On May 21, 1917, the city of Atlanta was yet again ablaze, barely a half-century after it was burned to the ground by the Union Army.
The Great Atlanta Fire of 1917 started 99 years ago when a pile of mattresses ignited at the Skinner Storage Company warehouse on Decatur Street in the Old Fourth Ward, according to Creative Loafing. Before long, the blaze was being pushed north by winds, fueled by flammable materials inside other factories, WABE said.
Factor in a complete absence of sprinkler systems and homes with wooden shingles standing in the fire’s path, and the situation had all the necessary ingredients for a full-blown disaster.
“It really was a perfect storm,” urban historian Kit Sutherland told WABE.
Making matters even worse was the fact that the city’s hydrants had low water pressure and the fire trucks were drawn by horses, WABE also said. The horses struggled to keep up with the demands of the job, and when the fire claimed the area’s telephone lines, crews had no way to communicate, the report added.
“Babies rode atop huge delivery wagons with their mothers holding handfuls of quickly-snatched belongings,” said a New York Times article from the next day. “Men in their shirtsleeves, who had fought the fire on neighboring houses, believing that it would not reach their own homes, escaped with only the clothes they wore, and many finally were forced to seek a safety zone to hunt for hours for their families who had preceded them out of the burning area.”
Just hours after the fire began its march north from poor black neighborhoods, it threatened the affluent areas near Ponce de Leon Avenue. At that point, the city’s leaders decided the blaze had to be stopped at all costs, and they employed a very interesting technique as they tried to halt the fire.
According to Atlanta Magazine, authorities decided to dynamite homes between Ponce and the fire’s location at the time because they thought it would choke the fire out. Yes, it worked, but the damage was done.
In the city of a little over 100,000, more than 10,000 were left homeless, according to Atlanta Magazine. The inferno destroyed 1,938 buildings and torched 300 acres of land, the report added.
Many of those left homeless camped in Piedmont Park for weeks following the fire, Atlanta Magazine also said.
Damage estimates were as high as $5 million from the fire, a very large total for the time, WABE reported. One woman died from shock, the only death in the disaster, the New York Times report also said. Although it took decades for some of the affected neighborhoods to recover, Atlanta’s homes were never again constructed using wooden shingles thanks to stricter building codes.
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