One of my best friends, Cooper, has started a new solo music project. It’s called the Andrew Cooper Band. Cooper used to be the lead singer of the band I was in, Idle Yeti. The music is way different than what we used to play as a band, but his songwriting and singing is excellent. I’m handling the internet portion of this new project, and I’d appreciate it if you’d check out his site. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed by what you hear.
Archive for September, 2010
A letter written by the late Mayor William B. Hartsfield to friends on the day following the Atlanta fire on May 21, 1917. Hartsfield then a law clerk for Rosser, Slaton, Phillips & Hopkins, was a young married man of twenty-seven. The letter is printed without editing except for the addition of punctuation for clarity. [My comments appear in brackets. I believe this letter is written to someone closely associated with the F.O. Stone Baking Co. This letter was printed in the Atlanta Historical Journal. Vol. 21 No. 3. I transcribed it from a photo of the original journal entry located here]
May 22nd, 1917
Of course you want to know all about the Big Fire, in which several thousand families lost their all in all, including ourselves and the Stone Baking Co. [a local bakery], so in order to give you an intelligent account thereof, I will proceed to commence to start at the beginning.Early yesterday morning Pearl [Mrs. William B. Hartsfield] telephoned me that the Doctor had been out to see little Billie [Son of Mr. and Mrs. William B. Hartsfield] and stated that he had developed a case of asthma in addition to his eczema; which of course brought me home for dinner instead of eating in town. On the way up to the corner to catch the car, I noticed a little cloud of smoke. When I got on the car, the motorman said it was a fire over on the other side of town around Woodward Avenue and Kelly Street – said a block had burned out there and that a block had burned out in West End as well. When I got to the office, the smoke had increased, so with several others I went up on the roof of the Grant Building where we could get a fair view. Once up there, we found that a new fire was raging out on Decatur and Fort Street. A high wind had taken burning particles over there. While we were looking, we saw it break out some distance back of Grady Hospital. Then we saw it break out in Darktown by the old show grounds [the corner of Jackson Street and Old Wheat Street, near Ebenezer Baptist Church]. That was the beginning of the BIG SHOW by the side of which the other outbreaks were mere flashes in the pan.
From the top of the building, I watched the fire begin to rage up Jackson Street – I saw the wind taking the smoke in the direction of home, and then I came down and called up Pearl and told her not to be afraid of the smoke, never dreaming that it would eventually do what it did. You see, from where we were we did not know that the firemen had absolutely lost control.
While looking from the top of the building, I suddenly saw it jump over three blocks, getting into the white residential section of Jackson Street. Knowing the neighborhood out there as I did, there flashed in my mind the long rows of two story houses all the way out Jackson and up on Boulevard. I ran down from the roof and had one of the men in the office rush me home in his automobile.
We went out Peachtree to Forrest [now Ralph McGill Boulevard], and when we got to Jackson [Now Parkway Drive in that stretch], the fire was only a few blocks up – in fact, it was raging around and burning the Stone Bakery and everything in that neighborhood then, and people everywhere were carrying out things, women were fainting, children screaming, and confusion reigned supreme. A high wind was taking the fire along as fast as a man could walk down Jackson Street, and in addition the burning embers were setting houses afire in spots for blocks ahead. Just imagine the terror and helplessness of those people at seeing houses catching on fire everywhere and not a thing to be done, no firemen anywhere around there.
When I reached our little cottage [on Boulevard Terrace, now Winton Terrace], I warned everybody up and down the street that it was coming fast – that it was not only sweeping along, but breaking out ahead. The sky was black with smoke, and everywhere people were dragging out their effects.
For a while we thought the fire might possible [sic] rage down Boulevard without coming down the Terrace, and accordingly we got together our important things, papers, etc. and some clothes in a trunk and waited a little while, indeed the high wind was in our favor for a little while, but steadily we saw and heard the great roaring billows of flame and smoke getting nearer and nearer.
