Ten Significant American Fires

Looking Down Sacramento St., 1906Looking down Sacramento St., 1906. (Photo: Library of Congress)

Immensely destructive and often deadly, fire can be a terrifying and ruthless force for historical change. In commemoration of the anniversary of one of the most notoriously disastrous blazes in American history, here are some significant North American conflagrations.

1) Jamestown, Virginia, 1676

Under the leadership of an aggrieved planter named Nathaniel Bacon, hundreds of former indentured servants and enslaved Africans joined forces in an uprising in the spring of 1676 against the corrupt reign of colonial governor William Berkeley. After demanding and being refused official permission to go to war against neighboring Indian tribes to acquire more land for Englishmen, Bacon’s army of more than 500 men marched on the colonial capital of Jamestown and burned it to the ground on September 19, 1676, forcing Berkeley to flee the colony. English military reinforcements and Bacon’s death from dysentery effectively ended the rebellion, but the alliance of poorer Virginians across racial lines deeply disturbed elites and helped produce a hardening of racial slavery in colonial North America.

2) New Orleans, Louisiana, 1788

On the afternoon of March 21, 1788, a fire broke out in the New Orleans home of Don Vicente Jose Nunez, the treasurer of Louisiana in what was then New Spain. It being Good Friday, city priests refused to allow the ringing of church bells as an alarm, and in less than six hours the fire had spread entirely out of control. Some significant riverfront buildings survived, but the fire destroyed nearly 80% of the roughly 1100 structures in the city. Rebuilding took years and saw wooden buildings replaced with more familiar structures of thick masonry, courtyards, and wrought iron balconies. Yet another fire in 1794 destroyed more than 200 buildings and forced yet another wave of rebuilding, at which point the portion of the city known today as the French Quarter had been so made over by the Spanish that essentially no French-style architecture remains.

3) Washington, DC, 1814

On August 24, 1814, British forces entered Washington D.C. and set fire to most public buildings in the city. Undertaken during the War of 1812 and in part in retaliation for property destruction engaged in by American troops near Lake Erie, the fire destroyed the White House, the Capitol, the Treasury, and the Library of Congress. President James Madison and much of his government fled in haste into Maryland. An immensely powerful thunderstorm, accompanied by a tornado, struck the city the next day, putting out the fires and prompting British forces to leave the city and return to their badly damaged ships. President Madison returned to Washington on September 1, and the process of reconstruction began. A rebuilt White House was completed in time for the 1817 inauguration of President James Monroe, and the brief British occupation of the city marks the only foreign occupation of the capital of the United States in the nation’s history.

4) New York City, 1835

On a brutally cold night late in 1835, a five-story warehouse caught fire at the corner of Pearl St. and Exchange Place in New York City. Quickly spreading through the labyrinthine streets of downtown, the fire outpaced the best efforts of the city’s fire companies, who were stymied not only by the speed with which the flames leapt from warehouse to warehouse but also by the fact that every hydrant had frozen solid. By the morning of December 17, the fire was completely out of control. Warehouses crammed with goods from around the globe burned to the ground. The Merchants’ Exchange on Wall Street, which was the heart of the nation’s financial center and one of the finest structures in the United States, entirely collapsed, and even the East River caught fire as flaming turpentine spilled across its surface. Only by blowing up a number of buildings and creating a wall of rubble did a detachment of Marines from the Brooklyn Navy Yard finally stop the fire from spreading unchecked uptown. When it was over, nearly every building south of Wall Street and east of Broad was destroyed. Not for the last time, lower Manhattan had been remade and would never again look as it had before.

5) Columbia, South Carolina, and Richmond, Virginia, early 1865

The burning of significant portions of the capital of South Carolina in February 1865 and of the capital of the Confederacy roughly six weeks later were compelling signs that the final stages of the Civil War would be no less destructive and deadly than it had been nearly since it began. In Columbia, strong winds pulled apart bales of cotton set ablaze by retreating Confederate forces, sending flammable clumps of fiber high into the air, where they lit on buildings and trees, beginning a series of fires that were soon abetted by looting southerners and Union troops alike. By the time General William Sherman and his soldiers left the city, nearly one third of it had burned and thousands of its citizens aimlessly wandered the streets wondering where they might live. Richmond too owed its destruction in significant measure to Confederate decisions to leave nothing of value behind for Union troops, as forces set fire to bridges, warehouses, and deposits of arms as they evacuated the city. For generations afterwards, some white southerners would accuse federal forces of having committed war crimes by burning the two cities. In truth, white southerners inflicted significant portions of the damage themselves as Union troops liberated Columbia and Richmond from Confederate rule.

