Mobile, AL Fire, May 1919


IN THE YARD of Howard Cunningham’s meat market-grocery, located on the northeast corner of Madison and Hamilton Streets, fire broke out at 3:25 o’clock on the afternoon of May 21, 1919. It was just an ordinary small blaze, but in those days the water pressure in Mobile’s southern section was not very high. Soon the fire spread beyond control of the Fire Department (which was later accused of lack of organization and efficiency in that particular emergency) and leaped from structure to structure and block to block until four hours later it had laid waste 40 city blocks containing 200 houses.

After gaining their start in the Cunningham store building, the flames swept rapidly southeastward. It soon became apparent that the fire was beyond control; in a short time a house at Conception and Canal Streets, two blocks away, was on fire.

The fire paused at Franklin Street, between Madison and Eslava, but burned fiercely south of Madison. Houses on both sides of Franklin, between Madison and Canal, were burned, and four houses on Canal between Franklin and Hamilton. It then jumped across the street to the southeast corner of Canal and Franklin, and in the meantime was also burning the square east of Franklin, between Madison and Canal.
When the all-devouring flames reached the east side of Claiborne, between Franklin and Madison, they seemed to be checked momentarily, but flying embers set fire to a dwelling east of Claiborne, between Madison and Canal, and in less than an hour they had swept across Conception, between Madison and Canal, at such speed that many people saved nothing. By 6 o’clock the fire had leaped across Conception to St. Emanuel and had headed directly southeast, taking in the dwellings and the Settlement Home at Conception and Canal.

At this point in the demon’s march, a force of several thousand volunteers was on the fire-fighting line. Despite their heroic efforts, the fire reached the block on Canal and Royal Streets, when the Alabama Dry Dock & Shipbuilding Co. sent a force numbering more than 1,000 men to the scene, and they kept the fire from their plant and the riverfront. At 6:30 o’clock it seemed as though the L. & N. repair shops at Royal and Charleston would catch fire, but the company’s employees strenuously wet all structures with several streams of water and saved them.

Then, with the setting sun, the wind died down and the fire was finally halted when it reached an open space at St. Emanuel and Charleston Streets and had virtually burned itself out.

As soon as it appeared that the fire was under control, measures to relieve distress were quickly organized. The fire demon had eaten away one of the most thickly populated sections of the city, leaving nothing but a forest of gaunt chimneys. Hundreds of families had lost their homes and everything in them, but relief agencies speedily responded to their urgent needs. Officials of the Red Cross arranged to have Mobile Relief Hall thrown open and equipped to house the homeless. Other organizations promptly followed suit, including the Knights of Columbus, City Hospital, other fraternal organizations, as well as scores of private homes. A Central Relief Committee, headed by D. P. Bestor, Jr., chairman, was organized and raised a considerable fund to assist the fire sufferers.

Dawn of the following day revealed an area of several square miles gutted by the flames. Between 1,000 and 1,500 people had been rendered homeless. Insurance men estimated that fully $500,000 in damage had been done—$300,000 to residences, and $200,000 to furnishings and personal effects therein.

Highlights of 75 years in Mobile, Mobile, Ala.: First National Bank of Mobile, 1940, pages 84-85