After Pearl put a few things in her trunk, I had her together with our scared Ethiopian, take little Billie and go down the back lot into that back street and on down towards the woods. I then went into the house and took one or two things out into the street until I realized on account of its narrowness and the other houses that it would burn up out there. I then took as much as I could down into the back lot, knocked down the fence and dragged it down to the edge of that high bank where I thought surely it would be fairly safe, including a brand new white enamel baby bed for little Billie filled with sheets, his little clothes, etc.
I then ran out to the front again, and the flames had reached Goree’s home on the corner of Boulevard and the Terrace. The military had come out by now, and they formed a dynamite squad, and in an effort to save our side of the street, they dynamited the first house on our side, but it was no use. The flames eating their way into everything, green trees and all, came steadily onward.
You see, people were not experienced in conflagrations and put a great deal of their things in the street, but the fire swept the whole earth bare, streets and all, and everything not matter where it was – in vacant lots, in the streets, in gullies or elsewhere, was burned.
You know the mass of beautiful shade trees along Boulevard and Jackson? Everyone of them was burned down to a stump. Not a thing was left in the path, the ground was left hard and black, and that part of Boulevard that was paved with wood block was ruined.
Practically all my stuff was burned that I had taken out in the back, excepting a few things I threw down the high bank and dragged two blocks down into the Ponce De Leon Woods [in the direction of Randolph Street, now Glen Iris Dr.], including our trunk, sewing machine, phonograph, and some blankets. Of course all our heavy furniture in the house went up.
The people on Boulevard and Jackson saved nothing because they had nowhere to drag it, and everything in the streets and vacant lots burned, absolutely EVERYTHING except bricks and stones. What little we and the other people on the little side streets going down towards the woods saved was due to the fact that we dragged it down to the Ponce De Leon Woods.
There were hundreds of people down there with what little they saved, including the usual amusing instances of where people would hang on to little cheap pieces of statuary, pitchers and bowls and let more important things burn.
By the way, your Sister never did come and get your clock, and it of course it went up with the rest. I was almost done in from taking stuff out and from dragging a heavy trunk and bed, clothes, sewing machine, etc. all the way over that bank and way down to the woods, and it was some time before I could find Pearl and the Baby down there among all those desolate, hand-wringing, despairing people.
Poor Mrs. Agricola [a widow who owned a neighboring house]. I pulled her trunk out into the street for here I know it must have been burned. Later on we saw her down in the woods walking around bare-headed with nothing but her canary bird in its cage.
Mr. Mitchell [another neighbor] was away from home, and that poor woman saved nothing but her children. She had bundled up some clothes, but they ran into her house and told her they were going to dynamite it, and she just run out and on down to the woods.
Had I known or been able to reason that the fire would undoubtedly burn everything that we did not actually take entirely away from the scene, I would have confined myself to clothes and such things as I could take with me to the woods, and after I had lugged so much down to the bank in the back of the house, I had to see it burn just the same as if it had never been touched. The fire swept everything before it from the old show grounds up Jackson, then up Boulevard and down both streets, taking in all side streets from Boulevard to the woods and on the Jackson side extending down Forrest [Ralph McGill Blvd] to Bedford Place [now Central Park Place] and down Pine for several blocks, but not to Mrs. Williams house. It stopped on Pine where those billboards are. It then went on over Boulevard Terrace, Boulevard Place, down Jackson and Boulevard taking everything down to Ponce De Leon and down Ponce De Leon to the Ball Park; it jumped over Ponce De Leon and burned out one block further down, but wholesale dynamiting done without stint and in desperation finally checked it. The folks down in the woods were surrounded in a sort of semi-circle of fire, and the roar of it sounded just like the roar of a heavy surf pounding, although it was punctuated by frequent dynamite explosions, and we would see the pieces of some fine house go up into the air and fall again.
All in all we saved just a few little things, but neither Pearl nor myself took it very hard because we were in the same fix with hundreds of others, the majority of whom did not fare as well as we did.
After a while we found Mrs. Mitchell and her children, and she in turn found a cousin who lived in South Kirkwood who had come over to see the fire and was looking for her. He was a fine fellow and helped wonderfully. He went off and found a truck, and we all went up to the road where it was and piled in, and he took us all out to his home in Kirkwood where we ate supper. They urged us to stay with them that night, but I finally got my Mother over the phone out there, and as the South Decatur Cars were running, we went over there for the night on Milledge Ave., where we are for the present.