6) Chicago, 1871

The Great Chicago Fire that burned from October 8-10, 1871, was among the biggest disasters of its age. Long supposed to have begun when a cow kicked over a lantern in a barn, no one actually knows how the fire began. When it was over, however, it had jumped back and forth across the Chicago River several times, as many as 300 people had died, roughly 100,000 city residents were homeless, and more than three square miles of the city had been destroyed. Portions of the city remained too hot even to examine for days, and more than $200 million in property had been laid waste, a figure that would amount to more than $4 billion in current dollars. Astonishingly, however, and contributing to the story Chicago tells about itself, the city rebuilt and kept growing quickly, and the story of the fire became such an instant legend that a Wisconsin forest fire that broke out the very same night in and around the town of Peshtigo has been almost entirely forgotten, even as estimates suggest that more than 2,000 people may have died in it.

7) San Francisco, 1906

As a city whose earliest structures were made almost entirely of wood and were densely packed together beginning with the boom years of the California gold rush, San Francisco saw several significant and damaging fires over the course of the second half of the nineteenth century. But none of them compared to the devastation wrought by the blazes that burned in the wake of the earthquake that struck northern California in the spring of 1906. Though the quake predated the creation of the Richter scale, estimates place it at roughly a 7.8. It damaged or collapsed thousands of buildings and left hundreds dead under the rubble, but the fires that mostly spread from ruptured gas lines over the three ensuing days left the city a wasteland. Estimates of the dead are in the range of 3,000 people and more than 80% of the buildings in San Francisco were completely destroyed. Rioting, looting, and widespread homelessness followed in the wake of the earthquake and fires, and the geography and architecture of the city were both entirely reconfigured in their wake.

8) Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, Manhattan, 1911

On March 25, 1911, material in a wooden bin holding several hundred pounds of fabric scraps caught fire in the Triangle Waist Company factory on the eighth floor of the Asch Building in Greenwich Village. The flames blocked the exit to one stairwell, and the factory owners kept the exit to a second stairwell locked to prevent worker theft. Heat quickly made elevators non-functional and the flimsy exterior fire escape collapsed, leaving more than 150 people, mostly Jewish and Italian immigrant women, trapped inside the factory. Dozens leapt from the building to their deaths, and by the time the fire was finally extinguished, 146 people had died. Although the factory’s owners were acquitted of criminal charges, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire prompted the passage of safety legislation by New York State and spurred increased demands by the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union for sweatshop worker protections. It remains one of the deadliest industrial accidents in American history.

9) Tulsa, Oklahoma 1921

In the spring of 1921, an armed white mob rampaged through the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, a black business district known as the Black Wall Street and home to the wealthiest black community in the United States. They exchanged gunfire with business owners and residents, and soon turned to setting fires. Some members of the mob even took to small airplanes, shooting at black people on the ground and dropping firebombs indiscriminately, giving Tulsa the dubious distinction of being the first American city ever bombed from the sky. The National Guard finally declared martial law after about sixteen hours had passed, by which point as many as several hundred blacks and several dozen whites had been killed. The commercial section of Greenwood, meanwhile, was entirely destroyed. Neither white public officials nor rioters were ever punished for their actions, and many lawsuits filed to recover damages from insurance companies failed. In 2001, the Oklahoma state legislature passed legislation providing scholarships for descendants of victims of the riot and establishing a memorial. No direct reparations were ever paid.

10) Bel Air, California, 1961

On November 5, 1961, Santa Ana winds picked up a brush fire in the Bel Air neighborhood of Los Angeles, and by the time the wildfire was extinguished nearly 500 homes and more than 16,000 acres had burned. The homes of numerous celebrities, including Burt Lancaster and Zsa Zsa Gabor, were casualties of the flames, and many others, including Richard Nixon, then the former vice-president, were forced to evacuate. The City of Los Angeles instituted a number of fire safety provisions in the aftermath of the blaze, but California and much of the West remain more prone to deadly and devastating wildfires than any other portion of the United States.

About the Author

Joshua D. Rothman

Joshua D. Rothman is Professor of History and Chair of the Department of History at the University of Alabama. He is the author, most recently, of Flush Times and Fever Dreams: A Story of Capitalism and Slavery in the Age of Jackson (2012), and is currently working on a book about the slave traders Isaac Franklin, John Armfield, and Rice Ballard.

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