The Great Jacksonville Fire of 1901

The morning of Friday, May 3, 1901 dawned like any other late spring day in Jacksonville. Men and women went to work, children went to school, and soon the city was humming with its usual bustle of activity. By one o’clock that afternoon, however, the lazy calm would erupt into the most destructive disaster of the city’s history. A fire strengthened by favorable winds, dry conditions, and a path laden with wooden buildings would rage through Jacksonville, destroying thousands of buildings and millions of dollars in property.

View of Jacksonville's riverfront before the Great Fire (1894).

View of Jacksonville’s riverfront before the Great Fire (1894).

It all started at the Cleaveland Fibre Factory near the corner of Beaver and Davis streets in the LaVilla neighborhood. Workers had been busily laying moss out to dry in the sun when the noon whistle sang out to announce lunch. They made their way to the shade of the trees to eat, leaving the moss unattended. Normally, a few men would stick around to make sure no ashes or embers from the surrounding neighborhood made their way to the drying fibers, but on this day the lack of wind made such precaution seem unnecessary.

Spanish moss drying on racks - similar to the situation that led to the Great Jacksonville Fire (photo 1946).

This Spanish moss drying operation is similar to the one that started the Great Jacksonville Fire (photo 1946).

Then one of the workers noticed a small glowing spot in the moss and went over to investigate. Finding that the moss had somehow caught fire in several places, he called for help, but a deadly chain of events was already in motion. The wind, which had stayed quiet all morning, suddenly came to life, sending burning bits of moss closer and closer to the shed where the company’s stock of dried fibers was stored. The building ignited and was quickly engulfed in flames, flinging burning embers into the surrounding area. More buildings caught fire, and before long Chief T.W. Haney of the Jacksonville Fire Department sounded a general alarm.

Flames consume one of Jacksonville's Methodist churches, likely the one at the corner of Duval and Newnan street (1901).

Flames consume one of Jacksonville’s Methodist churches, likely the one at the corner of Duval and Newnan street (1901).

 

By this time the whole of Jacksonville knew something was wrong. Even if they hadn’t heard the clanging of the fire engine bells, residents could already see a distant cloud of smoke billowing upward and working its way east over the neighborhoods. Families closer to the fire sprang into action, piling household goods into wagons and driving them away from the growing conflagration. Eager to help their neighbors, some people took their belongings only a few blocks away before unloading them and returning. Many of these possessions would later go up in flames before their owners could collect them.

Jacksonville’s fire department fought the blaze valiantly, but neither the wind nor technology was on their side. The fire marched steadily eastward, consuming block after block of wooden structures. Sidewalks, bricks, and concrete structures glowed red with heat and cracked or exploded. Columns of thick smoke rising from the burning city were reportedly seen from as far away as Raleigh, North Carolina.

Residents flee with their belongings as the fire progresses eastward (1901).

Residents flee with their belongings as the fire progresses eastward (1901).

Residents took shelter in the recently completed city armory, the Windsor Hotel, and the county courthouse, but eventually even those buildings had to be evacuated. Depending on their location, people hurried to get across either Hogan’s Creek or the St. Johns River to safety, the fire closing in behind them. At one point, the fire turned southward, trapping the massive crowd waiting at the Market Street Wharf to be transported across the St. Johns River. Desperate to get away from the approaching flames, many residents jumped into the water. This scene, which at the time was thought to have resulted in an enormous loss of life, was dubbed the “Market Street Horror.” Miraculously, despite widespread destruction of property, only seven persons are believed to have lost their lives in the blaze.

Map showing the path of the Great Jacksonville Fire of 1901. Reprinted in Carolina Rawls, The Jacksonville Story: A Pictorial Record of a Florida City (1950).

Map showing the path of the Great Jacksonville Fire of 1901. Reprinted in Carolina Rawls, The Jacksonville Story: A Pictorial Record of a Florida City (1950). Click the map to enlarge it.

By nightfall, the wind had died down, and the fire was running out of fuel. A total of 2,368 buildings and 466 acres of city territory had been burned to the ground. Twenty-three churches, ten hotels, and every single public building except one federal office structure was destroyed. National Guard troops rallied to the scene to preserve law and order, but the city itself was practically deserted. Nearly 10,000 people had lost their homes, and were forced to take up temporary residence in tents sent to Florida by the United States government.

Looking southeast down Forsyth Street at the destruction from the Great Jacksonville Fire of 1901.

Looking southeast down Forsyth Street at the destruction from the Great Jacksonville Fire of 1901.

Church Street after the Great Fire of 1901.

Church Street after the Great Fire of 1901.

