Author(s): Mary Elizabeth Woodruff. Published on March 1, 2016.

‘The ash heap of the nation’ grows

THE GREAT FIRE OF 1916 >> Augusta, Georgia


IN 1916, NFPA published a bulletin documenting the devastating conflagration in Augusta, Georgia, and describing the lessons learned. The city, the bulletin intoned, “with her streets choked with [flammable] cotton in violation of her own ordinances, and her roofs covered with wooden shingles in conformance of them; her valiant fire department crippled by insufficient and obsolete pumping engines … made her contribution of over four million dollars on March 22nd to the ash heap of the nation; and is now planning reconstruction with the three and a half millions of outside money plucked through fire insurance from the pockets of her sister cities, towns, villages, and hamlets of America.”

Augusta was an important commercial center for the cotton industry. Besides the packed warehouses, an estimated 20,000 highly flammable bales were also stored outside on the streets, impeding traffic and blocking access to hydrants. When the fire occurred, some city streets were so clogged with cotton bales that vehicles had trouble passing.

While the storage of cotton in the streets is specific to the Augusta conflagration, most of the lessons learned were problems that were already well known. The fire began in a dry goods store the evening of March 22, and although an alarm was sounded within minutes of the start of the fire, it took more than 10 hours to bring it under control. Wood-frame buildings, many with wooden shingles, allowed the fire to spread. Brick buildings and other structures were left vulnerable with unprotected exterior openings. The fire department was hampered by inadequate equipment, and low water pressure provided weak streams from the hydrants. Fire departments arrived from as far as 170 miles away to assist, only to find their hose threads were not compatible with Augusta’s hydrants. Ultimately, the fire raged through 25 blocks of mercantile, warehouse, and residential properties, burning 682 buildings and leaving more than 3,000 people homeless. According to The Augusta Chronicle, no one died in the fire.

The same day, a similar fire raged through Nashville, Tennessee, fueled by wood-frame buildings with wooden shingles. More than 640 buildings were destroyed. A day earlier, a large conflagration occurred in Paris, Texas, leaving 1,440 buildings in ashes.

These were the latest in a series of devastating fires across the country that included Chicago in 1871; Boston in 1872; San Francisco in 1906; and Salem, Massachusetts, in 1914. By 1916, the fire hazards in urban settings were well known. Within five days of the Augusta fire, a city committee expressed its support for the adoption of a comprehensive building code. The new code, which banned wood-shingle roofs, was adopted just two weeks after the fire. Plans were also made to purchase two new pumping engines, lay an additional water main, and to install water meters to improve water pressure.

MARY ELIZABETH WOODRUFF is the manager of Library and Informational Resources at NFPA. Top Photograph: NFPA