‘A tornado of flames’: A look back at the Great East Nashville Fire of 1916

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NASHVILLE, Tenn., (WKRN) — The East Nashville we all know and love might not be what it is today if it weren’t for the Great Fire of 1916.

“There’s a story of how the fire started, which may or may not be true, that a young child was playing with some yarn, and it caught fire in his stove. And he threw the ball of yarn outside into dry brush,” said David Ewing, Nashville historian.

It was the worst fire in the history of Tennessee until the 2016 Smoky Mountain Fires.

Ewing continued, “The fire was started kind of near where the interstate is today, near First Avenue. And it spread quickly to Woodland Street, Fatherland Street, Main Street, around Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Avenues. And by the afternoon, when it was finally put out, around five o’clock, 600 homes and buildings were destroyed.”

An estimated $1.5 million in property loss was reported.

One person was killed. The devastation could have been much worse because winds that day got up to 50mph, which quite literally, fanned the flames.

“It was an inferno. It was tornado of flames that were going on that day,” Ewing exclaimed. “And we just were overwhelmed. The fire chief sent out a telegram to neighboring fire departments that ‘we need help! Come here and help us’.” Ewing said it took five hours to extinguish the flames, “When the fire broke out, literally, citizens picked up their buckets and tried to fit up and help put out the fire.”

The wind blew Southeast that day. If it had changed directions and gone west, then downtown Nashville would have also been destroyed, including Lower Broadway, Second Avenue, and the State Capitol.

But, all that was spared. Instead, East Nashville took the hit and ultimately saw big changes, “This was a dense, very densely, populated area, including this area of East Park, which had house after house after house. And after all the houses were destroyed here, they decided to make a park of the area instead of rebuild. One of the hard parts about rebuilding in 1916 was we were about to be in WWI. And a lot of the supplies and the people that would normally build houses, we’re all fighting a war,” explained Ewing.

Many lots stayed vacant until recently, when businesses like the Turnip Truck, The Basement East, and condos on Woodland Street were built.

“It took us 100 years to rebuild some of this, because we had just empty lots,” he added, “If that day, if you walked around this neighborhood, you saw chimneys and four walls standing and people were just shell shocked.”

  • The Great East Nashville Fire of 1916 Courtesy Nashville Public Library
  • The Great East Nashville Fire of 1916 Courtesy Nashville Public Library
  • The Great East Nashville Fire of 1916 Courtesy Nashville Public Library
  • The Great East Nashville Fire of 1916 Courtesy Nashville Public Library
  • The Great East Nashville Fire of 1916 Courtesy Nashville Public Library
  • The Great East Nashville Fire of 1916 Courtesy Nashville Public Library
  • The Great East Nashville Fire of 1916 Courtesy Nashville Public Library
  • The Great East Nashville Fire of 1916 Courtesy Nashville Public Library

The fire not only changed the landscape of East Nashville, it also changed the residents. “Some people did stay in East Nashville. But, this was the kind of one of the last draws that this used to be the elite place for the business community,” said Ewing. “They started to move out in the West End area. And then Belle Meade was developed around the same time.”

Ewing said the fire was a reboot for East Nashville, “It became this more working-class neighborhood as the elites moved west. And the people that lived here were more craftsmen and entrepreneurs.”

One thing that never changed in East Nashville – and the city as a whole – was the volunteer spirit of the people.

“During that time, immediately, people needed to help their neighbor and wanted to help their neighbor,” said Ewing. “The generosity of Nashvillians are always there, but it’s always present at the worst time during a disaster. After the disaster, and literally the flames were had not been put out. And people were still riding around to help out their neighbor and make sure that they had food and clothing.”

That just proves Nashville was strong long before the hashtag.

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