Early this morning I borrowed my cousin’s truck and drove over, but the military, including regulars at the fore, were guarding the entire district, and after much red tape I got permission to drive into the burned area and had to take a sentry along with me to watch me get my stuff I had left in the woods. By the way, I took my beloved Phonograph down there and saved it, as well as Billie’s buggy (full of clothes). We saved some of our silver and quite a lot of handy things which Pearl threw into the trunk. I also drove up to the bared, charred hill where our pretty little cottage once was and got what was left of Billie’s little brand new bed. As far as the eye could see was nothing but a sea of gaunt chimneys and smoking piles of brick. It looked like a desert with exception of the chimneys and here and there a charred stump of a tree or a telephone pole together with tangled wires and once in a while a dead cat or dog and occasionally a hot dry wind would sweep along filling one with brick dust. In front of practically every house on Boulevard was the charred remains of a piano that had been dragged into the street. At the Stone Bakery, nothing was standing but one side of the wall and the white tiled ovens in the back.
Pearl, Billie and myself are now safely located at my Mother’s, and everything considered we are all right. Billie was sick anyway, and Pearl has been having a time with her teeth, but we are all safe and sound. We have a place to stay indefinitely, and we feel lucky when we realize that we saved a few things and did not have to stay out in those woods all night like so many other people did.
Of course, there are just hundreds of little things concerning out great experience tucked away in my mind, and they will come out gradually, and as I think of anything that would interest you folks, I will write you. We did not take it hard at all, and I saw lots of funny things that people do when excited, and I will try to relate some of these to you later. The Winslows [a neighbor] insurance had lapsed, and they saved nothing but their phonograph and a few little things.
Of course, we are going to realize more as we come face to face with grim realities, just what a terrible blow it was, and we are already beginning to miss our cottage where we had hoped to entertain you folks and where we had been so happy, but as I told my mother, who was terribly upset, we who had been in it and who had seen so many others lose everything and barely escape with their lives, did not feel quite as bad over it as we might have had we not been able to judge our lot in comparison with others.
However, luck did not entirely desert us. I found this morning a can of coffee down in the back lot which in these days is not to be overlooked.
Write us folks at 72 Milledge Avenue and tell us some good news. What does Stone intend to do about his bakery? Say! The fire burned right down to Arnold Street but left those houses on the other side where you used to live, however, everything [sic] went up.
William B. Hartsfield
Conflagration – A large, especially disastrous fire, burning uncontrollably.
The morning of Monday, May 21, 1917 was a warm one, like most May days in the sunny south. There was a stiff breeze blowing from the south, which is a mite rare in Atlanta. It’s not a particularly windy city. It was a quiet morning for the most part; folks going about their business as they’re wont to do. Then some kids got into a bit of mischief, as they’re wont to do.
Two young boys built a bonfire behind a home on York Avenue near the intersection with Ashby Street (now Joseph E. Lowery Blvd.) The fire alarm was sounded at 11:43 AM, but by the time Engines 1 and 2 arrived, sparks had already been blown under the house and ignited some trash. The entire house was engulfed in flames. The fire began to spread to other nearby homes and a second alarm was sounded.
A few moments prior to this fire, at 11:39 AM, and just a few blocks east, another fire had broken out at the American Warehouse Company owned by Asa Candler (now site of the Atlanta Lofts). This fire was not thought to be serious, but several of the fire department’s engines were dispatched to contain the damage and prevent the fire from spreading. Four of the department’s engines were sent to battle this fire.
At this point, Atlanta only had 13 fire engines, 7 of which were horse-drawn, 6 six ladder companies, and 2 hose companies. This means that fully half of Atlanta’s Fire Department was dispatched to the west side of town.
