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Florida House in Old St. Augustine Florida

The St. Augustine Fire of 1914

Patrolman S. A. McCormick was walking his beat late on the night of April 2, 1914, a nice evening with a light breeze, when he was horrified to see flames pouring from a second story window of the all-wooden Florida House on Treasury Street. It was the start of an inferno which took one woman's life, completely destroyed five tourist hotels, and gutted a large part of the very center of St. Augustine's historic mid-section.

Although Fire Chief Charles P. Townsend and his men worked heroically, they could do little more than keep the fire from spreading and consuming the entire city. The flames which Patrolman McCormick had spotted soon swept through all of the Florida House and the vortex caused by an updraft scattered burning brands far and wide. New fires, fanned by the breeze, broke out.

The authorities sent out a call to Jacksonville for help and that city's Fire Department made a record run, via the Florida East Coast Railway, to come to the aid of the Ancient City's firefighters, covering the 36 miles in just 37 minutes.

Immense crowds gathered and Chief of Police Ulysses G. Quigley asked the mayor, A. W. Corbett, to call out the militia to help control them and to prevent looting. St.George Street was soon a tangled mass of fallen electric wires and the electricity had to be cut off. It was not missed, however, as the light from the blaze lit up the whole city and the surrounding country.

Two days later the ruins were still too hot for the work of cleaning up to begin. People with homes near the blaze tried to save their belongings, expecting their houses to catch fire at any moment. The Fort Green and the Plaza, as well as surrounding streets and vacant lots, were heaped with clothing and furniture, which the owners tried for days later to sort out. Some found their belongings, but others hurriedly dragged out of range of the flames, were never seen again.

One guest at the Clairmont Hotel, which was completely destroyed, a delicate lady of slight build, was more efficient. When the blaze awakened her, she calmly closed the windows to keep out all the smoke, dressed completely (corset and all), calmly packed all her belongings in a large trunk which she somehow dragged down four flights of stairs unassisted, and then located two policemen to carry it to safety.

Ballots for a bond election held the day before were saved from the courthouse, where other records not stored in the fireproof vaults were lost. The valuable power boats tied up at the Power Boat Club pier were towed to safety, and several men sawed the pier itself in two, thus keeping the fire from reaching a gasoline storage tank at the end of it. Had it exploded, the disaster would have been far worse.

As the years rolled by, victims of the fire began to speak of it almost with affection, as a landmark event in their lives. It is certain that no one who was in St. Augustine that pleasant evening of April 2, 1914, will ever forget it.

Florida House Fire in St. Augustine

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