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Teacher's Resources: The Atlanta Fire

1. What was the date of the great Atlanta fire, and how long did it take to contain the flames?

The alarm announcing the beginnings of the Atlanta fire rang at 12:46 PM, May 21, 1917. The fire was contained almost exactly 10 hours later, at 10:40 PM.


References: Reports, Documents, Miscellaneous

"Notes and Documents: The Day of Atlanta's Big Fire." Atlanta Historical Journal.

2. How did the fire start?

The fire was probably started by windblown sparks from another fire that had originated a quarter mile to the south on Woodward Avenue. The cause of that particular fire is unknown.


References: Reports, Documents, Miscellaneous

"Notes and Documents: The Day of Atlanta's Big Fire." Atlanta Historical Journal.

"Report on the Atlanta Conflagration of May 21, 1917." National Board of Fire Underwriters.

"The Great Fire of Atlanta." The Atlanta Historical Bulletin.

3. Where did the fire start in the city? The fire started at Skinner's Warehouse, near the corner of Fort and Decatur Streets.


References Reports, Documents, Miscellaneous

"Notes and Documents: The Day of Atlanta's Big Fire." Atlanta Historical Journal.

"Report on the Atlanta Conflagration of May 21, 1917." National Board of Fire Underwriters.

4. What weather conditions contributed to the disaster?

Two weeks of very dry weather had made the wood shingling of Atlanta's houses very susceptible to conflagration. There was also a strong wind coming from the south which later carried burning embers.


References: Reports, Documents, Miscellaneous

"Notes and Documents: The Day of Atlanta's Big Fire." Atlanta Historical Journal.

"Report on the Atlanta Conflagration of May 21, 1917." National Board of Fire Underwriters.

"The Great Fire of Atlanta." The Atlanta Historical Bulletin.

5. What other problems hindered the city's fire fighters in battling the blaze?

According to the National Board of Fire Underwriters: Wooden shingle roofs allowed the fire to leap from building to building with great swiftness. Citizens who volunteered to help were not provided guidance, resulting in confusion. A telephone line was not opened for the exclusive use of the fire department. Since phone lines were constantly jammed the departments were forced to utilize the services of messengers. More hoses were needed. Additional hydrants were desired. Streets in disrepair forced fire companies to take "long detours" to get to the fires.


References: Reports, Documents, Miscellaneous

"Report on the Atlanta Conflagration of May 21, 1917." National Board of Fire Underwriters.

6. Of the conditions cited above, which did the National Board of Fire Underwriters indicate was most important in the spreading of the conflagration?

Wooden shingle roofs, which had already proven to be a fire menace in other cities, were cited as the primary cause of the 1917 conflagration.


References: Reports, Documents, Miscellaneous

"Report on the Atlanta Conflagration of May 21, 1917." National Board of Fire Underwriters.

"The Great Fire of Atlanta." The Atlanta Historical Bulletin.

7. Why did rumors spread briefly that the fire was caused by German sabotage?

The U.S. had entered World War I one month prior to the Atlanta fire by declaring war on Germany.


References: Reports, Documents, Miscellaneous

"Notes and Documents: The Day of Atlanta's Big Fire." Atlanta Historical Journal.

8. Using the map of the National Board of Fire Underwriters, locate the point farthest north that the fire reached.

9. How many acres were burned, and what was the property damage estimated in 1917 dollars?

About three hundred acres were burned. Between five and five and a half million dollars of damage was inflicted.


References: Reports, Documents, Miscellaneous

"Report on the Atlanta Conflagration of May 21, 1917." National Board of Fire Underwriters.

"Notes and Documents: The Day of Atlanta's Big Fire." Atlanta Historical Journal.


References: Newspapers

"Fire Losses May Total $5,000,000, Experts Declare." The Atlanta Journal.

10. Use a street map to determine how much of your town would be destroyed by a fire as big as the Atlanta Conflagration.


References: Web Resources

MapQuest allows you to pull up maps of cities all over the globe. Click on "Interactive Maps" Then, enter the name of the city or the location for which you'd like a map.

11. Visit the Inflation Calculator and determine how much monetary damage the Atlanta Conflagration caused in today's dollars.


