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The Great Augusta Firestorm
When I was growing up life found all kinds of reasons to send us to Augusta. Then as now we found it necessary to make many a pilgrimage to the big city but we weren’t unique. In the CSRA all roads have always led to Augusta. The city of Masters fame has long represented the center of civilization as smaller outlying communities go.
Lincoln County was home, of course, but the late 1950’s Augusta was much more—Sears, cinemas, car dealerships, and great hamburger joints in the days before Ray Kroc and his cookie-cutter McDonald’s took over. (Perhaps you remember a burger place named Kelly’s and Greene’s Drive In, which served great seafood.) Augusta had restaurants, television stations, a newspaper, and tall buildings. It was the big city, a metropolis.
(An aside, I remember the giant cup on the Lily Cup plant on Wrightsboro Road.) Trips to the big city hummed with discovery. I didn’t know much about Augusta other than what my eyes took in. Walking down Broad Street was like walking through New York City. With a few exceptions our family trips to Augusta excited me. Visits to dentists, doctors, and hospitals unnerved me.
In the 1950s and 1960s before the city spread down Washington Road, before the pastures, forests, and lawns of Evans gave way to Red Robins, Publixs, and Ruby Tuesdays, a trip to Augusta meant a drive all the way to Broad Street. There was no John C. Calhoun Expressway. We’d go past Lake Olmstead, What A Burger, and Kings Mill before arriving at one of the country’s wider streets. (A rumor held that the Savannah River once flowed where Broad Street came to be.)
In all the times I tagged along behind my parents crossing Broad Street not once did it occur to me that a conflagration had swept through where I walked. But just as Rome burnt so did Augusta. Once upon a time the Central Savannah River Area’s center of civilization went up in flames.
No one could blame Mrs. O’Leary’s cow for this inferno. No, no cow but an unattended iron in a tailor’s shop in the Dyer Building caused the Great Augusta Inferno of March 22, 1916—the worst blaze in Augusta’s history. Flames roared across 25 blocks from Eighth Street to East Boundary, a district today encompassing portions of downtown and Olde Town.
Gusty March winds howled all night. Bill Kirby in his blog “Our Town,” writes of this wind-driven inferno. “Firefighters and engine companies from Waynesboro, Atlanta, Macon, and Savannah in Georgia and Aiken, Charleston, Greenville, and Columbia in South Carolina boarded trains and headed to Augusta. But when they tried to hook up the fire hoses, the couplers didn’t fit. The experience led to the standardization of firefighting equipment.”
Augustans saw $10 million worth of property and goods go up in smoke including 20,000 bales of cotton worth about $1.2 million. Some 3,000 people lost their homes. About 600 homes and commercial buildings turned to ash. It must have been a nightmare the great inferno of 1916. People tried to save silver and more as all familiar collapsed around them. An eyewitness remembers that when the next day dawned she saw nothing but “chimneys, chimneys, chimneys.” Nobody died.
Kirby’s blog said that Greene Street’s generous width helped form a barrier that blocked the flames in some areas. You can see the difference: to the street’s south are Victorian houses; on the north side they’re Craftsman style.
The fire changed Augusta. Some folks moved out of Olde Town and went to “the Hill.” Building codes improved but it was too late to save some classic old buildings. The buildings built after the fire helped give Augusta the architectural character we see today. The Union Savings Bank building is one such structure. The Georgia Federal Building at 735 Broad is another. A lot of buildings that predate the fire, however, remain in place, creating a blend of old, not as old, and not so old at all.
We’re all familiar with organizations that preach the value of saving old buildings from progress yet all too often their pleas go unheeded. A massive fire can do overnight what thoughtless urban renovation takes decades to do: change a city’s looks forever. When a fire turns old buildings to ashes most people can say they had no direct role in their destruction. That’s not the case when some committee decides to swing the wrecking ball against an old building because it wants a pretty modern building downtown. Shiny edifices devoid of character rise to take their place. The result? Too many southern cities look alike thanks to towering buildings that house a variety of companies, businesses, and all too often empty office suites.
You’ve seen sad old buildings forgotten by time. You drive by a forlorn building time and again, yet never know its history. If these buildings from yesteryear could just speak. And then one day it’s gone. Like us, they fall one by one.
There’s something comforting and unsettling about old buildings. People worked there. People shared life there, but once the buildings are abandoned no one remains to tell their story. Nothing but the building and its architecture, classic windows, columns, and beams can tell the story now. Want to get a sense of life’s mysteries? Walk the floors of an old building alone. Listen to the floors creak. Feel the drafts. Look out its broken windows. You’ll sense mysteries, maybe find clues but few answers. You’ll walk away wondering if the old structure will be razed or rescued.
Some stories have happy endings. The years roll by and then the day comes when someone decides to rescue this lonely old building. And a miraculous thing happens. As construction crews disassemble the building with care it tells its story brick by brick, board by road. Peeling paint, crumbling bricks, layers of dust, and ancient longleaf floors amount to an architectural dig of sorts where the past rises up to meet you. A yellowed receipt, an old coin, an ancient newspaper hint of the life that passed through.
Over here, across the Savannah, a bank commissioned me to write the story of a historic building the bank is restoring to its original grandeur. It’s a story with fiery origins also. Columbia burned when Sherman came through. The crusty old Yankee denied burning the city, blaming the Rebs instead. (Yeah right.) The city made somewhat of a rebound following the devastating fire of 1865; a mild construction boom took place within the first few years of Reconstruction and up went this old French Victorian building. Its story is a heartwarming one I’ll gladly share down the road.
I like to see people rejuvenate old buildings. In our haste to modernize we raze too many classic buildings and replace them with bland towers of steel, concrete, and glass. We lose a lot when we do that. How many times has a drive through the country been more memorable thanks to a windmill or a fire tower, and how sad when you come that way again and see both gone. The horizon loses its fading stars and is all the less for it. The same goes for old buildings in cityscapes. Towns too.
It’s too bad we didn’t learn more from the Europeans. Old structures give Europe charm. Imagine Rome without the Coliseum. Envision London without its Tower Bridge, perhaps the most photographed bridge on earth.
What might downtown Augusta look like today had the great inferno of 1916 not swept through? I find the possibilities intriguing. As a kid walking down Broad Street I knew none of this burning history. I didn’t know the old Imperial Theater opened right after the big fire. I didn’t know that the Empire Life Insurance Company building was scheduled to open in 1916 but had to be demolished because of the fire, being completed at last in 1918. You know it as the Lamar Building.
And what about the fire’s effects on outlying communities? I doubt that the great Augusta firestorm inconvenienced our great grandparents as much as it would us. People back then were more self sufficient, the roads were far worse, and so were means of transportation.
So, ninety-seven years have gone by since the great firestorm. All my childhood trips to Augusta might have been filled with a bit more wonderment had I known that a major fire changed the center of civilization overnight. The next time I’m downtown I’ll check out Broad and Greene Streets.
I’ll make note of the contrasting architectures along Greene and try to summon up a city afire fanned by winds so strong that burnt Hymnals ended up across the Savannah River in Aiken County. I’ll try to imagine the night the fire came through and how Augusta reinvented itself. With the good comes some bad though. When we see grand old buildings restored to their youth we should feel a twinge of jealously. How gratifying it’d be if some good Samaritan could come along and do the same to our aging bodies.
- Images: From GeorgiaInfo (public domain).