all the while dodging flames.
The stately residents were soon sent sailing into the air as onlookers stood in amazement. In the end, the plan worked. By 10 p.m. that evening, the barrier created from the explosions served to produce a gulch the fire was incapable of crossing, thus serving to contain the blaze. 22 million gallons of water had been used during the course of the 11-hour firefight in an effort to bring the devastation to an end.
Though the raging fire had finally been stopped, the smoke and ash it left behind would shroud the city for weeks to come; while structural damage in the fire’s wake caused houses to implode, creating numerous fire pits. What began as four small fires became responsible for destroying 1,938 buildings and 300 acres of real estate (much of it in the Fourth Ward); in addition to leaving 10,000+ people homeless, amounting to approximately 10% of Atlanta’s citizens. Among the stately homes claimed by the fire was the residence in which Margaret Mitchell, author of Gone With the Wind, grew up. Thankfully, there was only one fatality - a woman who suffered a heart attack after her house burned to the ground. Property losses were estimated at approximately $5.5 million ($86 million – 2011).
Atlantans rendered homeless camped out in Piedmont Park and numerous vacant lots on Edgewood Avenue. Refuge was also sought in church sanctuaries, the civic auditorium and the lobbies of theaters and hotels. Fraternal organizations lent their office space as first aid stations.
As Atlanta began to rebuild, the city which emerged from the ruins was permanently altered. Prior to the fire, downtown Atlanta was awash in single-family homes. Springing up sporadically in their place were numerous two and three-storey apartment buildings catering to the homeless. Other areas such as King Memorial and Bedford-Pine Park remained vacant for years. The destroyed commercial strips on Edgewood and Auburn were quickly snapped up by builders due to the busy streetcar routes.
The city also passed an ordinance which changed building rules. At the time of the Atlanta fire, 85% of the destroyed buildings had wood shingles. The ordinance now banned wood shingles for new construction. Also, by 1931, all wood shingles on older buildings which had survived the blaze were removed.