The Great Fire of 1901

Mattress fires are a serious safety concern. Between 2005 and 2009, 10,260 US home fires started with mattresses and bedding. In those fires, 371 people died and $382 million was lost through property damage. Perhaps the largest of all mattress fires, however, is the Great Fire of 1901.

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Workers drying Spanish Moss Credit - State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory
Workers drying Spanish Moss
Credit – State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory

During that era, a popular stuffing material was Spanish Moss. The flowering plant is collected, laid out to dry, and then used in mattresses. On one hot day in Jacksonville, Florida (exactly 114 years ago today), workers at the Cleaveland Fibre Factory were doing just that. It led to a massive blaze once sparks from a chimney nearby lit the drying Spanish Moss.

A colorized image of the fire from the Florida State Archives
A colorized image of the fire from the Florida State Archives

Workers attempted to control the growing flames, but soon the wind picked up. Flaming plant matter was carried on the breeze through the city. In only 8 hours, the blaze had consumed more than 2,368 buildings across 146 city blocks. Over 100 miles away, residents of Savannah, GA claimed they could see the glow. Partway through the fires, Governor William S. Jennings declared martial law.

Caption reads: Ruins of the city building and auditorium, looking Southeast from Main and Forsythe Streets.
Caption reads: Ruins of the city building and auditorium, looking Southeast from Main and Forsythe Streets.

The governor immediately laid the groundwork for reconstruction (and civil authority was reinstated on May 17th). It was desperately needed with 10,000 citizens now left homeless. Reconstruction led to a large overhaul of the city’s appearance. Architect Henry John Klutho designed most of the new buildings in the “Prairie Style” of Frank Lloyd Wright. A mattress fire changed the face of an entire city!

A Jacksonville house designed by Klutho for himself, later turned into a schoolhouse
A Jacksonville house designed by Klutho for himself, later turned into a schoolhouse

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