The Great Fire of 1901

Out of tragedy, rebirth.

On the warm morning of May 3rd, 1901, a tragic event was about to change Jacksonville. Around noon, a spark from a small wood-burning cook stove set ablaze some of the Spanish moss laid out to dry at the Cleaveland (or Cleveland) Fibre Company, located at Beaver and Davis Streets in the LaVilla neighborhood of downtown Jacksonville. The fire erupted with a torrent of flame that quickly spread from block to block.
With the aid of a strong westerly wind, the fire soon consumed the shanties that surrounded the factory, and the burning debris jumped along hundreds of wood-shingled rooftops that were already dangerously dry after a prolonged drought. By the time the fire was brought under control at 8:30 p.m., it had destroyed nearly everything in a 2-mile swath across the city.

James Munoz, a native of Venezuela who was reared and educated in New York (and would eventually settle on Riverside’s Row), described the leaping path of fire:

I saw then that [my own residence] was in the path of the flames and would probably be destroyed, but the fire was still several blocks away and it seemed to me there would be plenty of time. In this I was mistaken. I had been fortunate enough to secure a cab and in this I placed my children with their nurse. …As we drove away in the cab I found my hat was on fire; then the back of my coat and the back of the nurse’s dress were almost in flames. The small articles we had attempted to bring away from my burning home, for our immediate use, caught fire as the cab was driven away. I took my children to the house of an acquaintance over a mile away diagonally across the city, at the extreme end of Bay Street. Here I thought they would be safe. In little more than an hour the flames had burned across the entire town and this house was in flames. Then, with other citizens, I sent my children to the country. During the afternoon I was in the fight to stop the onward sweep of the flames. It was, from the very first, a perfectly hopeless effort.

In just over eight hours, the flames had swept through 146 city blocks, destroying 2,368 buildings, taking seven lives, and leaving almost 10,000 people homeless. The Great Fire was the most destructive event in Jacksonville’s history. It was the largest metropolitan fire to have occurred in the South, before or since.

In the ensuing days, papers reported that the glow from Jacksonville’s Great Fire could be seen in Savannah, Georgia, and that its black plume of smoke was visible as far as Raleigh, North Carolina some 500 miles away. The Confederate Monument in Hemming Plaza was one of the few structures to survive; witnesses marveled that its base glowed red.

“There seemed to be nothing left,” wrote the noted journalist H.L. Mencken in the Baltimore Sun, “save a fringe of houses around the municipal periphery, like hair on a friar’s head.”

This momentous event triggered an unprecedented rebuilding effort that laid the foundation for modern Jacksonville. The resilient people of Jacksonville were determined to rebuild. Within five months, more than 1,000 building permits were issued, and a good percentage of the new homes—some of the finest to rise from the ashes of old Jacksonville—were built in the neighborhoods of Riverside and Springfield.

On May 3rd, 2001, Jacksonville, Florida marked the 100th anniversary of the Great Fire of 1901. The Jacksonville Historical Society commemorated this monumental event with the publication of a book, The Great Fire of 1901, co-authored by Bill Foley and Dr. Wayne Wood. Also commemorating the Great Fire, WJCT/TV produced a special docu-drama, “FIRE!,” an award-winning teleplay written by Robert Kaye.

Kaye, as WJCT’s TV/Radio Communications Manager, won several state-wide and PBS awards for producing public relations materials. As an independent contractor, he produced “FIRE!” as a labor of love. Click here to view the docu-drama.