References: Web Resources

Inflation Calculator. The Inflation Calculator uses the Consumer Price Index to determine the amount of inflation between any two dates from 1800 - 1997. The amount of damage done in 1917 dollars totaled about five million. http://www.westegg.com/inflation/

12. What drastic order did Atlanta's mayor give late in the afternoon on May 21, and why did he give it?

Dynamiting of the houses at Hunt and Pine Streets, Ponce De Leon avenue and Boulevard, was ordered by the mayor in an effort to starve the fire.


References: Reports, Documents, Miscellaneous

"Notes and Documents: The Day of Atlanta's Big Fire." Atlanta Historical Journal.

"Report on the Atlanta Conflagration of May 21, 1917." National Board of Fire Underwriters.

"The Great Fire of Atlanta." The Atlanta Historical Bulletin.

13. How effective was the dynamiting of homes in stopping the fire?

The Fire Underwriters Laboratory report states that "the value of dynamiting buildings to prevent spread of fire in this case is questionable" They write that the dynamiting on Hunt Street may have helped the fire department wet down buildings "with direct hose lines which otherwise would have been of insufficient reach."


References: Reports, Documents, Miscellaneous

"Report on the Atlanta Conflagration of May 21, 1917." National Board of Fire Underwriters.

14. Why did the street itself burn on Boulevard? Parts of Boulevard were paved with "wood block" which was flammable.


References: Reports, Documents, Miscellaneous

"The Atlanta Fire of 1917." The Atlanta Historical Bulletin.

15. In only the third time in Atlanta's history, martial law was declared. What is meant by martial law, and what specifically did it mean for Atlanta during the fire?

In times of great crises, when a city's police force is not enough to maintain law and order, the military is sometimes called in to supervise and organize the people of that city. This is what is known as martial law. According to the National Board of Fire Underwriters, the soldiers were a great asset to the city, maintaining law and order, assisting in fighting the flames, and regulating traffic. Mayor Asa G. Candler called for military assistance at 3:00 PM. Martial law was declared at 4:50 PM, May 21, and lasted until noon, May 22.


References: Reports, Documents, Miscellaneous

"Notes and Documents: The Day of Atlanta's Big Fire." Atlanta Historical Journal.

"Report on the Atlanta Conflagration of May 21, 1917." National Board of Fire Underwriters.

"The Great Fire of Atlanta." The Atlanta Historical Bulletin.

16. Name at least 10 major cities that sent fire fighters to Atlanta to fight the blaze. Plot the cities and towns on a map of Georgia and /or the SE United States.

The cities that sent fire fighters were (outside of Georgia): Greenville, SC; Knoxville, TN; Chattanooga, TN; Nashville, TN; Jacksonville, FL; and (from Georgia): Athens, Augusta, Savannah, Decatur, East Point, Gainesville, Griffin, Hopeville, Kirkwood, Macon, Marietta, Newman, and Rome.


References: Reports, Documents, Miscellaneous

"Report on the Atlanta Conflagration of May 21, 1917." National Board of Fire Underwriters.

17. What were the late arriving fire units able to do to help over the next few days in Atlanta?

They patrolled the streets of Atlanta to locate and extinguish the many small fires that burned for as long as a week after the initial conflagration.


References: Reports, Documents, Miscellaneous

"Notes and Documents: The Day of Atlanta's Big Fire." Atlanta Historical Journal.

18. How many Atlanta citizens were left homeless, and how many were killed?

10,000 citizens were left homeless. Incredibly, only one person died as a result of a heart attack suffered while witnessing the destruction of her home.


References: Reports, Documents, Miscellaneous

"Notes and Documents: The Day of Atlanta's Big Fire." Atlanta Historical Journal.

19. Referring to the wind chart in the report of the National Board of Fire Underwriters, answer the following questions:

At what hour was the wind velocity the greatest?

Wind velocity was greatest at 4:00 PM.

What was the highest wind speed at any five-minute period?

The highest wind speed was 22 mph.

When did the big fire begin according to the chart?

The "big fire" began at 12:47 PM, and was probably started by sparks from the one recorded as beginning at 12:16 PM.

Why are the wind speed values greater than what was occurring at the fire?

The wind speeds recorded are from an altitude of 216 feet over the earth's surface. Wind speeds are generally greater at higher altitudes.
Construct a line graph with time in hours as the horizontal axis and wind speed as the vertical axis. Comparing this information with the report's description of the progress of the fire, what generalizations can be made?

