Actual Factual Georgia: Fire of 1917 nearly burns Atlanta down

Q: When was the fire that burned a large part of the city sometime in the early 1900s? I heard it was pretty bad and destroyed a lot of homes.

A: Much of the east side of Atlanta looked like a wasteland after the Great Atlanta Fire ravaged that part of the city on May 21, 1917.

The area that is now Old Fourth Ward offered no resistance to the inferno that is believed to have started near the corner of Fort Street and Decatur Street, in a building used for storage by Grady Hospital.

It was 12:46 p.m.

The day was warm and windy, Atlanta historian Franklin Garrett wrote in his second volume of “Atlanta and its Environs,” and by 1 p.m., “the fire was beyond all control, sweeping a hot path toward the north,” the Atlanta Journal wrote in the next day’s edition.

The breeze pushed the fire, which was fed by a steady diet of shanties and wood homes with wood shingle roofs.

Entire blocks were swiftly engulfed as residents frantically gathered what they could and fled the flames, sometimes crowding onto streetcars that were still servicing parts of the area.

Citizens teamed with firemen to try to extinguish the fire, but their efforts went for naught as it pushed east toward Randolph Street (Glen Iris Drive) and west toward downtown.

But mostly, it burned north up Boulevard and Jackson Street (Parkway Drive).

Mayor Asa Griggs Candler, who had already made millions by selling Coca-Cola, gathered city leaders for ideas.

Their solution was drastic, as the fire approached North and Ponce de Leon avenues, even though that area was “one of the most beautiful in the city,” the Journal wrote.

Men rushed to the Du Pont Powder Co. and took dynamite to build firebreaks. Homes were exploded in order to create gulfs the fire couldn’t jump.

The flames were finally stopped at 10 p.m., just a couple of blocks from Piedmont Park, somewhere along Vedado Way and Greenwood Avenue.

“You could see where your friends had lived and your neighbors had lived, and the only thing you could see was smoldering ashes and chimneys. It was kind of unhappy-making, to say the least. It just wiped out everything, left nothing but those brick chimneys standing,” Atlanta resident E.B. Baynes said in the book, “Living Atlanta: An Oral History of the City, 1914-48.”

Even though 10,000 people lost their homes, there was only one fatality. One woman died of a heart attack as she watched her home burn on Boulevard.

More than 300 acres and 1,938 homes were destroyed. Damages eclipsed $5 million (more than $100 million today).

“In all the years of Atlanta’s history, only two, 1864 (Gen. Sherman burns Atlanta) and 1917, witnessed the destruction or demolition of more old buildings …” Garrett wrote.