May 3, 1901 - Jacksonville burns to the ground
Fires burned Florida towns with dismaying frequency in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Wood structures and tinder-box conditions in dry seasons meant disaster was often a spark away. The Great Jacksonville Fire of 1901 was one of the most vivid and destructive examples of this vulnerability. Sparks from a chimney near a downtown mattress factory landed on pallets of Spanish moss intended for use as stuffing in pillows and cushions.
Embers from the burning moss quickly ignited the factory, and fierce winds spread the fire to nearby homes and businesses. Over eight hours, the blaze consumed 2,361 buildings in 146 square blocks and killed seven people.
The fire destroyed every public building except the federal building. Nearly all real estate records were destroyed, along with 23 churches and 10 hotels. Some 10,000 residents were left homeless, and Gov. William Jennings quickly declared martial law and activated the state militia. Photos of the aftermath resemble World War II pictures of firebombed European cities. Only a third of the estimated $16 million in damages was covered by insurance.
But the city was determined to rebuild, and over the next 10 years, memories of the fire inspired efforts to create a better, stronger city constructed of brick, steel, concrete and stone. An estimated $24.5 million was invested in new construction by September 1909 and news accounts were hailing the resurgence of "Florida's Metropolis." As the gateway to the rest of the state, the city "will ever be the main point of Florida, and to that end there is nothing impossible for the future advancement of the city," according to a story published in the Nashua Telegraph in September 1909.
Read more at the Gainesville Sun: Jacksonville recalls Great Fire of 1901, its ravenous effects • Read the story in the Nashua Telegraph: How Southern City Raised Itself From Ruins of Big Fire
Photos of the Jacksonville Fire of 1901 and its aftermath from the State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory
Browse the virtual exhibit in the George A. Smathers Library: The Great Fire of Jacksonville: An Artistic Description of a Gloomy Affair