The report states that at 4:00 PM the fire was advancing rapidly from rooftop to rooftop, and that by 6:30 PM fire activity was decreasing. Both these observations are supported by the wind charts, which were at their heaviest at approximately 4:00 PM and had dropped dramatically by 6:30 PM. 20. />/>/>/>/>/>/>/>/>

20. Referring to the chart detailing the water pumped during the fire, answer the following questions:

How many pumping stations were in operation at the time that the major blaze began in Atlanta? />


There were two pumping stations in operation.

At what time were all four pumps in operation?

All four pumping stations were in operation by 5:00 PM.

What do the dotted lines indicate in several of the columns corresponding to several of the pumps?

They indicate pumps that weren't operating at those times. In some cases, the pumps shut off and had to be turned back on again.

Which pump was in operation throughout the time period shown?

Pump #4 operated throughout the duration of the fire.

How many gallons of water were being pumped at 1:00 PM? At 6PM?

The rate of pumpage at 1:00 PM was 28 million gallons of water per 24 hour period. The rate of pumpage at 6:00 PM was between 44-48 million gallons of water per 24 hour period. By dividing these figures by 24 hours, and again by 60 minutes, one finds that the amount of water pumped per minute at 1:00 PM equals approximately 19,444 gallons, and the rate per minute at 6:00 PM was approximately 30,556 - 34,028 gallons per minute.

Create a bar graph with hour intervals as the horizontal axis and millions of gallons in water pumped as the vertical axis. What generalization(s) can be made from the graph of water that was pumped?

A number of generalizations could be made. Perhaps the most significant is that the blaze was at its worst from 3:00 - 6:00, which is supported by descriptions of the fire's rate of progress, the wind charts, and these water pumpage charts, which peak at those times.

On the day of the fire, water usage in Atlanta was about 16,000,000 gallons more than usual, or an average of around 11,000 gallons a minute. At this rate, how long would it take to fill an average backyard pool of 18,000 gallons of water?

It would take approximately 1 minute 38 seconds to fill a pool at this rate. (11,000 gallons per minute = 183 1/3 gallons per second. 18,000 gallons divided by 183 1/3 gallons per second leaves produces approximately 98 seconds.)

21. What future Atlanta mayor as a young man dragged off family possessions in a large trunk to save them from the fire? Hint: Atlanta's airport is named after him.

That future mayor was William B. Hartsfield. He tells his story in "The Atlanta Fire of 1917."


References: Reports, Documents, Miscellaneous

"The Atlanta Fire of 1917." The Atlanta Historical Bulletin.


References: Reports, Documents, Miscellaneous

"Notes and Documents: The Day of Atlanta's Big Fire." Atlanta Historical Journal.

22. Who was the fire chief of Atlanta during the great conflagration?

The Atlanta Fire Department says that the fire chief was William B. Cody. Please note that our web resources conflict slightly: "Notes and Documents: The Day of Atlanta's Big Fire" calls him W.C. Cody. "The Great Fire" calls him W.B. Cody. The National Fire Underwriter's report refers to him only as "Chief Cody."


References: Reports, Documents, Miscellaneous

"Notes and Documents: The Day of Atlanta's Big Fire." Atlanta Historical Journal.

"Report on the Atlanta Conflagration of May 21, 1917." National Board of Fire Underwriters.

"The Great Fire of Atlanta." The Atlanta Historical Bulletin.

23. Who served as mayor during Atlanta's great fire?

References: Reports, Documents, Miscellaneous "The Great Fire of Atlanta." The Atlanta Historical Bulletin.


References: Newspapers

"$50,000 Is Raised for Fire Relief in Typical Meeting." The Atlanta Journal.

"Bucket Sale Going Big on Peachtree Street." The Atlanta Journal.


Higher Order Thinking Skills:

What effects – both positive and negative – could a fire such as Atlanta’s in 1917 have on a growing city’s economy?

Positive effects: It could show the need to upgrade fire safety in buildings and in zoning.  Most of the structures burned were wooden and close together. Better building codes and materials along with an upgraded water system could prevent this happening in the same way again. The poor housing could have been re-built so that the housing would be better and the neighborhood less crime-ridden, which is often the case in poorer sections in cities.  Jobs might be created in order to re-build.  Negative:  Leaves people homeless who have nowhere else to go and limited resources for building anew.  The cost to the city would be enormous, leaving scarce resources for normal operation of the city. People could be out of jobs in the burned section of the city.


