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100th Anniversary of Great Nashville Fire

Posted at 10:22 PM, Mar 22, 2016
and last updated 2016-03-22 23:58:13-04

One hundred years ago, a massive fire tore through East Nashville wiping out almost everything in its path.

The so-called ‘Great Nashville Fire’ is one of the largest disasters in Nashville history.  It destroyed 35 blocks, hundreds of structures, and left thousands of people homeless.  The damage was estimated to be at $2 million, which is equivalent to $43 million today.

“You think of the tornadoes, and the flood, and this fire should be on the list, as well,” said Drew Mahan, an Archivist at Metro Nashville Archives.“

There are conflicting theories on how the fire started.  Some reports said a young boy was playing with a ball of yarn that caught fire in a stove.  He threw it out of the house, and it started a grass fire and then continued to grow.  However, documents at the Metro Nashville Archives show at 11:47 a.m. on March 22, 1916, a fire broke out in the Seagraves Planing Mill on North 1st Street.  Due to weather conditions, the fire spread quickly through the area.

“It was a perfect storm,” said Mahan.  “We had two things happening.  Very dry weather and high winds at 50 to 60 miles per hour.”

Every available unit from Nashville’s fire department was called to help.  Residents helped neighbors pull furniture out of their homes and also formed bucket brigades to help douse the flames.  Despite the hours of chaos, only one person was killed when an electrical pole fell.

The fire claimed the Little Sisters of the Poor ministry, Warner School, a fire station on Woodland, and several churches were damaged.  However, the bucket brigades helped save the Edgefield Baptist Church, Tulip Street Methodist Church and St. Ann’s Episcopal Church.  Firefighters finally got the fire under control around 4 p.m.

The Metro Nashville Archives is filled with photos, newspaper clippings and maps that document the fire’s destruction.

“It’s hard to imagine that many people instantly needing a place to live,” said Mahan.  “This was one of the first big things East Nashville had to recover from.”

The Edgefield Baptist Church marked the 100th anniversary of the fire with a special display at the church.  Long-time member Tim Kernell put it together with photos and stories from the church’s archives.

“It is part of our history, and its part of the community’s history,” said Kernell.  “I think it’s a testament to the strength of the church and the people who wanted to see the church survive,”

Kernell said a church member and captain at the Nashville Fire Department, E.T. Holman, helped organize the bucket brigades.  As a result, the church escaped the fire with only damage.

“As you look at photos, and see the city is basically in ruins,” said Kernell.  “It looks like World War II and then all the churches are standing strong.”

The fire prompted many changes in the affluent Edgefield neighborhood.  After the fire, many of the wealthy residents left and started over across the river.  Some opted to stay and start the rebuilding process.  As a result, the look of the neighborhood changed.

“The houses that were built in the late teens were craftsman style or bungalows,” said Carol Norton, a long time East Nashville resident.  “This was very different from the Victorian style homes they replaced. “

In addition, East Park emerged from what was once a street of burned houses.  A new fire house was also built on Holly Street.

Even after a century, the fire is still a topic of discussion among history buffs in the Edgefield neighborhood.  Some said that the fact that the area continues to thrive, is a point of pride for residents.

“There’s an independence and camaraderie that makes this area special,” said Norton.  “I like to say everything that’s important in Nashville, happened in East Nashville first.”

Photos of the fire are available at the Metro Nashville Archives at 615 Church Street.  The display at the Edgefield Baptist Church will stay up for a couple of months.