The fire on York Ave. began to grow in intensity and was spreading to buildings nearby that were more than 100 feet away. Fire Chief Cody, who responded to the first fire at the American Warehouse Company, noticed the dense column of smoke to the west and immediately took some of the men and apparatus from the largely contained warehouse fire to battle the one on York Ave.
The York Ave. fire began to spread up a small alley towards Gordon Street (Now Ralph David Abernathy Blvd.) It spread to another nearby home and engulfed two more before spreading to a two-story apartment building. Before the fire was contained it had destroyed three buildings, and heavily damaged five others, including the home of Robert C. King, a fire fighter on Engine No. 1.
At 12:15 PM, not much more than half an hour after the two initial fires were called in, a fire broke out in some closely built, ramshackle dwellings between Woodward Ave. and Fair St. (Now Memorial Dr.) near King St. (This was the location of the infamous Capitol Homes until the early 21st century. It’s now Capitol Gateway, a mixed income development). Several engines were sent to this fire, all horse-drawn except for a ladder truck. At 12:16 another nearby alarm was pulled and numerous telephone calls reporting that the fire was spreading quickly. What little resources that remained were quickly dispatched.
Here’s an account of the events from firefighter Hugh McDonald published in the book Living Atlanta: An Oral History of the City:
“Soon as we reported down [to work], they said, ‘Go to the Woodward Avenue Fire.’ Well, we started down to that fire, going out Hunter Street [now Martin Luther King Jr. Drive] and I threw a tire – they had about four or five engines that was motorized. The tire went down Hunter Street and just kept rolling, and hit a store on the corner of Fraser and Hunter. And it knocked the stock of goods off the shelf. And we was out of service for quite a while. Then as soon as we reported in service there at Woodward Avenue, they said, ‘Go to Old Wheat Street’ over off Edgewood Avenue.”
“And when they sent us over there, Old Wheat Street had already got away. The way I understand it, they didn’t have the equipment to send. Woodward Avenue, that’s where the fire apparatus were. They didn’t have no water to put it out, because they didn’t have no pumper or hose wagon. That’s where it just spread.”
At 12:46 PM another alarm was sounded northeast of the Woodward Avenue fire on Fort St. near Decatur St. (Fort street no longer runs all the way south to Decatur St. but this is near where Intown Market currently sits.) The only two available fire department vehicles, a ladder truck and chemical truck were dispatched to the area. When they arrived they found a stack of burning mattresses behind the old pesthouse¹ that was being used as storage for Grady Hospital. They attempted to put it out with the chemical truck, but the fire had already spread to the roof. The fire then spread to the Skinner Brothers Transport Co.
The Skinner Brothers Transport Co. engulfed in flames
Around the same time, numerous other alarms came in from the same vicinity. Embers from the Woodward Avenue Fire were blowing in the stiff breeze and lighting the wood shingles of neighboring buildings on fire. This is most likely what set the mattresses ablaze as well. Captain John Terrell of the Ladder Company sent word for more apparatus, but was informed that no more were available. He immediately ordered a mounted police officer to send word to Chief Cody at the Woodward Avenue Fire that he needed everything he could send in a hurry. The fire alarm operator, realizing the seriousness of the situation and sheer number of alarms throughout the area, began to contact other local fire departments, such as Marietta, East Point, and Decatur. They all responded.
The fire was largely controlled before it reached Edgewood Avenue, due to the mostly brick construction of the warehouses and commercial buildings in that area. The few dwellings in the area were mostly wood and burned like tinderboxes. The firefighters were able to prevent the spread of the fire across Edgewood directly, but by the time they had it under control, the heavy winds had already blown embers well into the next block north and ignited the shanty homes with wood shingles the poor black residents had built there.
Another account from firefighter Hugh McDonald:
“Around Wheat Street over there was Colored at the time. They was awful close together. And then the wind blowing that way, it was awful – the wind got pretty high. There’d be a big board on fire, and the wind would carry that board, and it’d hit another house and start right up on that one. And it just kept spreading.”
The embers actually blew north over Edgewood Avenue and Old Wheat Street and ignited homes on the far side in the same manner that it had jumped from Woodward Avenue earlier. It then burned back south to Edgewood and embers continued blowing north and igniting in four different locations. The firefighters were completely overmatched by this point and the fire became a raging inferno burning an ever widening swath through the poorly built shanties south of Highland Ave.
