Originally created 08/30/99

1916 fire devastating to city


It turned the sky over Augusta into one big flame on March 22, 1916 -- a night Isabelle North Goodwin will never forget.

Her father, Henry, telephoned the family home on Greene Street with the news shortly after fire was discovered in the Dyer Building at Eighth and Broad streets. The call broke up her cousin Noah Walker's birthday party.

The boys, including Noah and her brother Henry Jr., 14, quit their game on the lawn and took off uptown to see the commotion. Young Isabelle, then 8, and her nurse followed.

"It was terrible," recalled Mrs. Goodwin, who turns 92 in September.

An unattended iron in a tailor's shop was blamed for the Great Fire of 1916, the worst blaze in Augusta's history. It was an inferno that roared across 25 blocks from Eighth Street to East Boundary, a district today encompassing portions of downtown and Olde Town.

Augustans suffered $10 million in damages, including the loss of 20,000 bales of cotton estimated at $1.2 million. Some 3,000 people were left homeless. About 600 homes and commercial buildings were destroyed.

Miraculously, nobody was killed, although firefighters were burned and blistered.

The area around the Dyer Building was roped off. Charles DeBeaugrine, then 13, stood at the scene with his seventh-grade classmates and other schoolmates from Brothers Catholic High School on Telfair Street.

"We saw it spreading. We knew it was bad, but we didn't realize how bad," he said.

While Mrs. Goodwin's father helped rescue stenographers from the back of the burning Dyer Building, Mr. North didn't know that Belle Walker North, and her friend, Annie D. DuValle, were on the fifth floor, said Mrs. Goodwin.

They had gone to a photographer's studio to solicit advertisements for a women's shelter, the former Mary Warren Home on Central Avenue. The studio's owner yelled something on his way out, but they didn't understand him. Unaware of the fire, the women waited for his return.

"The whole place was on fire," Mrs. Goodwin said.

A firefighter entered the studio and ordered the women down a 55-foot ladder.

First one and then the other refused, but he insisted.

"He said, `You are both going down,"' Mrs. Goodwin recounted in an interview. "And they went down."

The incident is described in Souvenir Views of Augusta's Big Fire, a booklet published shortly after the fire by Savannah photographer F. Edgar Davis.

Mr. DeBeaugrine watched the fire. It would pass down a street, cross to the opposite side but skip a few houses, including his family's home below Fifth Street, he said.

"We were lucky," Mr. DeBeaugrine recalled.

A powerful March wind drove the fire all through the night. The blaze danced from block to block as the wind shifted, swallowing one building after another.

"I was in despair," Mrs. Goodwin said.

At 9 p.m., the wind shifted away from the Norths' home on Greene Street and Mrs. North decided to retrieve more silver. Augustans hopefully piled furniture and other belongings in the middle of the streets beyond the flames' reach, but some caught fire anyway.

Firefighters and engine companies from Waynesboro, Atlanta, Macon and Savannah in Georgia and Aiken, Charleston, Greenville and Columbia in South Carolina boarded trains and headed to Augusta.

The trains "let them off on Broad and Sixth. Everybody just cheered. Here came help," Mrs. Goodwin said.

But when they tried to hook up the fire hoses, the couplers didn't fit. The experience led to the standardization of firefighting equipment.

The family sent Mrs. Goodwin and her cousin, Belle Walker, to spend the night with friends -- the Fullers, who lived on Kings Way.

"I thought I was in the country," Mrs. Goodwin said. The girls returned the next day and discovered the North home had been spared.

The blaze was under control by early morning.

Many structures were burned to the ground. Her father's insurance office on Eighth Street was destroyed.

The Augusta Chronicle and Empire buildings, the Masonic Temple -- all on the 700 block of Broad Street -- Tubman High School and Houghton Grammar School were among the ruins.

But many considered the destruction of colonial-era St. Paul's Episcopal Church at Reynolds and Sixth streets the city's greatest loss.

The wind was so strong that burned hymnals and prayer books were found across the Savannah River in Aiken County, Mrs. Goodwin said.

Another North cousin, Cecelia Baker Barrett, then 11, was visiting her grandmother on Glenn Avenue. She saw the night sky illuminated by the blaze.

The next day, friends offered to drive her family and a reluctant Cecelia to the scene.

"I didn't want to go," she said.

She road in the back seat of "a big black car. That was more thrilling to me than the fire," Mrs. Barrett said.

Where big buildings had once stood, "there was nothing left but smoke and ashes," she recalled.

In some places, people had saved very little from the fire; in others, the fire had "skipped a lot of blocks" because of the wind, she said.

Mrs. Barrett's future father-in-law, William Hale Barrett, appointed in 1922 to a federal judgeship, was instrumental in resettling and rebuilding Augusta.

He was given a silver platter and vase in appreciation of his efforts "by his many friends," according to an inscription on the gift. He was honored for "his distinguished services as chairman of the committee of public welfare after the conflagration of March 22, 1916."

In 1926, she and George Barrett, the judge's son, were married.

Museum history series

The Great Fire of 1916 will be the subject at noon Wednesday at the monthly brown-bag history series at the Augusta-Richmond County Museum, 560 Reynolds St. The program is free to museum members and costs $2 for the public. Participants should bring their lunch and the museum will provide a beverage and dessert. Call (706) 722-8454 for reservations.

Virginia Norton can be reached at (706) 823-3336 or vanorton@augustachronicle.com.


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