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Fire in 1851 destroyed most of Gainesville

POSTED: November 14, 2010 1:00 a.m.

Gainesville's history is filled with disasters, including the 1903 and 1936 tornadoes that left heavy tolls of destruction and death.

Major fires, too, have set the city back, but none more than the one in 1851, a mere 30 years after Gainesville's official founding.

That fire destroyed most of the town, which at the time was centered in what we call downtown today.
E.M. Johnson of Gainesville reported on the disaster to the Southern Recorder newspaper at Milledgeville, then the state capital, Dec. 23, 1851:

"We are all in great distress, having had our village entirely burned up, as you will learn by the petition we send you. The fire broke out in the back house of the Mansion lot (Thornton's old tavern) and spread to the Mansion, thence to Lewis' store house, Dickey's, Meek's Tavern, Brown's house (where McAfee lived) to Brown's storehouse, on the corner, Gray's office, Peeple's office, and my (E.M. Johnson's) storehouse, where the fire was arrested on that side.

"The fire, from the Mansion, communicated to Thompson's house on the corner, Goode's, the groceries, and to Mr. River's house, consuming everything round the three sides of the square, all the small fences, etc. From River's it caught to the Courthouse, which is entirely consumed.

"You can imagine our distress here - some people have nearly lost their all, for the most distressing losses at present is the loss of goods, furniture, provisions, etc., all of which have been very great. The public records are nearly all safe, we think; at this hour we cannot tell distinctly what is saved and lost - for everything is in confusion - books, records, goods, furniture and clothing, being all mixed up and scattered all over the place. Fortunately, no lives were lost."

William Hosch wrote a history of Hall County in the early 1900s and interviewed some witnesses of the 1851 fire. The fire started in a log building on the east side of the square on what is now South Bradford Street. A high north wind on a cold winter night quickly whipped flames to adjacent buildings, only two of them brick, the courthouse included.

Only two or three log houses on the west side of the square escaped the fire as residents and store owners worked through the night to save their belongings. Pails of water from deep wells were their only weapons to fight the fire.

Even houses on streets leading to the square burned. Many of the store owners lived in rooms in the back of their stores or had houses behind them. Johnnie Merck's 20-room hotel on the south side of the square lay in ruins.

Jerry Hawkins, whom Hosch interviewed, said of the fire, "So very great was the little town's destruction, it really had to be started over again."

On Christmas Eve, the day after the fire started, only brick and rock chimneys stood, and embers still smoked in knee-deep ashes on Christmas Day as sleet and snow added to the misery.

Men on horseback spread the word to neighboring communities about what had happened and asked for help. Dahlonega, Clarkesville, Jefferson, Lawrenceville, Cumming and Athens sent wagon loads of food, clothing and other supplies Christmas Day.

J.E. Redwine, interviewed in 1914, said the Methodist Church and a girls' high school building became temporary shelter for the homeless. The Baptist and Presbyterian churches had burned as did a village academy on a hill on what is now North Bradford Street. "No town site ever was made more desolate and probably that was the saddest Yuletide season the disconsolate and weary inhabitants of Gainesville ever experienced," Redwine said.

He also told of how the town recovered with sawmills immediately producing lumber for even better structures than had stood before. Courts resumed upstairs over stores that still stood on the west side of the square. Martin Graham built a hotel and storehouse on the site of what is now Hunt Towers at the corner of Spring and Main streets.

Yet as fast and furiously as residents worked, it would be a two-year rebuilding process.

While Johnson's report to the Milledgeville newspaper mentioned no fatalities, one youth did die while hunting his pet dog when he fell into a well that had been covered by the ruins of the fire, according to Hosch's history.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times and can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle N.E., Gainesville, GA 30501; phone, 770-532-2326. His column appears Sundays and on gainesvilletimes.com.



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