When it became obvious that the fire was out of control, the Chief Cody asked Mayor Asa Candler (owner of Coke and father of Asa Candler Jr. of The (Other) Candler Mansion fame) to petition other nearby towns for help. Mayor Candler contacted several towns and help was received from fire departments as far away as Knoxville, Savannah, Macon, Augusta, and Athens, among others.
At around 5:00 PM, the National Guard arrived and helped organize evacuations. By this point the fire had spread beyond N. Highland Ave. where the homes were of brick construction and spaced further apart. This made the fire easier to control and the arriving reinforcements were able to get a handle on it.
In order to prevent the fire from spreading north across Ponce De Leon Avenue, and east or west from there, the Du Pont Company was called in by the mayor to DYNAMITE homes that were in the path. The effectiveness of dynamiting homes was debated, but if nothing else, it made them easier to keep wet and from igniting. But of course, they were already destroyed, much to the chagrin of the families that owned them.
The fire was contained just north of Ponce De Leon Avenue at about 8:00 PM and was completely out by 10:00 PM, except in isolated areas. All told, the fire burned over 300 acres, destroyed 1,938 structures and caused of $5,000,000 worth of damage (about $95,000,000 today). 10,000 people were left homeless, but there was only one fatality. Mrs. Bessie Hodges died of shock following the burning of her home on N. Boulevard.
The fire destroyed many of Atlanta’s most notable religious buildings including Grace Methodist Church (Now located near the intersection of Ponce and Boulevard), the Jackson Hill Baptist Church, Westminster Presbyterian Church, Old Wheat Baptist Church, and St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr. would rise to fame in a few decades, narrowly avoided the fire.
It was never determined what started the fire on Woodward Avenue that eventually ignited the Great Fire, but many of the more conspiratorial types in the city insisted that it was started by the Germans since the United States had just declared war and entered WWI.
From E.B Baynes:
“I don’t think it was ever determined how that fire started. There was various different rumors. It was right at the beginning of WWI and some think that a German spy started it. It was quite a rumor going about that the fire was started by German spies that had been sent to this country to destroy things.”
The Great Conflagration led to many new fire regulations throughout the city. Wooden shingles were outlawed and had to be replaced with fire resistant ones. Since so many of the houses that burned were in the poorer section of the Fourth Ward, many of the residents didn’t have enough insurance to rebuild, so areas were just left vacant. This is part of the reason there are so many parks in this part of Atlanta today.
“It was a horrible, horrible thing, that 19-and-17 fire. All through there, there was just residents that had been there for years. It burned them out. It was looked on as just a great loss to the city of Atlanta, white and black.”
“I knew what they meant when they said Sherman set fire to Atlanta. 1917 showed me what fire can do, and do it quickly.”
Here’s a map I made with the locations of the fires and the path of the major one.
View Great Atlanta Fire in a larger map
A few pictures of the destruction gathered from various sources:
¹The old pesthouse was a building used by Grady Hospital to house people with contagious diseases until they either died or were cured. It was essentially a quarantine.
Don’t it always seem to go,
That you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone?
They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.
Big Yellow Taxi – Joni Mitchell
In keeping with the spirit of my last post, I’d like to once again delve into the history of Atlanta. This time with something that could have changed some of the most vibrant parts of the city forever.
Atlanta is world renowned for its traffic. It’s up there with New York and LA, sometimes even worse. Back in the 70’s and 80’s, the solution to traffic was just to build more and bigger freeways. A simple cruise down I-85 from I-285 on the the top end to the bottom end will sufficiently demonstrate that. With so many Atlantans moving out to the suburbs yet still working in town, the proposed solution was to build new freeway arteries to ease the flow of traffic into town. This is the story of the three most notorious proposed projects.
