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100 years ago, the Great Atlanta Fire of 1917 tore through the city

The Great Atlanta Fire of May 21, 1917. Flames jumped from roof to roof across blocks of wood-shingled houses. More than 4,000 Atlantans were homeless before the wind changed and the fire died. The fire consumed 73 blocks and 1,553 houses.
The Great Atlanta Fire of May 21, 1917. Flames jumped from roof to roof across blocks of wood-shingled houses. More than 4,000 Atlantans were homeless before the wind changed and the fire died. The fire consumed 73 blocks and 1,553 houses.

Credit: Kenneth Rogers Collection

Credit: Kenneth Rogers Collection

After a fire put an I-85 bridge out of commission for six weeks, Atlanta residents know how debilitating such an event can be for the city.

Imagine how Atlantans must have felt 100 hundred years ago this month, when more than 50 blocks — mostly in the area now known as the Old Fourth Ward — were destroyed by uncontrollable flames. Since dubbed the Great Atlanta Fire of 1917, it lasted from the noon hour until about 10 p.m.

“A path of smoking ruins, six blocks in width and twenty-four in length, extends this morning from Decatur street to Vedado way,” the Atlanta Constitution reported on May 22, 1917, a day after the fire. “Included in the Pompeiian swath are the ashes of humble cottages and those of mansions. The flames first swept over Darktown, where they raged beyond the control of the firemen, where, at Fort and Decatur streets, they had origin.”

“Darktown” was the black district.

About 10,000 people were left homeless and the damage was estimated to reach $5 million (more than $100 million today). The exact origin of the 11-hour fire isn't clear, but it may have started in a building used for storage by Grady Hospital or a Grant Street residence.

Then-mayor Asa Candler responded swiftly, but the flames stopped roving only after homes were exploded with dynamite in order to create gulfs the fire couldn't jump. Amazingly there was only one death, a woman who died of a heart attack as she watched her home burn on Boulevard.

Many churches and homes were destroyed, including Margaret Mitchell's birthplace. On the other end of the spectrum, the nearly century-old Sweet Auburn Curb Market was created on land cleared by the fire.

In 2015, a street festival was created in remembrance of the fire. The third annual Fire in the Fourth Festival takes place Saturday from 3 to 11 p.m. The event is free, and will include performances, live bands, food, craft beer and, of course, fire.

The Great Atlanta Fire of 1917 caused more than 50 city blocks to be destroyed by uncontrollable flames.
The Great Atlanta Fire of 1917 caused more than 50 city blocks to be destroyed by uncontrollable flames.

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