Jacksonville recovered quickly from the Great Fire of 1901. Just six months after the disaster, the city played host to the Florida State Fair, and in 1903 residents marked their return to prosperity with an extravagant Gala Week and Trades Carnival. By 1913, 11,000 buildings had been erected to replace the ones consumed by the disaster. Residents and outside observers agreed — Jacksonville was back!

Part of the Jacksonville skyline in 1909, only eight years after the Great Fire destroyed much of the downtown area.

Part of the Jacksonville skyline in 1909, only eight years after the Great Fire destroyed much of the downtown area.

 

Ochopee, Home of the Nation’s Smallest Post Office

Florida’s unique history owes some of its splendor to great people and great visions. In many cases, however, the most interesting tidbits have happened when no one was expecting it. That’s certainly the case with Ochopee, home of the smallest post office building in Florida, and most likely the smallest in the United States. The people of Ochopee hadn’t planned to have such a cramped space for handling mail. If it hadn’t been for a serious tragedy, the tiny settlement might never have had such a distinction.

Map of Southwest Florida showing Ochopee and the nearby Gulf Coast. Naples is located northwest of Ochopee along U.S. 41 (1953 map - Florida Map Collection, State Library of Florida).

Map of Southwest Florida showing Ochopee and the nearby Gulf Coast. Naples is located northwest of Ochopee along U.S. 41 (1953 highway map – Florida Map Collection, State Library of Florida).

Ochopee got its start in 1928 when the James T. Gaunt family purchased a few hundred acres in Collier County on either side of what was to become the Tamiami Trail. The Gaunts were farmers, and they intended to set up a major tomato-growing operation. Farming on the edge of the Everglades was no easy task, of course. The family and their workers lived in surplus Army tents when they first arrived, which made the heat and mosquitoes a daily torture.

A view of the terrain near Ochopee, mostly marshes with a few heads of palmetto (1942).

A view of the terrain near Ochopee, mostly marshes with a few heads of palmetto (1942).

In the first year, the Gaunts and their business partners wrestled a real settlement out of the muck. They hired a large workforce to tend and harvest their tomatoes, mostly African-Americans from Miami and Georgia, with a few local Seminole families as well. The Seminoles lived in their own chickees near the company property, while the African-Americans typically lived in houses on the site. One of the workers’ quarters was called “Boardwalk” because for much of the year the only way to get between the houses was by boardwalk. Wages ranged between $1.00 and $2.50 per day, plus free utilities and health insurance.

Seminole workers in the tomato fields of the J.T. Gaunt Company - Ochopee (circa 1930s).

Seminole workers in the tomato fields of the J.T. Gaunt Company – Ochopee (circa 1930s).

By 1932, the Gaunt Company had a substantial village to serve their tomato farm, but it didn’t have a name. That year, the family decided to establish a post office, but they wanted something a little more special than “Gaunt” or “Gaunt Farms” for a name. According to one of the family members, Someone asked Charley Tommie, a local Seminole, what the native word for “farm” was. Charley replied “O-chopp-ee,” and the Gaunts decided that would be the name of their growing settlement. The post office was established in August of that year, and postal business was carried out in a corner of the company store.

One night in 1953, a fire broke out in the boarding house at Ochopee. It spread quickly to other buildings, and with the nearest fire department being miles away at Everglades City, residents were forced to fight the blaze with buckets of water from a nearby canal. Postmaster Sidney Brown was able to get his records out of the general store, but when the flames were finally extinguished, the building was a total loss. The next day, when the mail arrived, Postmaster Brown needed someplace to conduct business. A member of the Gaunt family pointed out a nearby shed used to store irrigation pipes and hoses, and with that the nation’s smallest post office building was adopted. Gaunt Company workers moved the building to a more convenient location, installed a counter and work space, and it was ready for service.

Ochopee Post Office (circa 1940s).

Ochopee Post Office (circa 1940s).

Since then, the Ochopee post office has been as much a tourist attraction as it has a place of business. The Florida Photographic Collection contains a number of photos of the building from various angles and at different times. Some visitors assumed the locals built the post office that size originally as a novelty, but Ochopee residents knew better. Their post office, like so many curiosities in Florida’s past, was an accident of history.

Postmaster Sidney H. Brown in front of the Ochopee Post Office. Brown managed to save the records of the post office from the fire that destroyed this building's predecessor in 1953 (photo circa 1960s).

Postmaster Sidney H. Brown in front of the Ochopee Post Office. Brown managed to save the records of the post office from the fire that destroyed this building’s predecessor in 1953 (photo circa 1960s).

Does a landmark in your community have a story like that of the Ochopee post office? Tell us about it by leaving a comment or sharing on our Facebook page!