I-420 (Also called GA-166) is sort of an oddball proposition in today’s terms. It was slated to begin in Douglasville, run south of I-20 into Atlanta and intersect with the Downtown Connector. It would then run from the connector and intersect I-20 East somewhere near Gresham Rd. This project was eventually canceled, because quite frankly, it was pointless. The section of the proposed freeway running between I-285 and the Connector was already planned and it became know as Lakewood Freeway (now Langford Parkway). This relieved most of the traffic issues on that side of town. The entire project, minus the Lakewood Freeway portion, was scrapped in 1983.
Here’s a map from 1981 of the eastern end of the project I was able to find. Notice how I-675 is slated to connect to the proposed I-420. We’ll get to that in a moment.
I-485 East/West (GA-410)
This is where shit gets weird. I-485 had two proposed segments; one running east/west and one running north/south. If these had been built, Atlanta would be a very different place.
Think back to your last visit to Stone Mountain Park. (I contend that if you’ve lived in Atlanta for any period of time and have never been to Stone Mountain, you’re probably a Carpetbagger and not worthy of my time. Rectify this.) You most likely traveled on US 78, also known as Stone Mountain Freeway. It’s a freeway, but it’s only like 4 miles long and it’s in such an odd spot. What’s the point in that?
Now, let’s say you’re leaving the Ted after another Braves victory and you’re heading north on the Connector. You need to get back to Decatur where you live, so the best route is to get off at Freedom Parkway and take Ponce De Leon Ave. to Decatur.
Freedom Parkway is about the oddest stretch of road you’ll ever drive on. It’s a full-fledged interchange that’s almost never crowded and seems way too complicated for its purpose. Combine this with Stone Mountain Freeway and what do you have? You guessed it, the beginning and ending of a freeway cutting through the Hwy. 78 Corridor east of Atlanta.
It’s nearly unthinkable to imagine a freeway cutting through this portion of town now, but the reality is, it mostly followed the old Seaboard Coastline Railway. It would have continued on where Stone Mountain Freeway ends today, cut through the property where North DeKalb Mall is located (although the mall was still in its prime when this plan was proposed), and follow Peachtree Creek until it reached the railroad tracks. It would follow the railroad tracks south across Ponce De Leon and then swing west running roughly parallel to Ponce through a heavily wooded area and clipping off the northern section of Candler Park.
Here’s where the story gets interesting. Right of way for the proposed freeway had already been purchased by the state for the portion west of Candler Park, and construction was underway. If you look at Atlanta on Google Maps, you’ll see a large X-shaped swath of green just east of Freedom Parkway that’s now known as Freedom Park. This was the route I-485 was to take to connect to I-75/85. In fact, the freeway was already under construction beginning at the Connector, before neighborhoods such as Druid Hills, Morningside, and Atkins Park were able to muster enough opposition to stop the project.
I-485 North/South (GA-400)
I have a hard time believing this section of I-485 ever even got off the ground. It was a proposed route to connect GA-400 with I-675. There would have been a large Spaghetti Junction type interchange in that are where Freedom Park is that I mentioned above.
Despite the fact that the area the freeway would have run through was far more blighted than it is now, bisecting these neighborhoods would have amounted to heresy in my eyes. Imagine the Virginia-Highlands or Grant Park today with a freeway running through them. Jenn, of Curiouser and Curiouser fame, used to live in a beautiful house on Greencove Avenue in the Virginia-Highlands. There’s a park across the street from her former house. Had they built this freeway, you’d have seen that freeway instead of the park.
I’m not one to fuss too much when the powers that be want to tear down a shanty town to run a freeway through or build a stadium, but shanty towns aren’t million dollar turn of the century homes. Thankfully, these neighborhoods were able band together and put up some real opposition. The entire project was permanently put out to pasture when Jimmy Carter put his Presidential Library right in the middle of the land purchased for the I-485 interchange where Freedom Park is now located. When the 1996 Olympics came to Atlanta, Freedom Parkway was finished and the remaining land was turned into Freedom Park.
Here are a couple more maps I found of the proposed routes and a Google Map with the entire proposed layout of both I-420 and I-485. The maps differ slightly so I did the best I could with the information I’ve gathered.
View I-485/I-420 in a larger map