The Burnings of Atlanta

While writing about the burning of Atlanta in my blog on Gone with the Wind’s 75th birthday, as an ex-Atlantan, I remembered that the city had been plagued by other fires. Aside from the 1864 blaze set by the Confederates, followed by General Sherman’s notorious conflagration consuming a third of the city, there was also the Great Atlanta Fire of 1917. It arose from four separate, relatively insignificant blazes one quiet May morning and quickly spread the fire department’s resources dangerously thin. Morphing into one enormous incendiary beast, it required the assistance of firefighters from as far away as Chattanooga and Knoxville, Tennessee, to bring it under control. After raging for eleven hours, it consumed 22 million gallons of water and destroyed almost two thousand buildings covering three hundred acres. Amazingly, there was only one fatality, a woman who suffered a fatal heart attack when she saw her house burn down.

The 1917 blaze leveled almost 2000 buildings.

The Great Atlanta Fire of 1917 leveled almost 2000 buildings.

Nowhere nearly as extensive but with a staggering loss of life, the 1947 fire at Atlanta’s Winecoff Hotel remains the worst hotel fire in American history. The trouble began when someone dropped a lit cigarette onto a mattress temporarily stashed in a third floor hallway. By the time flames were discovered by a bellboy at 3:15 A.M., sleeping guests above the third floor of the fifteen-story building were trapped. Of the Winecoff’s 304 guests, 120 jumped to safety or were rescued by firemen, 65 were injured and 119 perished. Arnold Hardy, a 24-year-old Georgia Tech grad student, was coming home from a dance when he heard sirens and rushed to the scene where he used his last flash bulb to photograph a young woman leaping from the eleventh floor. Her fall broken by rescuers, Daisy McCumber shattered her back and pelvis, but miraculously survived, and Hardy’s shot of her desperate plunge won him the 1947 Pulitzer Prize for Photography.

The 1947 Winecoff Hotel fire remains the deadliest in U.S. history.

The 1947 Winecoff Hotel fire remains the deadliest in U.S. history.

Still more fires were directly related to the book and movie. In 1978, flames destroyed Loew’s Grand Theater, site of Gone with the Wind’s 1939 world premiere. Also lost in the fire were iconic portraits of Clark Gable as Rhett Butler and Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara which had graced the opulent lobby for decades.

Loew's Grand Theater fell victim to fire in 1978.

Loew’s Grand Theater fell victim to fire in 1978.

Even the apartment house where Margaret Mitchell wrote the book fell victim to flames. Originally a handsome structure facing historic Peachtree Street, it had tumbled onto hard times, and by 1977 was boarded up and empty. A 1988 fire did minor damage, but a firebug’s work in 1994 destroyed much of the building. Concerned citizens and a corporate donation from Daimler-Benz provided money to rescue and restore the structure, but in 1996, it was torched a third time. Arson was again suspected because the house sits on an incredibly valuable piece of real estate in Atlanta’s booming Midtown section, but no arrests were made. Happily, enough of the house survived to be rebuilt, and it was opened to the public as a museum in 1997. It continues to welcome visitors eager to see where Rhett and Scarlett came to life.

Margaret Mitchell's apartment building survives...just barely!

Margaret Mitchell’s apartment building survives…just barely!

Despite devastation from weeks of Union shelling and two wartime fires in 1864, the spunky little town of Atlanta aggressively rebuilt. To immortalize their resilience, civic leaders chose a city seal depicting the mythological phoenix reborn from the flames and the motto, Resurgens, Latin for “rising again.” It’s altogether appropriate for a city that has turned itself into a world-class metropolis of 6.1 million people. Then again, maybe there are other reasons why the town is nicknamed “Hotlanna.”

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1 Comment

  1. Scott
    Mar 8, 2015

    As always, your essays are well crafted, well researched. Their structure is impeccable. In fact, I think they should be required reading in high school English classes nationwide, as examples of what students need to be writing for a grade. Your writing always gets an “A” in my book. I would, however, like some more opinionated pieces, especially how history affects us now.

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