Atlanta Fire of 1917 - Live Blog
Archivist Sue VerHoef shares some final thoughts on the Great Atlanta Fire of 1917 Live Blog Event:
We hope you’ve enjoyed this moment-by-moment account of the Great Atlanta Fire of 1917! I’m Sue VerHoef, Archivist at the Kenan Research Center at the Atlanta History Center, and I’ll be wrapping up this live blog event with answers to a few of your questions. I’ll also be sharing some of the “rest of the story.”
One viewer asked about a list of the folks affected by the fire. We do have the Travelers Insurance Company records (MSS 688f) from the fire which contain correspondence between the Clifford Hatcher Insurance Agency and the Travelers Insurance Company as well as a full report on the fire published by the National Board of Fire Underwriters Committee on Fire Prevention. There are two lists of policyholders affected by the fire in this collection, but they include only those who were insured by Travelers, so the list is not complete. As Trevor mentioned, only about half of the losses were covered by insurance so it’s not likely that any comprehensive record was ever made of those individuals who lost property. If you’d like to see a digitized copy of the lists as well as a map of the fire generated for the insurance report, let us know in your comments!
One viewer asked whether Fire Station Number 6, now located in the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site, was involved in fighting the fire. Leah Casler at the site tells me that she has found no records there that would indicate Number 6 was involved. I’m corresponding with April Thacker of the Atlanta Fire Department to see if she can shed further light on Number 6—I’ll post an update as soon as I hear back from her. Fire Station Number 6 is certainly worth a visit—more information on the station can be found here: http://www.nps.gov/malu/planyourvisit/firestation_no_6.htm
The Great Atlanta Fire of 1917 left an indelible mark on the city. Of the 1,938 buildings lost to the fire, 1,537 were residences and apartments, leaving some 10,000 people—mostly African Americans—homeless. Relief efforts were underway almost immediately; 200-300 people spent Monday night in makeshift tents set up in Piedmont Park. A committee of local business leaders met the very next day at City Hall to discuss relief measures. Financial aid was offered by a number of other cities, but the committee politely refused them, believing that outside help was not needed.
As the smoke began to clear, people looked for someone to blame for the devastation. Given the war time environment, it’s not surprising that many people believed the fire was started by German agents in an effort to sabotage the city’s war efforts. But State Fire Marshall Walthal R. Joyner wrote in his official report that the West End fire started with sparks from a bonfire built by two small boys while the Candler Warehouse fire was caused by sparks from a steam shovel. The Woodward Avenue fire, whose cause is still undetermined, was believed to have been accidental. Sparks from that fire were apparently carried by the wind, igniting a stack of cotton mattresses stored on a platform at the rear of an African American hospital. According to the Report on the Atlanta conflagration of May 21, 1917, published by the National Board of Fire Underwriters Committee on Fire Prevention, the fire began at 12:46pm in a “one-story, small, frame, shanty, used by the city for storage and adjacent to another one and just east of Skinner’s Warehouse, near the corner of Fort and Decatur streets.”
The fire prompted several significant changes for the city. First, the fire made it clear that horse-drawn engines simply could not adequately protect the city from a fire of this magnitude. Steve B. Campbell, former Assistant Chief and Historian for the Atlanta Fire Department, wrote in a 1968 article for the Atlanta Historical Bulletin that one horse-drawn engine was taken out of service when the horse’s breast strap broke. Many of the animals, forced to run from one location to another, arrived on the scene with bleeding hooves and had to be taken out of service while the department hostler frantically searched for replacements. At a cost of approximately $130,000, the Atlanta Fire Department was fully motorized on May 22, 1918, just one day after the first anniversary of the fire.
The fire also brought the city’s telephone system into close scrutiny. The Underwriter’s Committee report stated that the city had no trunk lines reserved for the fire department so many calls for help went unanswered. Some operators refused to break into a busy line to make the necessary connections.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, an ordinance outlawing wood shingle roofs was finally passed on June 6, 1917. It was well known that wood shingles posed a significant fire hazard and eighty percent of the structures destroyed in the fire did, indeed, have wood shingle roofs. The city had proposed an ordinance banning the use of wood shingles as early as 1916, but enforcement of the ordinance had been delayed until July of 1917 in order to allow lumber dealers in the city time to dispose of their inventory.
Although the exact cause of the largest fire on May 21st, 1917, may never be determined, it is clear that the Atlanta Fire Department did all they could to protect the city. According to the Underwriters Committee report, the department did “all that could have been expected under the circumstances, and the Chief should be commended for using every available facility, as well as for making strong efforts to restrict the spread of the flames…and for immediately taking steps to secure from local sources additional hose, nozzles, and hydrant wrenches, and to summon aid from nearby cities.”
For more information on the Great Atlanta Fire of 1917, visit the Kenan Research Center at the Atlanta History Center. Our holdings pertaining to the fire include photographs, Atlanta Fire Department records, Travelers Insurance Company records, subject files, and other historical materials. Our facility is free and open to the public from 10am to 5pm Wednesday through Saturday.