When the 1900s rolled around, downtown Jacksonville was enjoying a growing reputation as a winter getaway destination for northerners. Wood-frame houses, churches, government buildings, and hotels sprawled across the city’s inner core.
But on May 3, 1901, downtown Jax would be permanently altered in dramatic fashion.
At around 12:30, during a lunch break, embers from a nearby chimney landed on a pile of Spanish moss at Cleveland Fiber Factory. Workers at the factory, which was located on Davis Street between Beaver and Union streets in LaVilla, unsuccessfully tried to tame the fire.
A strong wind carried the flames to the east, tearing through blocks of downtown and eventually spreading out as far as the Northbank and what’s now the sports district.
Residents scrambled to escape the quick-spreading fire, and to salvage what they could from the houses that were about to be destroyed.
The fire raged on for eight hours until the city’s firefighters were able to tame it. By the time it was under control, it had destroyed well over 100 blocks of downtown Jacksonville. Over 2,000 buildings were gone, including pretty much all of the city’s government buildings.
Over 8,000 people were left homeless, and 7 people died as a result of the fire. It was considered miraculous that the death toll wasn’t significantly higher.
Overall, it stands to this day as the third-largest recorded urban fire in U.S. history. Smoke sightings were reported from as far away as North Carolina.
Only a few structures managed to survive the flames. A church that was on the outskirts of the fire survived and has since been designated a historic landmark. The former Confederate monument in James Weldon Johnson Park survived despite being right in the middle of the destruction. Witnesses said it glowed red from the extreme heat.
Many downtown residents rendered homeless by the fire opted to move north to Springfield rather than sticking around to rebuild.
With downtown emptied out and all government buildings destroyed, then-Governor William S. Jennings declared martial law in Jacksonville and sent in troops to provide help to the damaged city.
The reconstruction of downtown was fast-tracked, thanks to funding provided from across the country. New buildings began popping up within less than a year, but the full reconstruction effort would last at least a decade.
Henry Klutho, a highly-respected New York architect, came in and designed many of the new buildings, bringing a Midwestern “Prairie Style” architectural flair to Jacksonville. Many of these structures that Klutho designed – such as the old Carnegie Library – still stand to this day.
In the aftermath of the fire, downtown Jacksonville came back even better than before. By the 1910s, the area was covered in beautiful Klutho-designed buildings, and it had begun to attract the interest of film-makers looking to continue production during the winter.
The Great Fire of 1901 stands as one of the biggest tragedies in Jacksonville’s history – but also serves as a great testament to the city’s resilience.