Activities:

1. Referring to a natural disaster in your own community, how does the response of people and agencies today compare with the response of people to help rebuild after the Atlanta fire? (e.g., the flooding in south Georgia from tropical depression "Alberto")

2. Select a catastrophic event that occurred in your community and compare the impact it has had on your community with the impact that the 1917 fire had on Atlanta.

3. Interview a member of your community who lived through a natural disaster or who was involved in the rebuilding effort. How has this person changed from the event?

4. What items would you try to save out of your own home if you had less than 10 minutes to hand carry them out (assuming that all people and animals were safe and that the roads were blocked to auto traffic)?

5. What were some of the changes mandated by the Atlanta City Council to try to prevent such a disaster from occurring again?


References: Reports, Documents, Miscellaneous


"Notes and Documents: The Day of Atlanta's Big Fire." Atlanta Historical Journal.

"Report on the Atlanta Conflagration of May 21, 1917." National Board of Fire Underwriters.

"The Great Fire of Atlanta." The Atlanta Historical Bulletin.

6. Imagine you are a city planner in 1917. Present a plan to the city council for your ideas on how to rebuild the city. Make sure you consider the following: How can we guard against another fire? How can the areas that burned be improved from their pre-conflagration state? Should we rebuild the neighborhoods for the people who lost their homes? Should we renovate other similar neighborhoods that could be fire hazards? How might you help those hurt most by the fire?

7. Imagine you are a reporter for People Magazine. Brainstorm ideas for feature stories about the fire with your classmates. Think about the types of things that people would be interested in today if the same thing happened. Also think about things that were relevant then but not today. Pick one of the story ideas and write a human interest story using information and quotes you find in the materials on the Georgia Stories video tapes and the materials on the Internet. Pictures are very important to a magazine story. Which would you pick to go with your story? Which picture would you put on the cover and why?

8. Imagine you are a reporter for The Atlanta Journal on the day of the fire. Write a news story for the front page. Some ideas could be a story on thieves, different parts of town, and how people were affected by the fire. Who would you interview? What questions would you ask? What pictures would you take?

9. Referring to a natural disaster in your own community, how does the response of people and agencies today compare with the response of people to help rebuild after the Atlanta fire? (e.g., the flooding in south Georgia from tropical depression "Alberto")

10. Select a catastrophic event that occurred in your community and compare the impact it has had on your community with the impact that the 1917 fire had on Atlanta.

11. Interview a member of your community who lived through a natural disaster or who was involved in the rebuilding effort. How has this person changed from the event?

12. What items would you try to save out of your own home if you had less than 10 minutes to hand carry them out (assuming that all people and animals were safe and that the roads were blocked to auto traffic)?

13. What were some of the changes mandated by the Atlanta City Council to try to prevent such a disaster from occurring again?

The city put a roofing ordinance into effect May 30, which stated that most buildings should be covered/shingled by fire resistant materials. The ordinance stated that within 12 years, all buildings were required to have fire resistant shingling. Horse-drawn equipment was not able to move fast enough to battle the flames; City Council agreed that the fire demonstrated the necessity of motorized vehicles in the fire department. One year after the Atlanta Conflagration the fire department was completely motorized. The city government also agreed to look into getting additional equipment at the water pumping stations.


References: Reports, Documents, Miscellaneous

"Notes and Documents: The Day of Atlanta's Big Fire." Atlanta Historical Journal.

"Report on the Atlanta Conflagration of May 21, 1917." National Board of Fire Underwriters.

"The Great Fire of Atlanta." The Atlanta Historical Bulletin.

 

Vocabulary:

catastrophic: Of a pertaining to a catastrophe an event producing a subversion of the order or system of things; usually of a calamitous or disastrous nature.

conflagration: An enormous fire.

embers: Small pieces of heated or burning material from a fire.

insurance adjustments: Settlement of claims; an equitable arrangement of conflicting claims, as in set-off, contribution, exoneration, subrogation, and marshaling.

martial law: Government-ordained military law enforcement imposed at times when civilian law enforcement groups (such as local police) cannot maintain order.

shanties: Small, mean dwellings; rough, slight buildings for temporary use; huts. shingles: Pieces of wood sawed or rived thin and small, with one end thinner than the other, -- used in covering buildings, especially roofs, the thick ends of one row overlapping the thin ends of the row below.

underwriter: One who underwrites his name to the conditions of an insurance policy, especially of a marine policy; an insurer.

wind velocity: The speed at which wind travels. "Velocity" traditionally refers to airborn objects.

The Atlanta Fire

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