My Georgia History



Dyer Building

Dyer Building

Augusta from its start has seen good things and bad things. For each apparent success, there seems to be a failure. The Signal Corps had come and gone; CampWheeler had closed; the movie industry had betrayed the city; and the city’s tallest structure was incomplete. But then it happened, more bad news. On March 22, 1916 Augusta’s history took a dramatic turn. The downtown area erupted in the worst fire in the city’s history. The flames started in the five story Dyer building. The Dyer building was located on the corner of Jackson (Eighth) and Broad Street. They believe an unattended iron in the Kelly Dry Goods store caused the fire. The fire started at 6:20 PM. The flames were fanned by unusually high winds that night. The winds took the fire up the elevator shaft which released burning debris down Broad Street toward East Boundary.  “I saw things with fire on them as big as my arm just blowing through the air,” said Charles B. Whitney Sr., who was a high school senior at the Academy of Richmond County in 1916, “there wasn’t any way in the world to stop it.” Chief Frank G. Reynolds and Engine Number One were on the scene within minutes, but the fire had already engulfed the five-story building. Burning debris flying through the air landed and started other fires. Chief Reynolds sized up the situation immediately and sent for help from neighboring cities. And help they did. Assistance came from all around – Macon, Waynesboro, Savannah, Atlanta and even Columbia, South Carolina.

 While the help was coming, the fire was growing stronger. The winds determined the course of the fire. The fire went

Fire of 1916

Fire of 1916

down Jackson to Reynolds, across Jackson and back up to Broad, Ellis and the north side of Greene Street. Many of the city’s landmark buildings burned that night, St. Paul’s Church, HoughtonSchool, Balk Nursery and TubmanHigh School just to name a few. The “Cotton Exchange” building lost its roof in the fire, but the building was not gutted. The new “ChronicleBuilding” and the unfinished “EmpireBuilding” were gutted.  Tom Loyless and the “Augusta Chronicle Newspaper” staff managed to get out a two-page addition on a borrowed press that night. Some of Augusta’s finest homes were lost to the fire. It’s hard to believe that not one person died in the fire.

 The next day the newspaper said we had lost 25 city blocks to the fire. That was later changed to 32 city blocks and 746 buildings had burned. Lots of warehouses burned, including 20,000 bales of cotton were lost in the blaze that night. Many of the cotton brokers on cotton row went out of business as their cotton went up in smoke. In the morning of March 23, 3000 people were homeless. Many of the people decided to build their homes in the Summerville area leaving their burned-out homes down in the city.

That night Tom Loyless wrote in his “Chronicle”, a note of encouragement to the city of Augusta…

 “If we know Augustans, and we think we do, Augusta will awake today to a new energy and determination: to rebuild what the flames have destroyed, and to build better before. For be it known, Augusta has faced disasters before…Augusta knows something of adversities and how to overcome them. The lessons she has learned is that reverses test the mettle of cities as they do of men: that obstacles spur us to greater effort and determination and that the surest and quickest way to overcome a loss is to begin at once to repair it. So let’s all join in bright and early this morning: wash the smoke off our faces, shake the cinders off our clothes– wade right in to show what old Augusta really can do when she tries.”

 William H. Barrett was named by city Mayor James R. Littleton to head a public safety committee of 15 citizens. Within 10 minutes, Barrett was promised $10,000 for immediate relief of the suffering. The Chronicle ran a front page list of the whereabouts of more than 80 families, displaced by the fire.   Railroad companies offered free transportation to people who had lost everything in the fire and wanted to return to former out-of-town residences. Even though he lost his office in the Chronicle building and his home, Barrett contributed substantially to the relief fund himself. Over $63,000 was received and distributed. Barrett concluded his final report with the words “in this great disaster our people have measured fully up to their best traditions, and nobly illustrated how their virtues can be as great as their distresses.”  

Fire debris

Fire debris

St. Paul’s was rebuilt on the same site. It looked the same but was rebuilt a little bigger. The Chronicle and Empire buildings were gutted but structurally sound, they would be restored. A new HoughtonSchool was constructed. TubmanHigh School was moved to the Schuetzenplatz property, and rebuilt. The downtown residents constructed slowly over the next two decades, reflecting a depressed economy. But the 1916 fire changed the face of Augusta. Fortunately, most of Greene Street and parts of Telfair remained to remind us of the elegance of old Augusta.

 On December 30, 1916 more bad news was received.  The beautiful Hampton Terrace Hotel, in North Augusta, was destroyed by fire. Fire is something we have always watched for. The Chief of Firefighters was asked if Augusta could burn like it did in the 1916 fire. His confident answer was no. Buildings are built differently today. But we will never forget the fire of 1916.

 Research resources:

  1. The Story of Augusta. Cashin, Edward J. Spartanburg, SC. The Reprint Company Publishing. (1996)
  2. The Place We Call Home. The Augusta Chronicle
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