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