Weekend run commemorates Jacksonville’s Great Fire of 1901

Historian recalls devastation that sparked rejuvenation

Downtown Jacksonville burned to the ground 120 years ago today. This was known as the Great Fire. The city will commemorate it in events held this weekend.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Monday will mark 120 years since downtown Jacksonville burned to the ground in what is known as The Great Fire.

Within eight hours, 146 city blocks were destroyed, more than 2,368 buildings were turned to ashes and 10,000 residents were left homeless. It is considered remarkable that only seven people died in the fire.

“The Great Fire of 1901 was the largest most significant event in our city’s history,” said Dr. Wayne Wood, historian-at-large for the Jacksonville Historical Society. “In one afternoon, 90% of the downtown area of Jacksonville was destroyed in this Great Fire. The flames could be seen glowing in the sky all the way to Savannah, Georgia. The smoke could be seen in the sky in Raleigh, North Carolina.”

May 3, 1901, was a dry, windy, hot day and a spark from the wood fire at a fiber company hit a pallet of Spanish moss and the resulting fire spread throughout the city.

“My great-great, I think great-grandfather’s company, the Cleveland Fiber Company, owned that building on that May day in 1901 the fire started,” said Fred Kent, president of Marks Gray P.A.

The result was the third-largest urban fire in the history of the United States. It caused an estimated $15 million in property loss -- in 1901 dollars.

Map of Great Fire of 1901 (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

But the fire forced the city to reinvent itself and rise from the ashes to become the Jacksonville we know today.

“Jacksonville, in a period of about five years after the fire, became one of the most modern cities in the world,” Wood said. “Because building after building after building was built to replace this empty wasteland that the fire left in downtown Jacksonville.”

This weekend, organizations will commemorate the 120th anniversary of the Great Fire with 5K and 1-mile runs to help benefit the Jacksonville Historical Society, which was founded in 1929 to record and preserve the history of the River City. The runners will follow the boundary of the Great Fire through downtown.

“It really sort of rejuvenated Jacksonville. Jacksonville, sort of phoenix-like, rose from the ashes and rebuilt itself in so many ways, so we’re celebrating that,” Kent said.

The run is a 5K and 1 mile race that follows the Great Fire boundary through downtown and there is still time to sign up.

The event starts and ends at Old St. Andrew’s Church, 317 A. Philip Randolph Blvd., across from VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena.

The 5K will start at 7:30 a.m., followed by the 1 Mile Run at 8:30 a.m.

For safety, wearing masks will be required when not running the race and social distancing is encouraged.

You can sign up for the run here.

For more of the history of The Great Fire, you can pick up The Great Fire of 1901, written by Dr. Wayne Wood. Available wherever books are sold and online here.

While the great fire took much away, much more was restored.